This weekend I watched the documentary Jean Michel Basquiat: The Radiant Child, not to be confused with the 1996 film Basquiat (worth a watch purely to see David Bowie play Andy Warhol). The documentary is the kind of film that makes you wish you were born in another decade. The first 30 minutes are spent describing the uber-cool artistic scene, in downtown Manhattan in the late 70’s-early 80’s, from which Basquiat arose. We hear of the ‘romantic allure’ that NYC carried in those days, how everyone ‘did everything: you were in a band, you were a painter, sculpture, actor’ and the general buzz that the time had, with our narrators beings those who were at the center of it. All the snaps of these beautiful young things in ’78 NYC make Dalston 2014 seem rather brash and predictable in comparison.
Of course the documentary is shot in a fittingly edgy style; in between interviews with friends and art dealers there are cuts to old footage of Basquiat saying profound sounding things whilst puffing on cigarettes. The director Tamra Davis filmed this herself 2 years before the artist’s untimely death. Throughout the film we also see shots of his paintings and him working in his studio.
The film does track his artistic development, from starting out as a ‘graffer’, going by the name ‘Samo’. Through his street poems we see the graffiti culture expanding from simple ‘tags’, moving towards other possibilities, which are now defined by the term ‘street art’. We go on to see how Basquiat became friends with the king of the NYC art scene: Mr Warhol himself. Interestingly, the angle from which the documentary seems to approach this is one that suggests the friends were mutually using each other to help their own career, rather than attributing it as a completely genuine partnership. For Basquiat, Warhols fame would help elevate his status in the art world; for Warhol, Basquiat provided a new energy to his image, keeping his flagging reputation relevant. Warhol dies during a rift in the friendship and it seems Basquiat never seems to recover from it. The rest of the film tracks his descend, ending with his overdose.
Basquiat was beyond cool (I forgot to mention the affair with Madonna), and his art was cool too. His paintings were not overly conceptual nor traditionally ‘beautiful’, they explored relevant themes such as culture and race, not to mention how great they look hanging on the walls of Manhattan lofts. I think I would have liked to have seen a bit more in regards to his work; the doc could have delved a little deeper, especially in regards to the hardships in Basquiat’s life (which the doc charts) effecting his artistic practice.
Was Basquiat simply one of the last flings of American expressionism, a symbol of the dying NY art scene in favour of the British and Asian markets? This documentary seemed to come from a place counteracting this argument; I just wish it had done a better job defending its case. Saying this, Basquiat was fucking cool, his work is fucking cool, and watching this film is a fucking cool way to spend a Sunday evening.
Isabella Bornholt; BogeArt