In just seven years as a practicing
artist, Jean-Michel Basquiat produced over 2,000 works and made himself
enormous amounts of money, gaining praise and notoriety as the defining
artist of the early to mid-1980s. In Tamra Davis's absorbing
new documentary, the layers of his legacy are examined and carefully
demystified, from his shadowy beginnings as a graffiti artist known
only (at that time) as "SAMO" to the height of his fame as a painter
whose gallery sales commanded huge sums, through his final sad years,
marked by drug use, paranoia, and withdrawal from public life.
Basquiat emerges as a fascinating and complicated human being, somewhat
de-romanticized by Davis, and made difficult through discussion of his
less charming qualities, but whose accomplishments as an artist continue
to bloom as new angles of interest and significance in his work come
Davis opens her film with never-before-seen
interview footage of Basquiat that she and a friend shot about two years
before the artist's death. In this footage, Basquiat speaks
openly and frankly about himself, his work, his peers, and his critics.
He comes off as mildly uncomfortable, even though this was essentially
a private video made with friends. He doesn't relish discussing
his work, and betrays a certain amount of bitterness about his position
in the art world. Although a success - even a sensation -
in his own time, there was a sense amid the media frenzy over the artist
and his work that Basquiat was an oddity, a "special case," coddled
by the liberal art world establishment, a situation specifically highlighted
by the otherwise clueless Hilton Kramer in archival interview footage.
But Basquiat seemed aware of this, and that, beyond the perceived value
of his art itself, there were those around him who benefitted socially
and financially from turning him into a celebrity.
More than two decades after his death,
Basquiat is broadly regarded as one of the most influential artists
in recent memory, if not the entire twentieth century. His colorful,
semi-abstract expressionist paintings feature recurring, recognizable
motifs that stem from Basquiat's interest in politics, social justice,
jazz music, Black American history, and human anatomy, all interwoven
with painted text. Basquiat is famous for having become close
with Andy Warhol during the Pop Art pioneer's final years; Warhol
died at a time when their relationship had become strained over the
famous failure of their collaborative exhibition. Warhol's unexpected
death prevented Basquiat from reconnecting with his dear friend and
was a contributing factor in Basquiat's own decline immediately thereafter.
Davis does an excellent job
of untangling Basquiat's considerable legacy from the distancing threads
of mythologizing, politicizing, hype-making, and romanticizing that
occurred both during the artist's life and afterward. Davis
shows us Basquiat at work in his studio, a precocious and intelligent
artist capable of tapping into deep mental and emotional resources,
a keen awareness of history, and a voracious consumption of cultural
produce. His paintings are far removed from the crass, commercially-minded
hoopla orchestrated to "sell" the artist to the public by his handlers
and the media; the irony is that the prices fetched by his paintings
are far more a result of this "inside sales" work by gallerists
and dealers than they are a product of the artist's own self-promotion,
and yet those prices are exactly the evidence used by Basquiat's critics
to discredit him as a mere media celebrity. But Basquiat worked
alone and was furiously productive; he worked to sell, it's true,
but his paintings are remarkably consistent. His vision rarely
falters into simplicity or bears any other traces of having been compromised
for the sake of speed and income.
Davis includes new interviews with
many of Basquiat's contemporaries, including artists Julian Schnabel,
Kenny Scharf, and Al Diaz (Basquiat's SAMO partner); gallerists and
dealers like Gagosian and Bischofberger; museum curators, musicians,
and a few former girlfriends. Each interviewee provides a slightly
different perspective, and there is a clear divide in the tone of the
comments by those who had a professional interest in the artist and
those whose interest was simply personal. Davis's own interview
footage from 1986 shows that the artist was well aware that he meant
something different to many different people. (That footage also
affords a new level of appreciation for Jeffrey Wright's performance
as the artist in Schnabel's 1998 biopic; it's pitch-perfect mimicry
operating at a very deep level of comprehension.)
New Video's Arthouse Films label continues to distribute compelling,
unique films with good presentation. The enhanced 1.78:1 transfer
is very strong, with excellent contrast and solidity. Digital
artifacts are minimal, even in the older footage, some of which has
been carefully cropped to retain some sense of compositional integrity.
Colors are rich and dense. A good transfer all around.
The stereo soundtrack is about what you would expect. It's
perfectly competent work that makes good use of period music, including
a track or two by the band Basquiat joined in the early part of his
career, Gray. Other well-chosen songs by The Velvet Underground,
Dizzy Gillespie, and Charlie Parker are highlighted pleasantly and given
room to breathe on the soundtrack.
The only bonus feature is a half-hour interview with filmmaker
Tamra Davis, who first met Basquiat while he was in residence at the
LA studio obtained for him by Larry Gagosian, and while Davis was still
in film school. She shares a lot of personal memories as well
as some thoughts as to what compelled her to make the documentary.
It's well worth a look.
Tamra Davis does an outstanding job
separating the man from the hype in Jean-Michel
Basquiat: The Radiant Child. This immersive portrait of the
American art scene during the 1980s is necessary viewing, particularly
for anyone interested in the creative arts. Highly recommended.
Casey Burchby lives in Northern California: Twitter, Tumblr.