04 October 2011

Movie Review: Radiant Child--A Basquiat Case

As a devotee of Salvador Dalí (1904-1989), I should be inclined to appreciate the oeuvre of Jean-Michel Basquiat (1960-1988).   Both the Catalan Surrealist and the Brooklyn-born Neo-Expressionist artist shared many qualities.

After all, both artists were middle class  child prodigies yet they were also enfants terribles who notoriously rebelled against authority who longed for paternal approval.  Dalí and Basquiat both were possessed at creating, drawing on anything amassing huge catalogues of work.  Dalí was famous even in the latter stage of his career of doodling on restaurant table linens.  One of Basquiat’s girlfriends observed that he would draw on anything from refrigerators to laboratory coats along with doors and cardboard boxes.  Dalí championed the épater le bourgeois surreal style while Basquiat was recognized through graffiti art.  Both artists initially gained notoriety by mocking religions

There were other “synchronicitous” parallels between portraits of the artist.  Dalí and Basquiat both incorporated synthesized influences of other creators. Both Dalí’s and Basquiat’s styles were influenced by childhood traumas which they continually expressed in their art.  Both artists used various media to visually create and they shared interests in multi-media.  And  Dalí and Basquiat were celebrity artist who both relished fame.

Dali- Disintegration of the Persistence of Memory 1954
Basquiat- Mona Lisa 1983
Basquiat mixed graffiti art with the abstract expressionism that was in vogue in New York during the 1980s.  While abstract expressionism may claim some influence from the surrealists, its anti-figurative aesthetic and tendency towards nihilism does not speak to my soul. Whereas Dalí evolved from the surrealist manifesto to a method which juxtaposed subconscious dream imagery in uncommon settings which were depicted realistically but which often pointed towards greater themes. Dalí's artwork resonates better with me, with haunting imagery like the melted watch.

My cursory impression of Basquiat was a young artist from Haitian and Puerto Rican origins who had risen from the streets in a blaze of glory with colorful and busy but primally drawn pieces. Basquiat took the New York art world by storm in the early 1980, but he died at an early age.

So the showing of “Jean-Michel Basquiat: Radiant Child” (2010) at the National Gallery of Art was initially more interesting to me because Tamra Davis’ documentary examined the SoHo art scene from the late 1970s to the early 1980s.   The downtown New York art scene was the breeding ground for new wave artists in America.  Basquiat sold his first painting (“Red Man”) to Deborah Harry of Blondie for $200.  At one time, Baquiat was involved with the singer Madonna. Basquiat collaborated with Andy Warhol and also worked briefly with David Bowie (who played Warhol in the film the 1996 film Basquiat).

The film opened starkly by showing the Langston Hughes poem: “Genius Child”

This is a song for the genius child.
Sing it softly, for the song is wild.
Sing it softly as ever you can -
Lest the song get out of hand.

Nobody loves a genius child.

Can you love an eagle,
Tame or wild?
Can you love an eagle,
Wild or tame?
Can you love a monster
Of frightening name?

Nobody loves a genius child.

Kill him - and let his soul run wild. 

Davis filmed her interview in 1985 as a young film making friend of Basquiat but let the footage collect dust in a drawer for 20 years.  When Davis put together The Radiant Child, she clearly sought to cast Basquiat as a tragic child genius, who would suffer from living up to hype of his precociousness.  The opening also offers the observation “Jean Michel Basquiat first became famous for his art.  Then he became famous for being famous. And then he became famous for being infamous.”  This homage was scored by a bebop number from Dizzy Gillespie which had the virtue of mirroring music which influenced Basquiat while also giving a hip, counter-culture spirit to the film.  Visually, Davis used the title sequence to show a phantasmagoric feast of Basquiat’s pieces  along with candid vignette shots of the artist at work.

The first part of film conveyed the Zeitgeist of the Bowery Bohemia well.  But after showing the set up for the Basquiat 1985 interview, the focus shifts to reminiscing about New York in the late 70s, when the Big Apple was unpolished and seedy.  Davis documented how young, aspiring and impecunious artists flocked to lower Manhattan. TriBeCa, SoHo and Greenwich village were parts of town where artsy vagabonds could survive on little to nothing and roam the streets for days on end.  Interviewees opined that everyone in the Downtown 500 seemed to know each other as they took over the streets after dark and posed at hip but not posh nightclubs.

In this counter-cultural incubator, a mysterious entity  know as SAMO captivated popular attention with his graffiti.  Instead of settling for stylized tagging of his name, SAMO (Same Old Sh*t) shared witty philosophical poems.  They became so popular that local newspapers reported the musings like “SAMO saves idiots, Plush safe he think; SAMO”.  As it turns out, SAMO was the joint work of Basquiat and a high school chum. But after the Village Voice praised SAMO as “ the logo of the most ambitious and sententious of the new wave of Magic Marker Jeremiahs”, the collaboration ended as Basquiat sought to brand himself and his art.

Davis’ interview with the artist had Basquiat admit that at the time, he was a starving artist who would walk the street for days and survive on cheese puffs because they were cheap.  To make money, Basquiat began to sell hand made post cards, which he audaciously offered to sell to his hero Andy Warhol during a chance meeting in 1978.

Basquiat was incapable of keeping a regular job because he thought that rich people treated him like a slave, so he lived with his girlfriend and created on while she paid the bills. Many of Basquiat’s early canvasses were ordinary objects on the streets of lower Manhattan. But Basquiat continued to be a prominent player on the downtown nightclub scene, where he was eventually discovered and convinced to paint on canvasses.

Radiant Child points out how Basquiat became the toast of the new wave art scene in New York, but he could not win acceptance from established mid-town art critics, who still relished minimalist and conceptual art (e.g. a monochromatic blank canvas). He also thought that the establishment did not welcome his work at the Guggenheim or the Whitney because he was a talented young black man.  Basquiat thought some of the critiques had racist elements. Basquiat showed his contempt for such perceived upper east side elitism with his painting Obnoxious Liberals

Although Basquiat incorporated some Haitian sensibilities and African art elements in his artist technique and he did extol the virtues of famous blacks in some of his works, it is unfair to relegate Basquiat as a black artist.  That being said, Basquiat’s fame and resulting mythology along with some of his criticism has some basis in race.

Basquiat "Obnoxious Liberals" 1982
Basquiat benefitted from his image as a radiant child from a minority background, which opened some doors for some new wave showings.  Organizers of the Times Square Show and the New York New Wave exhibition were anxious to welcome iconoclastic artists, particularly from minority artists.  Or as the As Diego Cortez put it: “I was tired of seeing white walls with white people with white wine” or as Basquiat would put it “pseudo art bullshit”.   Once Basquiat’s work was exhibited, his genius outshone any equal opportunity haziness.

Basquiat would toy with people about race to get a reaction.  Davis’ document shows a middle brow TV reporter asking Basquiat about his primal expressionist style.  Basquiat riffs off of that and retorts “Like an ape? A primate?”  During the Q&A, Davis admitted that Basquiat liked pushing on racial issues to see how someone would react and eventually show themselves to be racist.  His self promotion had elements of provocative performance art.

Even though the groundbreaking 1985 New York Times Magazine article  “New Art, New Money: The Marketing of the American Artist” which eagerly featured Basquiat to break ground on minorities in the fine arts, the art establishment at the time did not appreciate Basquiat’s eclectic artistic synthesizations or his infusion of words in visual art. Yet Basquiat complained that: “They have this image of me as a wild monkey man” in an Armani suit but barefoot.

Many questions from the audience revealed that Basquiat fans considered him a role model for talented young black artists. Ironically, Basquiat’s drive for fame had him seeking the approval of the white establishment as well as the new wave.  He chose to work with Andy Warhol in 1985 to work with an artist who he idolized as well as to garner gravitas with the established artist.  At the time, art critics excoriated Warhol for attaching his fortune to the rising star Basquiat as Warhol’s 15 minutes of fame were flagging.  The failure of this joint exhibition alienated Basquiat from Warhol for a year and a half until Warhol unexpectedly died in 1986.

The documentary proposes that the failure of the exhibition stifled Basquiat’s creativity. Moreover, The Radiant Child attributes the grief from not having reconciled with his one-time idol as hitting Basquiat hard.  That guilt along with the failure to win paternal approval due to his growing substance abuse and accelerated his downward drug induced demise in 1987.

The Radiant Child contains a treasure trove of insight on the artist coming from primary sources.  Director Davis dusted off her friendly interview with Basquiat in 1985 and supplemented it with interviews from Basquiat’s girlfriends, childhood friends, early collectors and art impresarios.  Unfortunately, many of these key interviews are marred with echoey audio.  I can appreciate that a film student doing guerilla film-making might lack the polish and the resources to capture good audio.  But many of the interviews were conducted nearly two decades later.  Tamra Davis is an accomplished director, having done Billy Madison amongst other films. This may have been an artsy labor of love, but the echos and the ambient sound take away from the subject matter and makes it more difficult to follow.

The retrospective interviews that Davis had with Suzanne Mallouck were marred by echo filled audio.  This was truly unfortunate since Mallouck was the girlfriend who took Basquiat off the streets and saw him go from SAMO street savant to celebrated new wave artist.  In addition, Mallouck is a psychiatrist so show offered invaluable insight on Basquiat’s id, ego and superego from first hand experience living with him, but viewers had to strain to hear her recollections. This was not an isolated example, as the same sound scheme was found in interviews with his friends, early art collectors and sympathetic art critics.

Overall, Jean-Michel Basquiat: Radiant Child helped focus art lovers on the virtues of Basquiat’s artistic insight as opposed to his persona.  It is gobsmacking how prolific Basquiat had been. In seven years, Basquiat produced 1,000 paintings and 1,000 drawings. It was useful to be reminded how Banky’s current impact on art and the body politic can convert high energy from the street into  fine art like Basquiat.  Recognizing how Basquiat synthesized many influences and subjects into his artwork was appealing. In addition, Basquiat’s insight about how the eye is drawn to what his crossed out or obscured gives insight on his artwork and the human tendency to be drawn to what is forbidden.
Basquiat "Dos Cabezas" (1982)

Yet Basquiat was also intertwined with persona, from his discovery as a mod dancer at the Mudd Club to adding color to the white wall/white people/white cocktail art community and also as an inspiration to talented young blacks. It would have been interesting to further explore how Basquiat’s predilection as a provocateur was integral to his success.  In addition, Basquiat sought fame and wider recognition. The documentary should have explored the interplay how both Basquiat and Warhol were using each other to augment and extend their fifteen minutes of fame.

Davis was great in covering the downtown New York art scene of the 1980s but was a little thin on how Basquiat also drew some hip hop influences from the uptown art scene at the time. And the briefness of documentary failed to mention some of Basquiat’s teenage antics (plastering a principal with a box of shaving cream at his friend’s graduation) to show his problems with authority and raging against the machine.

If you have the chance to see Jean-Michel Basquiat: Radiant Child, do so and expand your appreciation of the artist and the New York downtown art movement of the late 1970s.  But unfortunately Basquiat’s works are scattered around the world.

If one wants to get insight on a temperamental artistic genius, check out the Salvador Dalí Museum in St. Petersburg Florida in its beautiful new building. The Morse collection at the Dalí owns nearly 10% of the surrealist extra-ordinaire's oeuvre.

The New Salvador Dali Museum, St. Petersburg, FL

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