TAMRA DAVIS’S DOCUMENTARY Jean-Michel Basquiat: The Radiant Child might make you weep (it did me) and might help you better appreciate a painter whose work matters enormously in the history of late-twentieth-century art. It achieves these ends largely though an abundance of footage of its subject at work and with a long interview that Davis videotaped in Los Angeles in 1986, two years before Basquiat’s death.
The painter and the filmmaker were friends; they had a rapport and intimacy that allowed Basquiat to be remarkably open, although it should be said that he is almost always open on camera, even when he openly shuts down at a perceived slight or stupidity. “It’s Samo—Mr. Samo,” he says with a flash of anger when, on a segment (circa 1980) of the cable access show Glenn O’Brien’s TV PARTY, O’Brien mispronounces the graffiti tag that Basquiat shared with his high school friend Al Diaz. SAMO©, which is pronounced with a hard “A,” is black slang for “same old shit,” but as critic and musician Greg Tate noted in his brilliant 1989 essay “Nobody Loves a Genius Child: Jean-Michel Basquiat, Flyboy in the Buttermilk,” “it also invites the cruel and punning to identify the writer as Sambo”—in other words, to put his/her foot in the same old shitty racist associations. The SAMO© tag was fixed to enigmatic bits of poetry, filled with just such slippages and contradictory meanings. This linguistic strategy became a central element in Basquiat’s painting practice. Explaining to an interviewer why his canvases are full of crossed-out words, he says, “The fact that they are obscured makes you want to read them more.” Countering the charge that he simply copied de Kooning or Twombly, he says that what he paints is “someone’s idea going through my new mind.” He lingers on the last three words, surrounding each of them with just enough silence so that, as we hear them, we also see them as they would be spaced out on a canvas.
Except for the extended interview with Basquiat, which she fragments and returns to throughout the movie, Davis follows a linear path, charting Basquiat’s ten-year career from his entrance to the downtown art scene as SAMO© in 1978 to his death from a drug overdose in 1988. In no way does she try to emulate Basquiat’s explosive style or the sense of suspended time and space in his painting, although the movie’s lively editing owes something to the bebop-laden sound track. “I like all kinds of music,” Basquiat says. “But bebop is my favorite.” Conversely, I would have preferred that Davis linger on at least a few individual paintings in her quick-cut montages of gallery shows and the painter’s various studios. Yes, his output was astonishing; at his death, Basquiat left about one thousand paintings and an equal number of drawings. The movie gives a sense of how driven he was, how it seemed as if he aimed, by sheer volume, to assure himself a place in the pantheon of twentieth-century painters, when in fact he achieved that position by virtue of a necessarily smaller number of masterpieces, produced in the early and late stages of his heartbreakingly short career.
In addition to the footage of Basquiat (there is one remarkable close-up of the artist at work paired with a voice-over explaining that he held his tools exactly as he had as a child at the Brooklyn Museum school, and this, combined with his visual sophistication, is what made his line so distinctive), the film succeeds through an assembly of highly articulate talking heads: colleagues and friends Fred Brathwaite (better known as Fab 5 Freddy), Julian Schnabel, and Kenny Scharf; critics Nelson George and Rene Ricard; the great historian Robert Farris Thompson, who explains that Basquiat “excavated black history in his paintings. . . . Like a Native American shaman, he says, ‘I walk with you’ ”; dealers and curators (in order of their appearance in Basquiat’s life) Diego Cortez, Annina Nosei, Bruno Bischofberger, and Larry Gagosian; studio assistants and girlfriends.
Davis relies on Basquiat’s first significant girlfriend, Suzanne Mallouk, now a psychiatrist, to make connections between the artist’s personal life and the pressure of a career that exploded overnight, and she admirably walks a fine line between clarity and discretion. The film is perhaps too reticent about Basquiat’s drug use (one might come away with the impression that drugs only became a problem in the last years of his life, which is not really the case). The movie, on the other hand, doesn’t pull any punches in its discussion of the racism of the art world. Hilton Kramer puts the nail in his own coffin with his assessment that “[Basquiat’s] contribution to art is so miniscule as to be nil” and that the only reason for the painter’s success was that “liberals need to make a gesture.” MoMA curator Ann Temkin explains somewhat ruefully that museum curators are uncomfortable with work that looks new because they are so immersed in the art of the past. This problem, of course, didn’t stop major American museums from showing Basquiat’s contemporaries Schnabel and David Salle during the 1980s’ return to painting. What was “new” about Basquiat’s work was the place from which his painting spoke—that of the black American male artist. Basquiat was so upset at being snubbed by museums that he got his devoted and astute collectors Herbert and Lenore Schorr to offer both MoMA and the Whitney a painting. The offer was refused; according to the Schorrs, one of these institutions told them that “the painting wasn’t worth the space.” I only wish Davis had been able to add Tate’s voice to this discussion. In “Nobody Loves a Genius Child,” Tate comes out swinging. The essay takes its title from the Langston Hughes poem that also opens and closes Jean-Michel Basquiat: The Radiant Child. He was a genius, he was radiantly sad and radiantly angry, and he is much missed.
Jean-Michel Basquiat: The Radiant Child opens July 21 at Film Forum in New York. Filmmaker Tamra Davis will appear at 8 PM for the July 21 and 22 shows; Fab 5 Freddy will appear at 8 PM for the July 23 show. For more details, click here.