Jean-Michel Basquiat was young when he reached the apex of his fame and then overdosed on heroin in his downtown New York City studio. But it’s easy to forget just how young: he was an international sensation by the age of 23; by 25 he was a millionaire; by 26 he had a nasty heroin habit and was making what critics were calling “late work,” even then; by 27 he was dead.
Art historians, patrons, and survivors of that 1980s downtown scene have attributed the artist’s rise and cataclysmic fall to a wide variety of factors—from a botched relationship with his father to the fact that Basquiat, despite all his fame, struggled to find lasting acceptance in the high art world (something that has, of course, changed significantly since his death in 1988). Basquiat’s story was told to some extent in Julian Schnabel’s 1996 dramatization, Basquiat, but a new documentary by Tamra Davis (director of such films as Half Baked, Billy Madison, and Britney Spears vehicle Crossroads, and wife of Beastie Boys’ Mike D.) seeks to fill in some of the holes.
Click below to view a clip of The Radiant Child
Jean-Michel Basquiat: The Radiant Child, now playing in New York City theaters via Arthouse Films, draws in part from a 20-minute interview Davis conducted with the artist in 1985. Davis, who worked at a Los Angeles art gallery while she attended film school, met Basquiat in the early 1980s when he spent a year and change living on the West Coast. Davis and Basquiat became friends and would see each other whenever Basquiat visited L.A. thereafter.
Davis lucked out, to some extent. She captured Basquiat at a pivotal moment in his career. In later years, Basquiat grappled with excessive paranoia (due in part, no doubt, to the copious amount of drugs he was doing). He didn’t want to be taken advantage of, and he was sick of his friends selling work he’d given them for profit. Davis didn’t want to fall into that latter category and therefore, even after Basquiat’s death, long refused to do anything with her footage.
She films him working frenetically and musing on what, exactly, one’s to do when Page Six comes calling more frequently than curators and museums. But this isn’t the only meat, so to speak. Davis mixes her footage with insights from talking heads like dealer-cum-MOCA L.A.-director Jeffrey Deitch, critic and writer Glenn O’Brien, artist/musician/cohort Fab Five Freddy, Swiss dealer Bruno Bischofberger, Schnabel, Basquiat’s early patron Larry Gagosian, and the artist’s longtime live-in love, Suzanne Mallouk. What emerges is a complex portrait of a complex man.
Born to immigrant parents in Brooklyn (his mother hailed from Puerto Rico, his father from Haiti), Basquiat had a reasonably cultured childhood. His mother encouraged his interest in art from a young age, frequently taking him to museums for inspiration. A marginal troublemaker, Basquiat left Brooklyn at 17 for downtown Manhattan where he was, he tells Davis, more or less resigned to a life of street art and bum-dom. He couch-surfed for a while and (quite infamously) even spent time sleeping in a box in Tompkins Square Park. His poetic tags were popping up all over the city branded, in all caps, with the word SAMO (as in “Same Old Shit”), Basquiat’s street-bound alter ego.
He moved in with Mallouk when the two started dating and began making art on a wide variety of scavenged materials—doors, windowpanes, discarded refrigerators. Basquiat was never shy about his desire to be famous and early on set out to rival mega-artists of the day, Schnabel and Warhol among them. After several successful group shows, Basquiat landed representation with Annina Nosei, who sold out his solo debut on opening night. Then came the money; the press; the all-night ragers at Mudd Club, CBGBs, and Area; and the Crosby Street loft filled with paintings, Champagne, caviar, and hangers-on.
Davis excels at enlivening Basquiat’s strange, symbiotic relationship with Warhol—a bond that was part father/son, part artistic rivalry, and part unrequited love. We see the ways in which Warhol tried to keep Basquiat in check when he started using drugs (Basquiat was somewhat estranged from his own father at this point) and turn him on to a new, decidedly more glam crowd. Basquiat, in turn, seemed to make Warhol relevant again—he was an old hat at this point, his work increasingly out of vogue. The artists finally decided to collaborate on a series of massive paintings. The show was universally panned and the press railed against Warhol for sponging off of Basquiat’s newfound fame. Basquiat severed ties and Warhol died, in 1986, before the two reconciled—something that had a profound effect on Basquiat.
The art, of course, shines too. Davis’ sources pontificate on the art-historical references that consistently pop up in Basquiat’s frenetic imagery (Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa; De Kooning’s grotesque nudes) and the ways in which he struggled to address the African American experience in his work. The artist made 1,000 paintings and 1,000 drawings that we know of in his short lifetime, marrying scale, color, skill, and content in a way that many artists still aspire toward today. Had he lived longer he might have rivaled Picasso in prolificacy and innovation, but, as Schnabel so aptly puts it in the film, “He didn’t have the tools to navigate the sea of shit.”
Rachel Wolff is a New York-based writer and editor who has covered art for New York, ARTnews, and Manhattan.