George Wayne explores the legacy of the legendary artist’s ‘MP’ in an interview with its muse.
Photography by Arnaldo Ayana
Photography by Arnaldo Ayana
You may know him for his infamous and scandalous monthly celebrity interview column for Vanity Fair which ran for 22 years, New York writer and author of Anyone Who’s Anyone – The Astonishing Celebrity Interviews 1987-2017, George Wayne interviews Basquiat muse, friend and the revolutionary artist’s only sitting male model, Michael Patterson.
When the hammer went thud on Lot #34 at the Christie’s Auction House 20th Century Evening Sale this past October – some billionaire in Asia, it is rumoured, snatched up the deal of a lifetime. Because ‘MP’ is a seminal Basquiat and at $4,590,000 million has to be now considered – the Basquiat bargain of a lifetime.
It’s a bargain Basquait – one will reiterate – because MP is just no ordinary painting but a Basquait of truly historic resonance. It is one of only a handful of figurative/portraiture paintings that the 20th Century revolutionary art gorgon Jean-Michel Basquiat had ever created. It’s a rare Basquiat, one of the rarest in fact. It is the rarest example of Jean-Michel Basquiat truly delving into portraiture. And as such too, Michael Patterson – the imposing MP in the painting remains the only vessel to this truth that is still alive to now exclusively reveal what it was like being the subject of a painting by Jean Michel Basquiat on two separate occasions.
MP is the only one still here that can articulate the resonance and the provenance of this seminal Basquiat. Only he can tell us what it was like to sit for the most revered contemporary artist of the 20th and 21st Centuries. The only man alive who can tell us what it was like to sit for Basquait at his studio on Great Jones Street because he is, in fact, the only man who Basquait ever painted. Jean Michel was never afforded the opportunity to further experiment with a literal/figurative brush before he was found dead (choked on his own vomit) at the very same studio where four years previous the MP series of two was born.
GW: What was JMB’s studio-like on Great Jones Street? I walked by where Basquiat’s infamous studio was the other day and it is now a Japanese butcher shop. MP: George there is a butcher shop next door to where the studio was on Great Jones Street. But the actual ground floor to the studio has still never been occupied. It is
almost like a graffiti-strewn modern-day shrine. The ground floor of the exact building on Great Jones Street is an empty space with working office space upstairs. The graffiti door next to that butcher shop was the studio and was also his home. He slept in the upstairs and he painted in the downstairs. That was where Jean-Michel drew and painted. There was a huge Xerox copy machine at the doorway with tons of Xerox copies of his writings sitting on the top of the machine. I remember there was a full kitchen with a dishwasher and a huge dining room table and in the back was where he stored all of his finished paintings.
GW: Talk about those times, circa 1983 where were you living? What were you doing? And recall the very first time you met JMB. Did your paths first cross in 1984? And how? MP: Those times in 1983, I was living at the designer Stephen Burrows (winner of 3 Coty Awards) apartment on East 17th St between 3rd Ave and Irving Place that was an experience, during that time, I was a fashion stylist that stopped traffic, walking into clubs wearing a blonde page boy Gilda Radner wig in a suit, way before the recording Grammy winner Tyler. Thanks to the late John Duka who worked at the New York Times he gave me my very first tear-sheet, I worked with Eric Bowman and then supermodel Lisa Cruz.
I was out every night partying at Studio 54, The Cockring, The Haymarket and Dancetria cruising on the west side piers and midtown 42nd St. Hanging out with the likes of Teri Toye, Patrick Fox who ran the Patrick Fox Gallery artist Robert Hawkins, Cookie Mueller and Rene Ricard and the House of Xtravaganza. Jean Michel and I met in 1984 at Eric Goode’s club called Area, we actually bumped into each other in a hallway. That’s when it all started by Jean asking to paint my portrait, I asked him why do you want to paint me? He just said come to my studio I said yes and never showed up. Two weeks later he showed up at Area and asked me while we were in a toilet stall, why didn’t I show up and I told him that I didn’t take him seriously, the rest is history.
GW: What do you think it was that intrigued him about you and why he was so adamant that you sit for him? MP: You would have to ask him why he was so adamant but that’s not possible because he’s been dead since 1988. All I can say to that is I am now one of the “Black Wonders of the World”. You can place my portrait in the same room as Kehinde Wiley’s portrait of President Barrack Obama.
GW: I totally will agree that the Jean-Michel Basquiat ‘MP’ belongs, at the very least, in the Whitney! MP: Jean loved powerful black men and women, Martin Luther, Otis Redding, Billy Holiday, Muhammad Ali, Eli Whitney, John Coltrane, Louis Armstrong etc all inspired him. During those days in the early 1980s. I was one of only a very selected few black kids who could get past the door of those white nightclub establishments. I was one of the very few. I had style and the wisdom of street smarts
GW: Apart from that day what do you always remember most about Basquiat. Did he ever take you to dinner at Odeon or Indochine or Mr Chow? MP: It’s so funny that you asked this question. In 1982 I was homeless and I used to sleep on a friends couch on East 64th Street. Her name was Pamela Reid and she was Bert Stern’s agent. She had a huge Basquiat painting on her wall now owned by Peter Brant. It was the E PLURIBUS painting, I used to look at that painting falling asleep wondering who painted it. To me, it looked like a child painted it. Pamela used to laugh at my response and you know she never did tell me who’s painting it was. I never knew it was a Basquiat and never did put that two and two together with the man himself. We’d had a connection way before our first meeting. He took me out to dinner at Mr Chow the night he painted my portrait. I felt like he didn’t want the night to end. After we went back to back to Great Jones street I got undressed out of that tartan suit. And he gave me a huge bag of pot and $300. I was a happy hooker that night.
GW: The first time Basquiat asked to paint you, you failed to show up at the studio. This intriguing bit of 20th Century Art History almost didn’t happen. MP: Yes I didn’t show up like I said I didn’t take him seriously. Basquiat was a strange character, I come from a school of the well-groomed school of thought– and that he wasn’t. His hair was all over the place and I heard that he was a heroin addict. And I still didn’t know that it was him– that painted that painting– in Pamela Reid’s apartment! I only showed up after he had asked me the second time, I have to say that Mary Boone didn’t want to hang that portrait up in that major show, his first major solo show. Rene Ricard went to the preview. Rene loved that MP painting and Rene called Jean up on the telephone and said to Jean. ‘Mary Boone is trying to destroy your career? Where is the MP painting?’ Jean went to the gallery caused a scene. And it was finally hung in the back room of the gallery. So yes it really almost didn’t happen. True story.
Photography by Arnaldo Ayana
GW: Just think about it Basquiat did only four portrait paintings and you are in two of them! MP: Yes I am very honored. For me to be featured in Basquiat’s world twice and you can see that the image is me and its recognizable is just incredible. Because the paintings he did of Andre Walker and Pierre Francillon and Desmond Cadogan and Jack Walls– all of those paintings are much more abstract. It could be any ole Tom, Dick or Harry. I feel blessed that Jean-Michel Basquiat placed me on a pedestal like Lord Nelson in Trafalgar Square! That’s a great honour. ‘MP’ is ”the Black male Mona Lisa of the 20th Century”!
GW: And yes, you still feel the need to hoist your own petard! What do you remember most of actually watching Basquiat at work? Was he painting and shooting up ‘milk’ as the artist Ronnie Cutrone called heroin? MP: You are so rude to ask me that question bitch! How very dare you! No –– like I’m going to ever pour you that Earl Grey tea in your cup. No, he wasn’t! In fact, he wasn’t even stoned while he painted me – on either occasion – was he stoned Miss Thing! Jean painted very quickly and I got paid, okay! Both sessions were very professional –– period.
GW: My one regret looking back is never approaching Jean Michel Basquiat. I was always so scared and intimidated by him whenever I would see him with Andy Warhol out and about, I would never approach him because he scared me. He was always so fucked up and crazy I believe. MP: George I have no idea what you are talking about. Let me tell you something! People on heroin are always nodding and scratching etc. I never ever saw Jean nodding or scratching! What were you so scared of? Jean was the sweetest person around during those days. He would give you anything if you needed it. So on that note, you missed an opportunity darling.
GW: The last time I saw Basquiat alive was at the Odeon. He walked in with Tina Chow and it was obvious they were both so high and out of their minds on something. He caused a commotion at Odeon that night. And I never saw him again. When was the last time you saw Basquiat alive? MP: George, Tina Chow was not a junkie! I know that for a fact! I don’t know what you witnessed that evening at Odeon. It sounds like a fantasy island. Jean causing a scene? The only scene I know Jean creating is when he would enter a fine quality shop like a Gucci or a Tiffany’s. And he’s being followed by the security and just for the fun of it – he would drop thousands of dollars just to show them up. The last time I saw Jean was the very night he died and it was at Eric Goode’s club MK which was by Madison Park. He had just come back from Hawaii. I remember him rubbing my stomach as if he was saying goodbye. I was devastated the next day. Devastated!
GW: Wow MP – that must have been gut-wrenching for you when you picked up the next day’s New York Post and that was the front page. Those were indeed very sad times. So many amazing talented incredible people dropping dead from AIDS especially. And Andy had only suddenly passed a few months before Jean-Michel’s sudden death. So on a lighter note! You must remember what you wore to the hottest Soho gallery on West Broadway for that legendary and major solo debut for Mary Boone in March of 1985. MP: As I said that painting almost didn’t make the show. In fact, Mary Boone was in his studio hanging out when I showed up for my first sitting with Jean! I’d made a scene outside the door because Shenge Kapharaoh (Basquiat studio assistant) was telling me she didn’t know anything about any appointment. And he was rude to me when I first knocked on the door. I had travelled from my Long Island family home and come all this way. And so I flipped out by cursing at Jean from out in the doorway! All this time Jean was upstairs laying in his bed with some girl. Shenge closed the door in my face and five seconds later he invited me inside. Sitting at the dining room table was Mary Boone and a friend. I walked in and sat in a chair with my back towards the two women. Seconds later the two women decided to leave. Mary Boone did speak to me. She said ‘Hello’. But I gave her attitude not knowing who she was. So I guess she thought she would hurt me by not hanging the painting in her gallery. I had the last word in that situation thanks to Rene Ricard. And I don’t really remember what I wore. Dumb question.
GW: When you look at this painting and the visual reference what do you see on a personal level? MP: I feel like Lord Nelson on a pedestal in Trafalgar Square. I feel like what the Mona Lisa feels at the Louvre in Paris. Special and honoured – very honoured!
GW: The painting for me, exhibits a calm, a certain reserve here. You with one hand behind your back as if you are reigning in your stoicism. Basquiat, I read somewhere, was once asked about the thematic subject matter of his paintings and he said – ”royalty, heroism and the streets”. And this painting astutely defines that instinct. The only thing missing here is the brassy, loudmouth you tend to be in real life MP! MP: Well I’m glad you mention this. Yes, I am loud and hard to ignore, but this only happens when you pull my button with some off the wall nonsense. I was taught by the masters of the trade of shade. I take no prisoners and everyone knows that. It is why ‘MP’ a friend once told me should stand for Military Police. Thank you, Alan Mason, for giving me that nickname.
GW: Where is MP these days? Where is he living? And what is he doing besides being loud? Did you take up knitting during the pandemic? How did you ride it out? The Lockdown. MP: I live in South Carolina, Summerton and hour away from Charleston SC. I live on family property on eighty-seven acres of land – a plantation. No, I don’t knit. I spend my time gardening, planting, herbs and vegetables and going over to my two lesbians friends who live around the corner from me. I miss New York very much, I’ll be back people–– watch out!
GW: Talk about your latest endeavour your photography book. MP: My photography book is one of my greatest accomplishment. It’s a self-published book called– ”Stolen Moments” which I shot using a smartphone. There are four chapters, Spring, Summer, Autumn and Winter. I shot gorgeous men in all walks of life in all four boroughs of New York City and a few in South Carolina Thanks to Johnny Rozsa my photo editor and Patrick James Reilly my Graphic Designer this project wouldn’t have happened. One can purchase a copy by going online.
GW: Why do you think the legacy of Basquiat remains so profound and tantalizing? Jean-Michel Basquiat would have been 60 years old this December. Wow. MP: He was young, gifted and black– one of the Black Wonders of the world. He was a true genius that left us at a very young age. And to those that never knew Jean-Michel Basquiat let me just say this. He was a very soft-spoken and highly intelligent and giving soul. His legacy speaks for itself – today even more than ever. He remains a larger-than-life figure of immense importance in the art world. I only wish he were alive to see how truly iconic he has become.
GW: And I will also say to the young, futurist collector out there! Keep an eye out for whenever the next Basquiat MP comes to auction. It’s a statement painting like no other Basquiat. Now, if only Dries Van Noten would bring this suit and the signature bold brushstrokes of the print to life in a future collection. Now that would be amazing!