Like the best art ephemera, the announcement card for Suzanne Mallouk’s exhibition at the East Village gallery Vox Populi (1985) has both a compelling image and an intriguing background story. Mallouk is best known for her relationship with Jean-Michel Basquiat as chronicled in her friend Jennifer Clement’s book Widow Basquiat: A Love Story. Alternately horrifying and insightful, the unflinching account of life with Basquiat is a must read for scholars and voyeurs alike. Originally published by a small press in 2000, the book is now distributed by an imprint of Random House and has now gone through multiple printings.
Within the text is a short chapter titled “The Girl Can Also Paint” that recounts Mallouk’s one attempt at art making and the resulting exhibition.
“My paintings represented a creative catharsis of my relationship with Jean. I painted white famous people in black face with red lips, like George Washington on a dollar bill or the American Express man….I painted Jean on the cover of the New York Times Magazine in white face. Five collectors fought over it. After the opening it sold for three thousand five hundred dollars.”
“Jean and Andy went to see my art show the next day. I heard that they were both very quiet while they looked at everything. They did not make fun of me or laugh at my work, which was strange. Later, Jean said to me, ‘You are no fool, Venus.’ He said he liked the portraits I had done of him because they laughed at him. After this I could never paint again. I sold all the paintings except the one of Joan Burroughs, which I gave to Jennifer.”
(Joan Vollmer Burroughs was William Burroughs’s common-law wife, whom he shot in the head and killed in a drunken reenactment of the William Tell story. Mallouk, however, survived her tumultuous relationship and went to medical school after Basquiat’s death. She is now a psychiatrist working in New York).