by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2010 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved
I must say that during his lifetime the name “Jean-Michel Basquiat” meant absolutely nothing to me. I first heard of him as a protégé of Andy Warhol in reading the Warhol biographies published by Victor Bockris and Bob Colacello after Warhol’s death in 1987, and these books vaguely hinted that Basquiat was a straight African-American street painter whom Warhol picked up (metaphorically, at least) and sponsored but who died of a heroin overdose around the same time Warhol died of a more prosaic cause (accidentally killed by his doctors during routine gall bladder surgery). The portrait I had of Basquiat from those sources was as a barely civilized primitive who regularly beat up his girlfriends (we get nothing about that in this documentary, though at least two women who dated him are included in the interviewees) and who painted in a bold, primitive, aggressively ugly style drawn from his past as a graffiti artist.
I’d seen photos of him — a diminutive brown-skinned apparition in rather scrawny dreadlocks, which is what he looked like in the last few years of his life — and I’d seen a few pictures of his paintings but he hadn’t really registered on my consciousness even though Julian Schnabel, an older painter who was both a friend of Basquiat and a competitor, had made a dramatized biopic about him in 1996 with Jeffrey Wright as Basquiat and (who else?) David Bowie as Warhol. (I haven’t seen that, but Schnabel’s second film, his adaptation of Reinaldo Arenas’ memoir Before Night Falls, was so terrible — beset by a self-consciously “arty” approach that wrecked a story that should have made a profound and powerful movie — I’m not in any hurry to, either.) So I came to this documentary by Tamra Davis, awkwardly called Jean-Michel Basquiat: The Radiant Child (the title, as we learn about two-thirds of the way through the film, came from an article about Basquiat published during his lifetime), pretty unaware of the subject but willing to watch and listen with an open mind. I was astounded that given the brevity of his career — Basquiat was born in 1960 to a Haitian father and a Puerto Rican mother (giving him the same sort of mixed-race ancestry as two other short-lived African-American artistic geniuses, Charlie Parker and Jimi Hendrix, though they were part-Native American while Basquiat was part Latino), he started painting in 1980 when he moved from Brooklyn to Manhattan (portrayed in the film as a wrenching physical and psychological journey on the same level as relocating from Kansas to Oz — which struck Charles as silly given the scant geographical difference between them and the fact that they are at least nominally part of the same city) and, with an artistic partner, started leaving often ironic graffiti under the signature “SAMO©” (the copyright symbol was part of the name).
A year later a gallery owner gave him space in her building and started buying canvases and paint for him so he could make regular (and commercially salable) artworks instead of painting on walls (though he still frequently painted on old windows, doors and other “found” objects others had discarded), and he began to build a reputation as part of an anything-goes Bohemian art world that, before Rudolph Giuliani’s crackdown, could still either find relatively cheap spaces to live in Manhattan or simply take over abandoned buildings and “squat,” and which seemed to derive a lot of its inspiration from the sheer squalor into which New York City had descended. Much of Davis’s film consists of historic footage of the Manhattan of Basquiat’s time, including the legendary descent of Times Square into a haven for sex-related businesses (porn theatres — before the rise of the VCR put most of them out of businesses because one’s own home is a far more congenial setting for the kind of gratification one gets from watching porn than a theatre — as Paul Reubens, a.k.a. Pee Wee Herman, can testify from grim experience — and live sex shows of varying degrees of envelope-pushing hotness).
The scene at the time was one in which distinctions between media blurred to near-insignificance: the point was that you were an ARTIST, and whether you expressed that with paint on canvas (or on public walls), with musical instruments (and if you didn’t know how to play the instrument you were so energetically wielding, that was actually considered a plus) or with cameras and film (still or movie) was immaterial, In fact, the film mentions that Basquiat was actually part of a five-piece band called Gray, of such amateurishness that he posed as a clarinet player but actually emitted nothing but random noise on the instrument. (This made it ironic that I watched this film at a time when my most recent music acquisition was the Mosaic Records boxed set of Artie Shaw, who regarded the clarinet as almost a sacred trust, an instrument not only to be learned but practically worshiped — and whose attitude not only towards music but art in general, as a skill to be honed after long years of practicing long before one dared to show oneself to a paying public, was absolutely the opposite of that of Basquiat and the other artists in his circle.) Indeed, the fact that he reached artistic maturity (or as close as he ever got to it in the limited time he had on earth) in a milieu that regarded the differences between media as irrelevant may have shaped what to my mind is the most interesting aspect of Basquiat’s art: its incorporation of text at a level where (like the graffiti that spawned it) it’s not clear whether the artist’s “real” message is in the images, the words or some ironic juxtaposition of the two we’re supposed to figure out for ourselves based on the work.
The film begins with a rare live recording of Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker playing “Salt Peanuts,” heard under archive footage of Basquiat actually painting, and at first I assumed it was simply a rather cheap attempt to equate Basquiat with Parker -— both African-American groundbreaking artistic geniuses who lived dissolute lifestyles, used heroin and died young from it — though as the film unwound it turned out that bebop was Basquiat’s favorite form of music and he frequently had records of it playing while he worked (and when he wasn’t painting to jazz — a Duke Ellington record is also heard in the background of one of the scenes of Basquiat at work, and unlike the Parker side it was clearly on the original soundtrack of the videotape — he was painting to other forms of music, including a record of Ravel’s “Bolero” that he played over and over, making the piece even more repetitive than Ravel intended and driving one of his gallery-owner sponsors crazy), and a number of his works not only used jazz images (like the shapes of jazz instruments like trumpet and sax) but jazz-derived text as well: one painting intended as a tribute to Parker consisted of a crude reproduction of the original label for his Savoy recording of “Billie’s Bounce” as well as, in Basquiat’s familiar all-caps graffiti scrawl, the full discographical information on that record.
At the same time, Basquiat’s affect in the archival interviews shown in the film — including one Tamra Davis shot of him around 1984 (the dates are unclear) in which she and a woman friend named Kimberly took turns asking him interview-type questions even though they were all friends (“this is going to be a high-quality movie, huh?” Basquiat asked at the beginning of the tape) — reminded me much more of Jimi Hendrix (another mixed-race mostly African-American artist who did drugs and died young) than Parker; though he wasn’t as out of it in the interviews as Hendrix seemed to be (Hendrix seemed to be incapable of answering any question without sounding like the abstract lyrics to one of his more openly “psychedelic” songs), his answers are elliptical and mysterious, in ways that might reflect either a deliberate attempt to create a mystique around himself, the influence of drugs or both. The film delves into the rising-and-falling-star aspect of Basquiat’s fame, from the rave reviews his initial shows got in the Village Voice and other, smaller community papers in New York to the arrogant dismissal of New York Times art critic Hilton Kramer, who in the clip used here said flat-out that Basquiat was plucked from obscurity and given showcase exhibitions in major galleries only because politically liberal people in the art world wanted a token person of color whom they could elevate and say, “See? We’re not just a bunch of privileged white people here.”
After watching this film I’m still not sold on the greatness of Basquiat as an artist; the work is imaginative conceptually but also so repetitively in-your-face that after a while all the confrontation just gets dull. What’s more, he never really learned to draw all that well — his work with a paint brush doesn’t look all that different from his work with a spray can — which makes me wonder how he attracted the attention and support of Warhol, who was proud of his considerable talents as a draftsman and whose beef with the art world’s orthodoxy when he was coming up in the early 1960’s was that they had devalued drawing talent, and the people who possessed it, in favor of abstract works that were much less of a technical challenge to create. Basquiat had the bad luck to hook on to Warhol and do a joint show with him in the mid-1980’s, at a time when the art world was sick of Warhol and he was considered an old-hat artist who was just repeating himself — and the joint Basquiat-Warhol exhibit he was hoping would cement his fame and reputation just got slammed, not only by the critics but by the audience as well (nothing from the show sold). The failure of the Warhol exhibit and the death of Warhol two years later, in 1987, seem to have been the events that totally unhinged Basquiat and led him to go back on heroin after he’d laboriously sobered up in Hawai’i and Los Angeles, leading him to die of an overdose in New York City in 1988.
Since then the price of Basquiat’s paintings has risen from the five-figure sums he was getting during his lifetime to over $1 million, and Basquiat himself has become the perfect art-world commodity: he died young, which gives him the same legendary quality as Raphaël, Van Gogh and Pollock; but at the same time he was so prolific he left 1,000 paintings and 1,000 drawings, so there’s enough work in circulation to maintain a market for some time to come (another parallel with Hendrix, who left so many recordings — he seems to have run a tape recorder every time he practiced — “new” Hendrix records are still being released now, 40 years after his death). As an artist I think I’d place him in the same category as Douanier Rousseau: an unskilled primitive, but a sufficiently imaginative unskilled primitive that his work remains interesting and stimulating — even though its relentless in-your-faceness really puts me off. There’s one fascinating anecdote in the film in which Basquiat and a friend are trying to get home from a prestigious gallery opening at which they’ve been fêted by the art world and the celebriati, and they’re on the streets of New York City trying to hail a cab — and at least five drivers of empty cabs drive right past them.
We get the point even before Basquiat’s companion makes it explicit — away from the glitz and glamour of his opening Basquiat was just another scrawny-looking casually-dressed dreadlocked African-American on the streets of New York — but later in the film it becomes clear that Basquiat was one of those Black people who blamed every negative social encounter with a white person on racism. Jean-Michel Basquiat: The Radiant Child tries to make its central character’s story a metaphor for creative brilliance and how those who possess it have a hard time fitting into society — it even begins with a poem by Langston Hughes on the same theme called “The Genius Child,” suggesting that Basquiat’s short life and posthumous prestige prove Hughes’ argument that the genius child has to die before he’ll finally be accepted — but all too much of it seems like the art world’s equivalent of a VH-1 Behind the Music sex-drugs-and-rock-’n’-roll story; Basquiat’s short life and premature death is both a tragedy and a cliché.