It may look like a throw-away item—just a piece of paper with a name, address and phone number. But actually, it is valuable art ephemera, handwritten by Jean-Michel Basquiat in August 1983 just as he was moving into 57 Great Jones Street, the building he rented from Andy Warhol, and where he tragically died five years later. Basquiat did not just write his name, he signed it.
Ephemera can tell stories. In this case, it is one about Basquiat and artist Franc Palaia. While preparing for an upcoming exhibition at the Mary Boone Gallery, Basquiat considered working with Palaia’s simulated urban wall sculptures, the sort of collaboration that Palaia had previously done with Crash, Daze and others. Boone however quickly vetoed the idea, arguing that Basquiat needed to be marketed as a painter not a graffiti artist.
Sensing that Palaia was disappointed, Basquiat offered him a commission instead. In the process of moving from his Crosby Street loft, Basquiat’s floors were covered with trash and debris. For the proposed commission, Basquiat reached down and picked up two pieces of paper from the floor—a parking garage ticket and the crushed box for a tube of toothpaste from Thailand—and asked Palaia to make paintings of the two items. A $500 deposit sealed the deal and Palaia left with the piece of paper with Basquiat’s signature, phone number and new address, where a month later he delivered the finished paintings.
Palaia’s paintings remained at 57 Great Jones until they were taken to Christie’s shortly after Basquiat’s death and auctioned in 1989 as part of “The Collection of Jean Michel Basquiat.” One sold for $800 and the other for $900. Perhaps they would have gone for more if collectors had known that Basquiat had chosen the images and that the works were in essence collaborative.
Gallery 98 takes special pride in its cataloging of Basquiat ephemera. Ephemera from his lifetime is included in the online exhibition A Survey of Jean-Michel Basquiat Ephemera, 1981–88. A second online exhibition, Posthumous Basquiat, features ephemera from after his death. In 1982 Gallery 98’s founder Marc H. Miller conducted a video interview with Basquiat that is discussed in one of our earlier newsletters, 35 Minutes with Jean-Michel Basquiat.