Art & Design

September 20, 2017

Tales from Teen Basquiat’s Best Friend

And how their art postcards grabbed Andy Warhol’s attention

  • Written by Stuart Brumfitt

It was at a massive party in a 5,000-square-foot loft on New York’s Canal Street in 1979 that a 20-year-old Jennifer Stein met a 17-year-old Jean-Michel Basquiat.

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Jean-Michel Basquiat and Jennifer Stein Anti Baseball Card Product, 1979. Colour photocopy. Collection of Jennifer Von Holstein © Jennifer Von Holstein and The Estate of Jean-Michel Basquiat. Photo: Justin Piperger

“I lived where the party was and Basquiat came and graffitied on the wall, and I said, ‘Oh my god, I’ve been looking for you!’ because everybody knew SAMO©’s graffiti, but we didn’t know who it was. I said, ‘I live here…let me show you my room’, so he came in and I had a whole wall of baseball cards that I’d painted the face out of and he took my correction fluid and wrote names under them. We were laughing so hard, and he said, ‘We have to make postcards!’”

It was the beginning of a fun and fruitful friendship that ultimately led to Basquiat’s discovery by Andy Warhol. Here Stein gives her account of their time together…

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Jean-Michel Basquiat and Jennifer Stein Jerk, 1979. Colour photocopy. Collection of Jennifer Von Holstein © Jennifer Von Holstein and The Estate of Jean-Michel Basquiat. Photo: Justin Piperger

“We’d both grown up in New York – that’s how we became friends, because if you grow up in New York, you automatically have PTSD from growing up in New York. Seriously! You know stuff that no one else in the world knows. You see the insane homeless guy that’s going to stab you to death three blocks up and you go, ‘I’m going down this way.’ So we both knew how to navigate New York.”

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Jean-Michel Basquiat and Jennifer Stein Anti Baseball Card Product, 1979. Colour photocopy. Collection of Jennifer Von Holstein © Jennifer Von Holstein and The Estate of Jean-Michel Basquiat. Photo: Justin Piperger

“We did it together, and my god, we laughed so hard. You know when you have a friend and you’re hysterical and you’re a teenager and you die and you fall down on the filthy street howling and you can’t breathe and you’re like ‘Stop!’?”

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Jean-Michel Basquiat and Jennifer Stein. Photo Booth EPZ, 1979. Colour photocopy. Collection of Jennifer Von Holstein © Jennifer Von Holstein and The Estate of Jean-Michel Basquiat. Photo: Justin Piperger

“I had a lot of PEZ dispensers, so he ripped up the packaging and made these EPZs everywhere and said, ‘We can keep making these cards.’ So we did that and we mounted them on this raggedy-ass piece of cardboard and we’re walking around New York City, interacting with people and saying, ‘Postcards! Postcards! One dollar! One dollar!’ We’d stand there screaming! We went everywhere trying to sell them. We had methods: I’d do the ladies and he’d do the guys. We made money to eat. I had my room from working, but I didn’t have any cash. We literally had nothing.”

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Jean-Michel Basquiat and Jennifer Stein. Original artwork, 1979. Colour photocopy. Collection of Jennifer Von Holstein © Jennifer Von Holstein and The Estate of Jean-Michel Basquiat. Photo: Justin Piperger

“The type who bought the postcards were people that could get a joke, people who had humour, or people that were sort of in the art world. We did go up to the Museum of Modern Art and they kept coming out and saying, ‘You can’t sell things’, and we were like, ‘Art denial! Art denial! Art denial!’ We did that for days on the street and finally they invited us up and then they bought one.”

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Jean-Michel Basquiat and Jennifer Stein. Stupid Games Bad Ideas, 1979. Colour photocopy. Collection of Jennifer Von Holstein © Jennifer Von Holstein and The Estate of Jean-Michel Basquiat. Photo: Justin Piperger

“He sold Stupid Games, Bad Ideas to Warhol. We were walking down the street and we were really trying to make money to live – it was not like we were rich and doing it to have fun. We needed to have that dollar, so we would do anything it took. We were walking past this restaurant and Andy Warhol is sitting there and Henry Geldzahler, who was the head of the Metropolitan Museum, and he said, ‘I’m going in!’ And I said, ‘Ok.’ I’m waiting outside a really long time, so I’m like, ‘What the hell?’ And he comes out and I said, ‘What took you so long?’ He goes, ‘They had to get change from a five.’ He was really disappointed because he thought they would just give him the $5 for the two postcards, but they had to get ones, then gave him two ones. But it was still really thrilling for him.”

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Jean-Michel Basquiat and Jennifer Stein. Yellow, 1979. Colour photocopy. Collection of Jennifer Von Holstein © Jennifer Von Holstein and The Estate of Jean-Michel Basquiat. Photo: Justin Piperger

“We did that for about three-quarters of a year and then I got pregnant – not from him – and he was really mad at me. But it turned out two years later we were next door neighbours. We often had this dialogue and it was on Crosby where we lived and he was like, ‘What are you doing here?’ And I was like, ‘What are you doing here?’ I said, ‘I live here’ and he said, ‘I live here!’ and there was a hole and we’d say, ‘Meet me at the rat hole.’ He lived in the loft and was doing all those paintings. I started to cook and take care of him, but I had to break off because he was too druggy, and I had a baby.”

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Jean-Michel Basquiat and Jennifer Stein. X, 1979. Colour photocopy. Collection of Jennifer Von Holstein © Jennifer Von Holstein and The Estate of Jean-Michel Basquiat. Photo: Justin Piperger

“It wasn’t that great [watching him get celebrated and famous]. He was only 20 and I have three kids who have all gone past 27 and I know what a baby he was and I know how unfortunate that he wasn’t nurtured a little more by the very people that ended up eating him up. So I’m distant from a lot of these people, because I have a lot of mixed feelings about it. It’s bittersweet.”

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Jean-Michel Basquiat and Jennifer Stein. Sunglasses 3, 1979. Colour photocopy. Collection of Jennifer Von Holstein © Jennifer Von Holstein and The Estate of Jean-Michel Basquiat. Photo: Justin Piperger

Basquiat: Boom for Real (Barbican Art Gallery, 21 Sep 2017 – 28 Jan 2018)

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