Basquiat’s former Noho loft gets memorial plaque

Two Boots’ Phil Hartman, center, with poet Greg Masters, left, and artist Kevin Duggan. Photos by Tequila Minsky

BY MICHAEL OSSORGUINE | Jean-Michel Basquiat went from humble beginnings as a graffitist on the Lower East Side to a prominent figure in pop culture. Last Wednesday, the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation and the Two Boots Foundation installed a plaque outside the studio where Basquiat lived to remind the Village of the artist’s legacy.

Early on the evening of July 13, a crowd of artists, activists and fans, along with curious bystanders, gathered outside the small, two-story loft at 57 Great Jones St. where the painter and musician lived for five years in the 1980s until dying in 1988 of a heroin overdose.

Among the speakers was Michael Holman, who met Basquiat at his famous Canal Zone Party in 1979, and went on to create the experimental rock band Gray with him.

“What is really special is this, this grassroots recognition of an artist,” Holman said. “By the way, if this were Paris, they wouldn’t have been able to put a restaurant in his space. But you know, this is America. The holy dollar is number one, and Jean played on those ideas.”

Ayanna Legros, of the Basquiat: Still Fly @ 55 project, spoke before the “Reserved for Basquiat” paper was slipped off to reveal the plaque underneath.

Other speakers included the poet Greg Masters, Two Boots Pizza owner Phil Hartman and Ayanna Legros, co-founder of the Basquiat: Still Fly @ 55 project.

Hartman spoke first, reminiscing about the days when Basquiat frequented the Great Jones Cafe across the street, which Hartman founded in 1983. Basquiat, he said, was a “product of the neighborhood.”

When Basquiat was living in the studio, it was owned by Andy Warhol, who was an inspiration and teacher to him, as well as a friend. The building is now owned by Robert Von Ancken, who rents out the space, but also wants to preserve its historical significance.

The installation was part of G.V.S.H.P.’s historic plaque program. The organization believes this latest plaque is significant not only because of Basquiat’s fame, but also the artist’s roots and the political themes of his canvasses.

“One cannot think of Basquiat without also thinking of Downtown and all that the neighborhood fed his imagination,” Andrew Berman, G.V.S.H.P. executive director, said in a press release.

Poet Chauvet Bishop gave a reading before the unveiling.

Basquiat’s canvasses were abstract works that often overtly touched on sensitive subjects in a poetic and powerful way.

“He would not call his work political,” said Lannyl Stephens, G.V.S.H.P. director of development and special events. “But through all of his unique language and imagery, we are confronted with continuing issues of our time: race, class, appropriation, capitalism, and how to be an artist, how to be a human in this world. He was born in Brooklyn — but, mostly, he was a New Yorker.”

The plaque’s text reads: “From 1983 to 1988 renowned artist Jean-Michel Basquiat lived and worked here, a former stable owned by friend and mentor Andy Warhol. Basquiat’s paintings and other work challenged established notions of high and low art, race and class, while forging a visionary language that defied characterization.”

Over the years, Basquiat and his art have become ubiquitous. Exhibitions of his paintings have been displayed in the Whitney Museum of American Art, the Brooklyn Museum and the Gagosian Art Gallery in Chelsea. But the extent of his influence does not stop there. Uniqlo, the clothing store with locations Downtown, has had several clothing lines featuring iconic images from his most famous works. And household names that collect his art include Madonna, Jay-Z and Leonardo Di Caprio.

The plaque unveiled outside Basquiat’s former Great Jones St. home.

The artist is also referenced in countless hip-hop songs by notable New York M.C.’s, such as Jay-Z, A$AP Rocky and Mos Def. Basquiat was, in fact, well acquainted with fashionable musicians of the ’80s including rappers.

While Basquiat’s artwork has generated billions of dollars over the years, Holman said the most important thing is to remember him as a visionary and a unifier of the youth.

“I know how much this would have meant to him,” Holman said. “To see this many young black teenagers and kids of color, and kids of all colors lionizing him, and making him into a hero, and wearing his T-shirts. He was an alchemist, and what he was basically saying was, ‘You can be an alchemist, too.’ ”