Felice Rosser in conversation with art advisor Kami Gahiga

There’s nary a period of cultural history quite like Downtown New York of the late 1970s and early 1980s. It’s been mythologized for good reason—freedom and hedonism were bedfellows of equal parity, and the creative output and expression shaped contemporary culture for decades to come. Even our very own Josh Baer was caught up in the makings of that infamous and fecund moment—trying to wrangle the very artist at hand, Jean-Michel Basquiat, into the gallery he was then-running White Columns.

So when our The Baer Faxt Art Advisor, Kami Gahiga was presented with the opportunity to meet Felice Rosser, she spent the afternoon with the musician to get up close and personal with the downtown darling and Luc Sante muse. Rosser’s name might sound familiar also in connection with Basquiat, her bestie and former roommate. As Black kids in the Downtown punk and art scenes, stepping out of their own cultural communities, they instantly bonded and became each others’ champions. “The few Blacks that were there [in the scene] were nice to each other in a way that maybe many of them had not experienced where they came from, being called weird, being called whatever,” Rosser told Gahiga. “Jean and I, and our friend Jennifer [Jazz], we were very close to each other, because we understood each other and we didn't judge each other. And not being judged was so important.”

Lee Jaffe, Jean-Michel Painting in St. Moritz, 1983-2018
Lee Jaffe, Jean-Michel Painting in St. Moritz, 1983-2018

Rosser has shared bits of her story here and there, perhaps most visibly in connection with the MCA Denver show and subsequent monograph, Basquiat Before Basquiat East 12th Street, 1979–1980 as well as her feature in Boom for Real: The Late Teenage Years of Jean-Michel Basquiat’s film directed by Sara Driver (2017). Lucky for us, Gahiga and Rosser also bonded. Their revelatory conversation peers into the mind of one of the 20th century's greatest artists, but also paints a very human portrait of a towering mythic figure in contemporary art.

On the eve of much Basquiat activity, including the exhibition at the Starrett-Lehigh Building “Basquiat King Pleasure,” curated by his sisters and designed by renowned architect David Adjaye; a showing of private collecting holdings at Nahmad Contemporary called “Basquiat: Art and Objecthood,” as well as the prized 1982 Untitled coming up for auction at Phillips from the collection of Yusaku Maezawa, we are thrilled to offer an excerpt below:

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Rosser: Jean doing his drawings and paintings, I'm sure people criticized him. So, when he came to punk rock, it was that us being ostracized from the Black community had been happening for a long time. So you find some people who accept you. It was very meaningful to me, to Jennifer, to Jean. And anytime you do something different, everybody's going to criticize you.

Gahiga: When did he move in with you?

Rosser: Well, we just became pals. And so, he could stay… He always had a place to stay. He had a home in Brooklyn where his father and his sisters and everybody, but he had fought with his father. His father was a Haitian man, who was very conservative and an accountant, and he did not see Jean's artistic path. This is all common knowledge— his father came around and later, the fact that he was an accountant helped him a lot with the management of his money.

Gahiga: You mentioned that when you lived together, he would paint everywhere in the house and you'd come back from work stunned.

Rosser: Yeah. Oh man, come on. I'd be working, come home and there'd be stuff everywhere and I'd be like, "Jean, clean up this shit. I'm working and you're making a mess. You are just making a mess here. You got to clean this shit up," and everything. Yeah, of course, I'd be mad. I'd be like, "You're just making a mess here, all this shit all over the floor, and I work all day, I'm tired." That was just me. My friend, Alexis, wasn't like that. He lived with her later, and she would come home from work and see all the paint, and she'd be like, "This is beautiful. Let's save it." Not me. I was like, "Just get this shit off."

Gahiga: Why do you think he enjoyed painting on doors, fridges or walls?
Rosser: Well, I think he couldn't afford canvas at the time, so he would paint on the walls, or he had his sketchbooks. He would buy a book like this from the art store and he'd draw on it, or he had a thing. Because he was trying to make money to live on, so he would have his postcards. That was his thing—color Xerox postcards that you could sell for five bucks, 10 bucks, and so that would give him money to eat that day.

And then he'd go on the street with his friends and sell them to people. One day he sold one to Andy Warhol and this man named Henry Geldzahler, who was an art commissioner of New York. And that started a change in his life. I remember that day, he sold it for $35. He came back and said, "Hey, Andy Warhol bought one for $35." We were like, "$35, wow." And he is like, "I'm going to be rich. I'm going to be famous." And he had $35, which was like a million dollars to him at that time.

Gahiga: That's such an interesting point because you mentioned before, that he always believed that he would be famous, no matter what. He had this confidence.

Rosser: Well, in that respect, I feel in some ways he was like Muhammad Ali in that, I don't know if it's just like if you keep saying it, it comes too. We can all say anything like, "Oh, my life is terrible. I'm afraid." You can say that to yourself all day long too. It's a choice. So, what are you going to say to yourself all day long? It's better to say, "I'm going to be rich. I'm going to be famous. I'm going to be famous." If you say that enough and just keep saying it, that's what Muhammad Ali said, "I'm the greatest," that's what he was saying all the time.

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Gahiga: What’s the reason behind his interest in bridging the gap between contemporary culture, pop culture, and punk culture, and then for him to add classical art historical references in his work?

Rosser: Well, I wouldn't know, but I would think that he was an extremely brilliant man. There was a show here, maybe five years ago, maybe three years ago, on 86th street, and it was just three floors of his work, and I saw some paintings there with some references to Roman times, historical references to a grip by different Roman generals and also biblical references. He was extremely well read.

But he was funny because he turned me onto something. Because I started reading this book called Flash of the Spirit by Robert Farris Thompson. It's a Caucasian man talking about the influence of African art, how you can see it in today's African Americans but in the West, you can see. But Jean, he would take that, and I've been reading it, and then you get a little bored. But someone like Jean, he didn't have to read the whole book, and it didn't have to be in sequence. Even in his writing, it doesn't have to be truth to tell a story. "At least today, I woke up and then I did this," and well, it doesn't have to be like that. He can write. He was influenced by a lot of the modern writers, caught up by William Burroughs—things that are nonlinear. So that's what I mean. He was very conceptual. So, if he saw something, if he went to the bed and he saw a work by Rembrandt, something that turned him on for some reason, he would put it in his work. I don't think it was to curry favor with anyone. I think he was just totally open to whatever inspired him.

I don't think he was ever painting for somebody. I think his rebellious nature and his anger at how he was treated in the art community—here he is in New York dealing with some of the most brilliant minds in the West and still he experienced racism. Some very brilliant people will say things to him, "Well, look at his work." Or I saw a movie myself where a curator from the modern movie said, "Oh, it's just graffiti art," and disparaged his work. And he knew how brilliant his work was. And to still meet with that old massive type of vibe, in some of the most brilliant people, it must have been very discouraging to him. It's like you rise to the top and still there's bullshit around you. And you're like, "What the hell?"

Maybe he knew how brilliant he was, but they didn't really know how brilliant he was. Even then, even when his picture was on the front page of New York Times Magazine and he's sitting there, they had no idea this man's work was going to last forever. Like Picasso, like Rembrandt, like Becky, like Goya, like Dawn, they didn't know he was on that level. They could never see a black man on that level.

But as far as your question goes, whatever inspired him would find its way in his paintings. There was one painting, Jawbone of an Ass, he obviously read something in the Bible and that inspired him. So, whatever it was, or that Roman general. I was just amazed at that painting where he had listed all these Roman generals from ancient times. And you would not, if you saw Jean, you wouldn't think he knew all of that, but he did. He knew all of that. I just found that amazing, that a friend of yours, someone you knew and yet, you didn't know they were that deep. And sometimes I said “wow.” But we never really talked about those things. We just lived life together day-to-day like brothers. He was like a younger brother to me.