February 26, 2022 | Elizabeth Kuzyk
Jean Michel Basquiat and Rammellzee in Los Angeles, 1982; photo taken by Stephen Torton
KUZYK Community Series x Stephen Torton
American Artist / Assistant to Jean Michel Basquiat
How would you describe the Lower East Side art scene in the 1980s?
It was like high school. Ambitious, competitive. It was childish. And that was part of its beauty.
Tell us about your artwork, what inspires you? What is your favorite medium?
My favorite medium: cement and plaster, because I was very inspired by the renaissance. I’m inspired by projects that have been passed along to me…picking up what someone has put down or passed along.
I dropped out of college and always tried to compensate, so I was always learning. My MODUS OPERANDI : “Can I help?”
What’s your favorite memory of New York?
I was born in NYC. When I was 15, I was in a biking accident and my memory was wiped. My memory before 15 feels like a maze. A haze.
An experience that was the strongest in my life: In 1968, going to school and having the black panthers storm the halls. It was my first vision of human power.
How did you meet Jean Michel Basquiat? How did he influence your artwork?
We met on the dance floor at The Mud Club. I was a doorman and I was walking home from work. I walked by The Mud Club on the way home and Howie, the doorman, waved me over to come in. I was intrigued, so I went.
I lit a joint and from across the dance floor, Basquiat came towards me, in a mohawk, and took a hit of my joint and walked away. He was remarkable on the dance floor and in the neighborhood. He had a particular walk. He walked with a lean.
I went away to Europe, and later came back to nyc. We were introduced again and again. Then he hired me to be a bouncer for his party. He must have known I was a door man. Then I was his employee. It was a job.
I was also the doorman at 15 w 72nd street (behind The Dakota) where John Legend and Yoko Ono would walk by. I got great tips. With those tips, I ended up buying a loft in Soho, on White Street and West Broadway. It was a neighborhood where you could build your own apartment.
Although I very much enjoy making my own art, I’ve always enjoyed making art with other people. I have always run through my life in love, and in teams.
Describe what it was like to exist in such a creative atmosphere.
It was it’s own universe. Jean Michel was denied a place where he felt at home, so he built this loft on Crosby street, where each space was his. I never saw someone permeate a space the way he did.
Looking back, I think it was the first place he could call his own. It was a mix of acrylic, sweat, tobacco, people always visiting. It was intense.
Your canvases are works of art on their own. What is your process for creating the unique canvases? How do you think that changed or inspired his artwork?
Jean Michel would point to a pile of things (carpet tacks, rope, canvas, closet rod, molding), no tools, no nails. And each time it was a challenge - “Can you make a stretcher out of that?”
He knew I could. I made 250 canvases. He trusted me to follow their evolution. Making the canvases out of scraps was denying luxury. Which was Jean Michel’s style.
It was duality. As was he. Joyous yet sad and miserable. He lived in a duality. It was like surfing the waves of contradiction.
What’s your favorite memory of Jean Michel Basquiat?
It’s hard to put into words. He was transfixing. His nod of approval was coveted and his turning away was feared. If he gave you a smile, you won the lottery.
What item in your closet do you always bring with you in your travels?
I lose a lot of sh*t.
I had the jacket Giorgio Armani took off his back and gave to Rammellzee.
I had the jacket Jean Michel is wearing in the photo walking out of Maxfield with Rammellzee.
I lost both. Yet that inspiration, that spontaneity, has stayed with me.
What are the items you always pack when traveling?
I’ve never been attached to anything. I don’t have jewelry. I have never had a tattoo. I covet my Alexander McQueen boots. I appreciate him as an architect, I stand differently in them.
What is the most surprising thing in your closet you still love to wear?
It’s the clothes in my memories that are the most important.
Who are your favorite musicians?
I love the music that happens when walking down the street. My favorite thing is walking into a subway, when there is music coming from one train, next to the music from another direction. I never put music on.
How about your favorite film(s) ?
I like the making-of, behind the scenes. Burden of Dreams. The making-of Apocalypse Now by Catherine Coppola. I like films about films. My niche is makings-of films. My single favorite movie would probably be Chinatown, because I love photography. I am a visual person.
Madonna and Jean Michel Basquiat at his Crosby Street loft, 1982; photos taken by Stephen Torton