Jean-Michel Basquiat is a phenomenon, not least because he’s an art star without anything really serious being said about his art. Granted, if you make a movie about him, and present it in MoMA’s big theater with the help of LVMH and Jefferson Hack’s Nowness, other art stars and the stars who collect his huge body of expensive works will come out for the event. And so on Tuesday night, Annie Liebovitz, Julian Schnabel, Clive Davis, Tommy Hilfiger, Chris Rock and Alicia Keys attended the screening of Jean-Michel Basquiat: The Radiant Child, a new film about the artist who’s still obscure in spite of his fame and infamy.
PHOTO BY BRIENNE WALSH
Directed by Tamra Davis, the film features a rare interview with Basquiat that was shot in 1985 on VHS tape. Davis’ footage sat in the director’s drawer for 25 years, who explained to me after the screening: “Out of all of the years, I never sold any of his work. I was always just his friend throughout.” So then why unveil the interview now? It’s easy to be cynical about the motives, and the director explained that it was cynicism that held her back for so long. One of the themes that emerges is the skepticism that Basquiat had, late in his 27-year late, about the “friends” who were selling work he’d given them, for top-dollar.
If the line from Langston Hughes’ poem “Genius Boy” in the film subtitle (via the name for Rene Ricard’s December 1981 Artforum introduction) in the subtitle weren’t clue enough, from the outset, Davis is fully emerged in and curious about the myth of Basquiat, who came to Manhattan from Brooklyn, a middle class kid, made a reputation as a world-class gleaner, and left us as a superstar. She’s neither a critic nor an investigative journalist. Her gaze is tender and kind, her narrative framing the memory of the artist in his best light, as a brilliant kid with too much too soon, the owner of an abundance that would ruin even the best of us.
The first scene of the film melts into the fuzzy, yellow light in which Davis, a film student at the time, shot her interviews. Basquiat’s figure appears, fidgeting nervously in and out of the frame, biting his lip and shifting his position. When he finally settles and begins to answer questions, he averts his gaze from the lens, disarmingly uncomfortable. Basquiat wasn’t known to shy away from the cameras; he was often photographed making his art, in clubs with Madonna, and out to lunch with Andy Warhol. After charting Basquiat’s early success at Annina Nosei’s gallery on Greene Street in Soho, Davis interjects clips of the other interview that Basquiat completed during his lifetime. Holding a microphone to the young artist’s face, the interviewer asks Basquiat to respond to characterizations of work as “primal expressionism.” To this, Basquiat replies with hostility, “An ape? A primate.” The awkwardness of the episode is portrayed in the film as a moment of unconscious racism and incredible sensitivity on the part of the artist. The sequence is meant to build a tense relationship between the interviewer and the academy, the sector of the art world that never embraced the artist during his lifetime—to the artist’s great disappointment. The episode also demonstrates the extent to which Basquat could occupy the role of the defensive caricature, and simplify criticism.
It’s here that the director could have gone further. Basquiat was asked about the rumors that his gallerist has locked him in the basement to make paintings. It was a vicious rumor, but a truly prolific one, and deserved more consideration than Basquiat’s defensive block.
Davis includes interviews with art world familiars like Glenn O’Brien, Tony Shafrazi, Larry Gagosian, and Basquiat’s other biographer, Julian Schnabel. But refreshingly the most airtime is given to Suzanne Mallouk, who recounts that while Basquiat courted her, he used to come stand by the jukebox at the bar where she worked and just stare at her, a romantic gesture that “really scared her.” Typically, he became endearing, and within a within weeks he bought her a first drink (a Remy Martin, the most expensive on the menu), and she let him move in.
The movie’s strength lies in it’s ability to viably re-envision the innocence and pleasures of “bohemian” lifestyle in the East Village in the 1980s, beyond nostalgic, utopian fantasy. Basquiat exemplified the self-declared virtuosity of the era, propelling himself from the graffiti artist SAMO, living hand to mouth, to a painter with a solo exhibition in only two years. The young creative class today is familiar with methods of self-promotion and explosive success, but we’re a generation more comfortable with marketing. Basquiat’s not different, but he really worked, and the skill at promotion was preternatural.
The screening ended with a panel featuring Kenny Scharf, Fab 5 Freddy, Jeffrey Deitch and Tamra Davis. Fab 5 Freddy was particularly interesting because, like Basquat, his interests to genuinely inserted the language of high, classical references into the street. He recalled the days when they watched Buñuel films and were “trying to make it happen, trying to pay the bills, trying to get into clubs, trying to get into galleries.” When the mediator turned the questions to the audience, hardly an awkward moment passed before voices so familiar as to be uncanny began to pipe up with questions. Alicia Keys, her tones husky and melodious, praised the movie at length before addressing the popular Fab 5. From the center, Chris Rock asked Davis, who is also the director of Half Baked, about the similarities between Basquiat and Dave Chapelle to an immediate round of laughter. But the question was a good one, and Rock meant no disrespect. At least not until later, when he interrupted a fellow guest inquiring about the cause of Basquiat’s death (proposing that perhaps the people on-stage had a hand in his isolation) with the observation that “long questions kill people too.”
The party moved on to the 18th Floor at the Standard Hotel and on the way upstairs, I caught Scharf in the elevator. Despite the tender allure of the narrative presented in the film, life with Basquiat couldn’t have been all kittens and roses, he said, “[Basquiat] was very extreme. He was very sweet and kind and loving, but he could also be more than evil. And scary.” Suddenly the heights of art stardom opened up alongside of the pitfalls, side by side in the light reflected over the great depths of New York City.