Observations: Basquiat in photographic notes from the underground

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The Independent Culture

In a modestly sized apartment on the Lower East of New York, the writing remains on the wall. Despite a childlike charm, they're no ordinary scribblings and the resident, Nicholas Taylor, has no intention of whitewashing over them. Originating from the hand of Jean-Michel Basquiat, they're a reminder of a close friendship that was curtailed by the untimely passing of the artist, aged 27 in 1988. Taylor was part of a very small tight-knit circle of friends that Basquiat trusted as his career spiralled. "All Jean wanted was someone to sit and watch him paint. To be quiet with him," reminisces Taylor. "I really believe he is the most important painter of the late 20th century."

By the latter half of the Eighties, success in the art world and all that came with it, had meant that the artist swapped acquaintances for narcotics.

Taylor remained by Basquiat's side through it all. He openly discusses a vacation in Jamaica, in which Taylor sold his camera on the first night so that they could score drugs. It was the last time Taylor saw Basquiat as he truly was, unburdened by the trappings of success back in Manhattan. "The last time I saw Jean, he looked so old. Sixty. Not the 17-year old kid I knew. It was the drugs."

Two decades on from Basquiat's death, Taylor has begun to look through his vast archive of personal photography. The majority was taken during the early stages of a burgeoning underground scene in the late Seventies. The images capture the moments before New York rode the crest of a cultural wave, where hip-hop from the Bronx merged with Debbie Harry's proto-rap single, "Rapture" and David Byrne and friends formed their own band and collaborated with Brian Eno. The art world mirrored this musical success, turning its focus on the vibrant downtown scene, fostering the talents of rising stars such as Basquiat and Keith Haring.

If Studio 54 and Warhol's Factory are today recognised as the hub of Manhattan's cultural elite at the turn of a decade, it was the downtown artist squat parties and crack-of-dawn collaborations at the seminal music venue, CBGB, which shaped the alternative scene.

For the last two years, Taylor has worked closely with the Japanese creative studio, the Inoue Brothers, blowing up selected snapshots to giant poster proportions, as in a New York subway, and preparing a limited-edition book and clothing featuring the photographs. "New York was so hardcore when I moved there in '77," recalls Taylor. "There were no funds and any thread of an underground scene was held together between the drugs and drink. Usually on the second floor of the Mudd Club. Jean was there every night. Even when it was raining and no one was around."

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