by Wendy Guymer-Tutt, Princess Cinemas
The lives of artists have been the subject of countless films, and it’s no wonder: the mystique of the suffering artist is the stuff, not just of legend or cliche, but also of romance and morbid curiosity. Since most of us would prefer not to live our lives out on the edge as many artists have, instead we love to peer voyeuristically into that existential extreme from the safety of the cinema; indeed, the titles of some of these classics reveal much about how we collectively view the artist’s life: The Agony and the Ecstasy; Lust for Life; The Blood of a Poet.
One of the most pervasive myths perpetuated by society is the notion that an artist must suffer for his or her art. In the memorable opening scene from Vincent and Theo, director Robert Altman depicts a London auction of Van Gogh’s Sunflowers, which sells for 40 million pounds. Intercut with this scene is the squalor that was Vincent Van Gogh’s “actual” life, as portrayed by actor Tim Roth. We have interpreted the story of Van Gogh to be an injustice of cosmic proportions; his posthumous fame relative to his lifetime of abject poverty and obscurity has provided the foundation upon which the modern myth of the suffering artist has been built. As Rene Ricard wrote, “no one wants to be part of a generation that fails to recognize another Van Gogh.”
And so we have the life and (very brief) times of Jean-Michel Basquiat. Watching Tamra Davis’ new documentary about Basquiat, The Radiant Child, the viewer can’t help thinking that the trajectory of Basquiat’s life would have been the same, with or without money. Coming from a solid middle-class background; the child of a broken marriage; a mentally-ill, institutionalized mother, and an authoritarian and abusive father, Basquiat was a runaway living on the streets of New York from the age of 17. But, he was special, and that’s clear from looking at the footage and interviews Davis shot 25 years ago. Basquiat was thoughtful, attractive and quietly charismatic; he even dated Madonna for a few months (but then, who didn’t?)
To quote Ricard once again, “in this town, one is at the mercy of the recognition factor. Appearance is absolute.” While this was Basquiat’s advantage, and he used it –being part of the club scene was an important aspect of being an artist of the time– he also was a gifted painter in addition to being a noted graffiti artist. To be young, talented and assured in New York in the late 70s was to be in the right place at the right time: it was the epicenter of the most exciting music and art scene in the world; unsurprisingly, Basquiat was discovered at a young age.
If one is needy and has an appetite for drugs, the only difference between poverty and wealth is that the drugs are more expensive, easier to get and thus, more plentiful. By the early 1980s, Basquiat had fame and money, but he was young, lonely and isolated from the friends he knew before he became famous. Paranoid and routinely assailed by critics, Basquiat felt he couldn’t trust anyone. Latterly, he and Andy Warhol became friends, yet Basquiat couldn’t fully enjoy their friendship in the midst of accusations that he was a mascot and being used by Warhol to prop up his own flagging fame. After a well-publicized artistic collaboration between him and Warhol was panned by critics as nothing more than hype, Basquiat began to believe the critics and became distant from Warhol. When Warhol died unexpectedly shortly thereafter, Basquiat was devastated. Less than 18 months after Warhol’s death, Jean-Michel Basquiat would be dead at the age of 27 from an (accidental?) heroin overdose.
One of the tragedies of Basquiat’s life is that Andy Warhol, in his own, vapid way, was in fact, a true friend and an important advisor; someone who could help Basquiat navigate the shark-infested waters of the art world and remind him to call his mother regularly. Beyond a lack of judgment due to naivety and drug paranoia, Basquiat’s struggles against racial stereotypes and his deep-seated insecurities that his acclaim was merely a token liberal gesture were profound. Famously, he once said to an interviewer, “believe it or not, I can actually draw.”
And that fact is made most clear in Tamra Davis excellent documentary. At the time of Basquiat’s death, he left behind over 800 large-canvas paintings and nearly 1000 drawings. For seven years he rode the juggernaut of fame, wildly and prolifically transcribing onto his expressionistic canvases (and found objects such as tires, windows and refrigerator doors) the text and images he was receiving, at a pace that ultimately was impossible to sustain, not for lack of inspiration, but because body and soul were worn out. Basquiat, as Davis vividly conjures in her film, was the product of a stimulating time and place and his unique talent was to translate street energies into fine art, while creating with each canvas a palimpsest of the great art that had preceded him. With Warhol’s death in 1987, the stock market crash later that year, and Basquiat’s death in 1988, the end of a cultural era was marked.
“The greatest thing is to come up with something so good it seems as if it’s always been there, like a proverb,” wrote Rene Ricard. And this was Basquiat’s gift: as one early admirer of his work said, “it looks like art.” Sadly, Basquiat also had a gift for living a myth –or– letting the myth live him.
Jean-Michel Basquiat: The Radiant Child is co-presented by the KW|AG and plays the Original Princess Cinema in Waterloo for three shows only, Dec. 7 – 9. Regular admission applies. See the synopsis and trailer on our website>