After the show, the movie. Following the retrospective of the late US painter Jean-Michel Basquiat at the Beyeler Foundation, Basel (until 5 September), Tamra Davis’s documentary Jean-Michel Basquiat: the Radiant Child, executive produced by Swiss pharmaceutical heiress, philanthropist and collector Maja Hoffmann, opens in New York on 21 July, with a slew of big city screenings and one-off museum events to follow. The film has as its core a previously unseen video interview that Davis made with her friend two years before his death in 1988.
Despite the stellar prices that Basquiat’s works fetch, a faint air of suspicion still lingers over whether the artist, who died from a heroin overdose aged 27, deserves his place in the pantheon of greats. Could it be his race? Could it be that his lack of training and early outings as a graffiti artist still get up establishment noses? Was he on earth for too short a time to prove his credentials? Or was it his near instant fame and association with Warhol, particularly in a poorly received series of collaborations, that left him too tainted by the air of celebrity, at a time when that term was far less taken for granted than now?
There’s a template for this kind of artist biography. Take some archive interviews, some quick, jumpy editing (the title sequence, synchronised to Dizzy Gillespie’s classic interpretation of “Salt Peanuts” is particularly effective), a cool soundtrack and as many famous faces with “I knew him/her back when…” as can be gathered. Add in just enough scholarly or near-scholarly references to make the viewer feel privileged to understand and you’re there. This is not necessarily a bad thing. Arthouse Films, distributor of this film, is very good at this format. Among other projects it has been involved in are the similarly constructed “The Cool School”, about the rise of the LA’s Ferus Gallery, and—in many ways a companion piece to “The Radiant Child”—“The Universe of Keith Haring”. Basquiat and Haring, who also died prematurely, were friends and art stars in the same firmament.
All the history is here, in case anybody had forgotten. The childhood in a comfortably off family in Brooklyn, the teenage decamping to lower Manhattan’s febrile art scene, the Samo-tagged graffiti and the anarchic band Gray, founded with future film-maker Vincent Gallo amongst others.
From “The Times Square Show” in 1980 to “New York/New Wave” at P.S.1; from selling postcards to Warhol to Swiss vacations with Bruno Bischofberger and the affair with Madonna, if any part of Basquiat’s life story may have been slipping off the general radar, Davis makes sure it’s back in focus.
Among the interviewees, some of the most interesting observations come from Jeffrey Deitch, the New York dealer and early friend of the artist, now the director of the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art. Deitch asserts that, in terms of his career, Basquiat “understood exactly where to position himself”, going on to suggest that, in relation to the minimalist works that were in the large part the establishment art of choice at the time Basquiat was emerging: “If you just kept pushing minimal sculpture, you end up with something academic.” The young artist, by implication, was shaking up the established order, and the establishment wasn’t comfortable.
Collectors Herbert and Lenore Schorr offered to fund a large-scale bequest to a major public institution. New York’s Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) said: “He isn’t worth the space.” The Whitney also rejected the work.
In response, MoMA chief curator Ann Temkin treads carefully, managing to be both defensive and flattering: “When you first see brand new work, if it’s really significant, it will be uncomfortable to someone like myself, because I am so immersed in what painting, up until now, looked like.”
Like Temkin, the film-makers are performing a delicate balancing act, highlighting Basquiat’s outsider credentials while keen to note the art historical touch-points in his work that draw on Leonardo, Van Gogh and Pollock, among many others. But then noting an artist’s references—especially when they’re less than subtly flagged—is not quite the stuff a doctorate is made of.
So does “The Radiant Child” lay to rest any doubts that Basquiat was a serious artist, worthy of all the hype (and the prices)? If one accepts the elegantly presented evidence laid forth by this film, there’s no case against to answer. The painter himself, when confronted by his doubters, might just have referred to the meaning of his early graffiti tag, Samo: same old shit.
And yet there remains just the slightest, lingering feeling that, no matter how deserving Basquiat might be of his place in the canon, and no matter just how fascinating and compelling the archive footage and interviews are, the film is in fact a drop-dead gorgeous slice of market stimulation.
Basquiat became, and was seemingly deeply troubled by being, famous for being famous. The film-makers seem to be using this as an insurance policy. No matter what the market and academic response, at least he’s placed firmly back in the public consciousness—famous again, with a repackaged, gripping and ultimately tragic backstory.
Maybe the film-makers took inspiration from a comment attributed to the artist himself: “Influence is not influence…it’s someone’s idea going through my new mind.”
o Jean-Michel Basquiat: the Radiant Child opens at Film Forum, New York, 21 July. An earlier screening will take place at the Orange County Museum of Art, Newport Beach, 15 July