Friday, July 23, 2010

"Royalty, Heroism, and the Streets": The Ongoing Saga of Jean-Michel Basquiat (1960-1988)

Jean-Michel Basquiat in his studio, 1985. Photograph © Lizzie Himmel

 James Van Der Zee, Jean-Michel Basquiat, 1982

Henry Geldzahler: What is the subject matter of your work?

Jean-Michel Basquiat: Royalty, Heroism, and the streets

--From 1982 interview--Age 22


I see the voracious media and "art" vultures are still trying to pick at and greedily gnaw on the elusive bones of Basquiat's magic carcass (I started to say CANVAS). Venal carnivorous beasts must EAT I suppose. So it's a good thing that JMB "himselves" is long gone from this rotten vale of tears and like his mighty paintings has split to a zone where he can no longer be confiscated and consumed. In other words: See this movie and watch his laughing ghosts jump off and escape the screen no matter how much his "image" is seemingly contained/tamed by the eternal vagaries of memory, envy, and commodification. After all like Bird, Pres, LadyDay, Marvin G. and Hendrix even Jean's demons were finally defeated by his majestic WORKS in the end... Or as Marlene Dietrich put it at the end of Orson's last major Hollyweird film "Touch of Evil" (1958) before the "blacklist" took him down: "He was some kind of man. What does it matter what you say about people?" Continue to RIP anyway Brother B...


(NOTE: See my own "review" of an earlier Basquiat graverobber (from 1999!) in the essay directly following the film review below)...


Jean-Michel Basquiat: The Radiant Child (2010) NYT Critics' Pick

This movie has been designated a Critic's Pick by the film reviewers of The New York Times.
Lee Jaffe/Arthouse Films
The subject of “Jean-Michel Basquiat: The Radiant Child.”

A Friend, an Artist and a Personal Interview

July 20, 2010
New York Times

“Nobody loves a genius child.” Those are words from Langston Hughes’s poem “Genius Child,” used as the hyperbolic epigraph in Tamra Davis’s worshipful documentary portrait, “Jean-Michel Basquiat: The Radiant Child.”

But after watching this homage to an artistic wunderkind, constructed around a rare question-and-answer interview with Basquiat that Ms. Davis filmed in 1985 (their mutual friend Becky Johnson asked the questions), then put in a drawer, you might revise Hughes’s declaration to read, “Nobody knows the genius child, least of all himself.” Some might even question the use of the word “genius.”

Basquiat, at the height of his fame in the 1980s, was undoubtedly loved in the way that charismatic celebrities are loved and envied. One of his admirers was Andy Warhol, who, if not in love with Basquiat, certainly desired him, and was his champion at a crucial moment in Basquiat’s ascendance. But when the two collaborated on canvases, the critic Vivien Raynor, writing in The New York Times in 1985, expressed skepticism about this superstar match:

“Last year, I wrote of Jean-Michel Basquiat that he had a chance of becoming a very good painter, providing he didn’t succumb to the forces that would make him an art world mascot. This year, it appears that those forces have prevailed.”

The film’s romantic depiction of Basquiat is an old story. An artistically driven, voraciously ambitious, devastatingly charming wild child, he was devoured by the fame he craved and died of a drug overdose in 1988 at 27. The movie does not go into the gory details of his dissipation and addiction. Although sophisticated in its blasé acceptance of art-world wheeling and dealing and the temptations that accompany sudden fame and wealth, it is also tenderly protective of its subject.

Basquiat comes across in the interview as elusive and seductive in much the same way that the early Bob Dylan did, but without the defense of language. His verbal talent found its expression in his Neo-Expressionist graffiti art, with its scrawled cryptograms and crossed-out words. Such deletions, he said, made their meanings all the more tempting to decode.

“The Radiant Child” begins by directly connecting Basquiat’s art to New York City’s blight in the 1970s, then widens its perspective to portray Basquiat as someone whose acute attunement to art history and popular culture found its way onto his savagely energetic canvases. He imprinted himself on the landscape with his graffiti, executed under the name SAMO; as an underground star, he became a regular guest on “TV Party,” a public-access show hosted by his friend Glenn O’Brien, one of the film’s more articulate talking heads.

Other commentators include the artist’s friend Julian Schnabel, who directed the 1996 biographical film “Basquiat” (starring Jeffrey Wright as Basquiat, and David Bowie as Warhol), and the rapper, hip-hop historian and graffitist Fab 5 Freddy. The closest we get to Basquiat is in the recollections of the gallery owner Annina Nosei, in whose basement he painted, and Suzanne Mallouk, a girlfriend who took him in when he was still poor.

Some of the interview’s most fascinating moments are Basquiat’s memories of his hand-to-mouth existence after running away from home as a teenager. Born to parents who were of Haitian (his father) and Puerto Rican (his mother) descent, he rebelled against a middle-class background for reasons that remain unclear. A seemingly embattled relationship with his father, an accountant, is referred to but not explored. The film takes the heady view that his flight from home was the necessary odyssey of an unstoppable Rimbaud-like visionary.

This is not to say that “The Radiant Child” isn’t a valuable film. It places Basquiat’s art in a cultural context with an enthusiasm and zest that make the many pictures shown come blazingly alive. His bitter contemplations of black history, in particular, have an epic, historical dimension, while also reflecting his own insecurity about being treated as an exotic, token black star in a predominantly white art world. One tantalizing anecdote tells of his disgust at a patron who asked him to color-coordinate a painting to her living room.

Basquiat was an ardent fan of bebop, and the frenetically edited scenes of his paintings with jazz accompaniment evoke an artist who worked quickly and needed intense music for creative stimulation. Once Basquiat became rich, his loft became party central; wads of cash were casually stuffed in the furniture.

If “The Radiant Child” embellishes the legend in a hundred small ways, its cleverest maneuver is to keep its subject at enough of a remove to enhance his mystique. It should help push the prices of his work higher.

Jean-Michel Basquiat: The Radiant Child

Opens on Wednesday in Manhattan.

Written and directed by Tamra Davis; di- rectors of photography, Ms. Davis, David Koh and Harry Geller; edited by Alexis Manya Spraic; music by J. Ralph, Adam Horovitz and Mike Diamond; produced by Ms. Davis, Mr. Koh, Lilly Bright, Stan- ley Buchthal and Ms. Spraic; released by Arthouse Films. At Film Forum, 209 West Houston Street, west of Avenue of the Americas, South Village. Running time: 1 hour 30 minutes. This film is not rated.

A version of this review appeared in print on July 21, 2010,

Book Review

Basquiat: A Quick Killing in Art
by Phoebe Hoban
Viking, 1999

How to Lynch a (Black) Painter
by Kofi Natambu

It never fails. Become a well-known or respected pioneering African American male artist and watch the deluge of racist fear, envy, spite, condescension, and hostility rain down upon you. Become everyone’s favorite or most feared pinup/mascot/strawman. Have everyone else’s unexamined and reductive banalities and stereotypes dumped on your nappy head: wild child, primitive, paranoid, naif, stud, freak. When no one can figure you out or you ‘appear’ to be much-too-complex- to-be-true watch the frustrated and envious ones accuse you of being inexplicably both “white” (as in witty, urbane, sophisticated, perceptive, intelligent and “modern/postmodern”) and “black” (as in cunning, childlike, violent, paranoid, gauche, sullen and dumb) at the same time. Then be told that these “racial” differences are the result of (gasp) CULTURE. Watch in astonishment and horror as you and your work are reduced to an unknowing and unknowable essence/cipher while your ‘intriguing’ and charismatic, yet transparent, ‘personality’ is deciphered “Rorschach style” by any silly dilettante who comes along and deigns to project onto you their own inane “dollar book Freudianisms” (as the legendary Orson Welles once deemed such behavior in another context).

No brothers and sisters you can’t win and what’s worse no one wants you to try. Persist and excel anyway and watch your legacy and great achievements patronized, ignored, neglected, and derided by nearly all the so-called experts (more judgmental white people of course). Yes, it’s true. This is the real cost of “greatness” if you happen to be an African American male innovator and it ain’t got nothing to do with whether you agree or believe it or not. It’s called history.

Now that I’ve gotten all that off my chest it should be obvious that I did not enjoy reading a new outlandish travesty of a biography about the late black painter Jean-Michel Basquiat, who died of a drug overdose in August, 1988 at the age of 27. This book entitled Basquiat: A Quick Killing in Art by a former New York Times journalist named Phoebe Hoban should actually be called Nigger Artist: A Quick Killing in Biography, crammed as it is with relentlessly racist gossip, analytical shallowness and predictably tabloid stained sensationalism. In fact, Hoban is so far out of her depth here that it almost makes one wonder why this manuscript even saw the light of day. Unfortunately part of the cost of becoming a pioneering African American male figure in the United States is to be endlessly slandered and held up to public ridicule if not violent attack. In this book we find that Basquiat is no exception.

After all what does one say about a biographer of an innovative black artist who knows next to nothing about modern painting, cultural history, aesthetic theory or the byzantine politics and endlessly cruel absurdities of being “black in America”? How does one take seriously a biography in which three times as much space is allotted to that artist’s sexual affairs and activity as it is to that individual’s aesthetic production? Or where nearly one fourth of the entire book is spent talking about the artist’s various drug deals, addictions and escapades? How about a book where whole chapters are devoted to various girlfriends of the artist? Well you get the picture...

What’s even stranger is that Hoban seems to know a great deal more about both the public and clandestine machinations of international art dealers, collectors, Wall Street and Soho-based economic investors, patrons and jetset groupies/hustlers during the 1980s. Frankly if she had pursued this angle of investigation as the major theme of her book she could have spared us the cynical, exploitive, and manipulative airing of Basquiat’s dirty laundry, and thus left the still necessary task of doing a serious and critical examination of what made Basquiat such an important painter and cultural figure to a real art critic/cultural historian/biographer. As it is, Hoban (despite her transparent attempts at being simultaneously condescending and hyperbolic in her ‘assessment’ of Basquiat’s oeuvre) winds up doing a disservice to both her general and individual areas of interest by focusing on the superfluous and melodramatic aspects of Basquiat’s public fame and subsequent demise. In so doing Hoban is able to skirt any personal or intellectual responsibility for her ‘Vanity Fair meets the National Enquirer’ prose style by pretending that ‘the life’ (however buried and distorted by the routinely tawdry and gossipy testimony of Basquiat’s “friends”, enemies, and competitors in the art world) is ‘more important’ than the art. In this way Hoban doesn’t have to explore the complex narrative of a very talented and conflicted man who was forced to deal with fierce inner and outer demons in his everyday existence, yet still found enough energy, discipline, intelligence, love, courage and dedication to leave a profound legacy of hundreds of extraordinary paintings. Needless to say a great book could have been written about the real Basquiat contending with the neurotically competitive New York artworld in all of its frenzy, decadence, greed, jealousy, racism and fear. But then Hoban would have had to deal with the fact that, despite whatever personal problems Basquiat had, he was a serious artist who worked for, and deserved, respect for his work. But that would have required Hoban to acknowledge Basquiat’s humanity. Clearly that acknowledgement is a tricky thing for many white journalists and critics when the subject is an African American male who absolutely refuses to kowtow to anyone’s either ‘liberal’ or ‘reactionary’ expectations of him.

However one day someone will be both perceptive and knowledgeable enough to do justice to who Basquiat was and wasn’t in terms of the historical and creative universe of Western art. Unfortunately that day is still not here a decade after his death. But if Basquiat can wait (something he found impossible to do while still alive) we all can. In the meantime we still have his paintings rather than this execrable book to remind us all why he was so worthy of a biography in the first place. Jean-Michel would have appreciated and celebrated the difference.


Oakland, California

May, 2000


Like God
some people are put here
to change EVERYTHING
& disappear
leaving us with our
silly gossip & halfwritten
holybooks staring into the endless blue chasm of
our own desire wondering why
you could laugh & cry at the same damn time
all the Time
painting thousands of horizons that others never see
while you wave at us from the bright red edge of
the canvas we call life &
you deem just another stroke of yr wandering brush
with death's hohum

That crown you wear is so stunning
that T Monk wrote
a song about it
A sound painting called
"Ugly Beauty" a wonderful dimension you
could always appreciate even in the midst of
all those words & images you painted
on EVERYTHING you saw touched smelled heard &

It's true: Art is just another pretty blacknigger from Brooklyn afterall
Like Ishmael said: "Genius is Common"

by Kofi Natambu
(c) 2008 BIOGRAPHY
Jean-Michel Basquiat: A Biography
The book Jean-Michel Basquiat: A Biography, by Eric Fretz, was published by Greenwood Press in March, 2010.
Jean-Michel Basquiat was barely out of his teens when he rocketed to the center of New York's art scene. He was 27 when he died of a heroin overdose. Always controversial, Basquiat is now established as a major contemporary painter whose unique work continues to enthrall.
Jean-Michel Basquiat: A Biography covers the artist's Brooklyn childhood, his teenage years as a homeless graffiti painter, and his rise through the art world. Along with discussion of his life and work, including his use of Afrocentric themes, the book offers background on related contemporary art movements. The text gives a vivid flavor of the various milieus that Basquiat passed through in his life. Special attention is given to Basquiat's friendship with Keith Haring and collaborations with Andy Warhol. The book also explores Basquiat's difficult relations with gallery owners and other authority figures, his problems with drug use, and his early death. A final chapter covers his continuing relevance and ongoing influence.
The book also contains a chronology of his life, a selected bibliography, list of works cited, index, and photographs showing Basquiat at various times in his career, including shots in his studio surrounded by his work.
The distinguished Greenwood Biography series was developed specifically for student use. Prepared by field experts and professionals, these engaging biographies are tailored for high school students who need challenging yet accessible biographies. Although the emphasis is on fact, not glorification, the books are meant to be fun to read.
Jean-Michel Basquiat: A Biography is supported by this website, which gives links to where the works discussed in the book can be viewed in full color, and suggested lesson plans for using the book in schools.
192 pages. Hardcover, library binding, 6 1/8 x 9 1/4, $35.00. Available from Greenwood Press, Barnes and Noble, Amazon US, and Amazon UK. Librarians: download Book Flyer.
The book will also be available on the Web as an eBook, see for details.