Friday, March 24, 2017

Jean-Michel Basquiat: The Radiant Child

It's a striking way to begin a documentary, as we hear the stuttering blasts of Dizzy Gillespie's "Salt Peanuts," while Jean-Michel Basquiat bustles around in his art studio, circa mid '80s, his hair sticking out like it's reaching for the sky. There's a quickness to the cutting, as if we're inside Basquiat's manic head, but the focus - like just about every shot in Tamra Davis' Jean-Michel Basquiat: The Radiant Child - is on Basquiat's face, rather than his art.

He had the looks of a lazy, spoiled, pretty boy - sleepy eyes, slight androgyny, a style that was pure '80s Manhattan - which didn't quite sync in with his paintings, which were primitive, jagged,  tied together with themes of social unrest. What Gillespie has to do with it isn't revealed until much later in the film, when Basquiat talks about his admiration of bebop horn players  - and we're supposed to buy Basquiat as having the same fiery brilliance of a Gillespie or a Miles Davis, even though his looks owe more to Culture Club than any act recorded on the old Verve label.

Davis' documentary is a jumpy, colorful, heartfelt look at a neo-expressionistic painter, a haunted example of the '80s New York art boom where approximately 500 hipsters seemed to ignite all at once, creating a lot of bands, a lot of singers, a lot of filmmakers. Basquiat was probably the most revered of the tribe - unless you want to count Madonna, and I don't - but it's faint praise. Sure, there were some great parties going on, but how much of that period is really worth enshrining or discussing? 

In his early 20s when the art world beamed its fickle spotlight on him, Basquiat had the kind of slick and sleazy look that was popular at the time. He was dead cool on the dance floor,   had played in a noise band called Gray,  and was already well-known for being a graffiti artist. As his star climbed, he was befriended by Andy Warhol, who may have seen in the younger man a kindred spirit; Basquiat possessed some of Warhol's ability to provoke and titillate. During the busy years before Basquiat died as a 27-year-old junkie, he appeared to have everything an artist of the '80s could want. It's easy to imagine him branching out into film, or hip-hop; at the least, he might've appeared in underwear ads. 

Former girlfriends, gallery owners, art lovers, and associates talk about him the way people in documentaries talk about eccentric geniuses and dead rock stars. They talk about his weird charisma, and the way he hustled, always positioning himself to be in the right place at the right time. He'd  lived on the streets for a while, subsisting on Cheez Doodles and the generosity of gullible females.

There are clips of Basquiat being interviewed by Davis, too. He reminds me a bit of another radiant child who died at 27, Jimi Hendrix. Just as Hendrix did on the old Dick Cavett show, Basquiat stares downwards, smiling sheepishly; he's not shy, just unsure of how to deal with the squares who have suddenly noticed him. He certainly won't give up his trade secrets. He doesn't even want to admit that he reads William Burroughs, because he's afraid it will make him sound  young.

Pablo Picasso was once asked to describe his greatest talent. His answer was something along the lines of knowing how to make rich people feel important. Basquiat might've said the same thing if he'd lived long enough. His style, which was both childlike and explosive, seemed to grab the attention of wealthy white art collectors who, on some level, liked that they were buying art from a young man of mixed Puerto Rican and Haitian blood who had been a sort of street urchin. He grew tired of being called primitive, but admitted that he liked being thought of as "a bad boy." He knew this played on people's fantasies about artists. He found heroin, however, and as the movie rolls along we see his skin turning splotchy, the paintings slapdash.

What should have been a collaboration for the ages ended in disaster when he teamed with Warhol in 1984. They worked together on several canvases, only to have Warhol dismissed as a has-been trying to get the rub from a younger artist, while Basquiat was accused of being an ego-driven opportunist. And just like that, New York's wunderkind was yesterday's fish.

Basquiat's toothy monsters and graffiti look like the art created in mental asylums - indeed, his mother was institutionalized when Basquiat was a boy - or by first graders asked to draw their nightmares. One can see in Basquiat's paintings a smattering of cubism, and of the African American collage artist Romare Bearden. Basquiat's canvases are like cave paintings, if your cave was in Times Square during the Reagan era. I like his work, but unlike his devoted supporters, I'm not sure he's one of the greats. He died young, which gives his art the patina of importance it might not have otherwise. As for Davis' movie, it feels like a fever dream, with Basquiat serving as a kind of mystical hobo. His sly grin gives him away, though. The rich suckers fall for his every scribble, and he's delighted.

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