Wednesday, 10 March 2010

Rebel With a Cause

Jean-Michel Basquiat: The Radiant Child (Tamra Davis, 2010)

“This is the renewed rebellion. This is the recharged fight against the establishment of the expected. This is the rebirth of the battle for brave new ideas. This is sundance, reminded.” (Sundance manifesto, Sundance programme 2010)

The spirit of Sundance 2010 shone out of Tamra Davis’ documentary Jean-Michel Basquiat: The Radiant Child. A friend of Basquiat’s in the 80s, Davis had filmed him as his career was reaching its great heights. After his death, she stashed the tapes away, sensitive to the dismay he had expressed when friends sold pieces of his work he had given as gifts. In the last few years she became aware through retrospectives of his work, that there was very little footage of him talking about his own practice and felt it was time to share his point of views and voice.

The documentary opens with the early seeds of Basquiat’s artistic presence in New York that he had begun to plant in the form of graffiti. Fab Five Freddy’s statement, that the objective for doing graffiti is fame, illuminates the energy and dedication that Basquiat channeled into generating intrigue while forging his place in the art world.

The documentary features interviews with Suzanne Mallouk, the long-term girlfriend he lived with as an unknown artist struggling for recognition. She recalls how he once got a job but returned home in tears, unable to cope with the disdainful treatment he received at the hands of his employers; from then on, she agreed that she would work and he could dedicate his time to painting.

Fab 5 Freddy provides an insight into the creative New York party scene, and the shocking racism that was still very much alive at the time, which meant that Basquiat could step out of his own gallery opening and struggle to get a taxi. Ignorance and prejudice emerge with jarring normality in conversation between Basquiat and certain interviewers. His neo-expressionist, or expressive style was often assumed to be a product of his ethnicity, with the word ‘primitive’ often dropped in by interviewers. Basquiat was a native New Yorker from an average American home, whose mother encouraged his creative side, but he left home at the age of 17 to reinvent himself as an artist. As his work attracted more attention, he began to feel as if he had been ethnically categorized into being a representative of black people; that his style, his voice and his content could not be appreciated autonomously or individually.

Basquiat’s astute memory is discussed as it is suggested that through his work he was conversing with art history. The documentary provides fascinating visual support of his remarkable memory and artistic awareness as it slides through a collection of classic pieces alongside works of his own. When asked about influences, Basquiat articulates “influence is somebody’s ideas going through my new mind.” William Burroughs was his favourite living artist, which indicates the appreciation for layering disjointed texts and cultivating experimental imagery. He was aware that his paintings looked ‘sloppy’ or coincidental, but he said not a line was out of place.

Competitive and intensely driven, he had presented a piece of his work to Andy Warhol, and became cherished by the icon himself. This connection broke after Basquiat was labelled Warhol’s ‘lapdog’, but Warhol’s unexpected death left him distraught. Beneath the ambition was a very sensitive young man who was suffocated with the pressure his success threw upon him. Burnt out, the documentary descends into the dark period of his life in which he briefly hovered, addicted to heroin and alienated from his former friends. The film revisits the paintings of his final show, morbid and unsettling, and talks to the people he tried to reconnect with in his final weeks. Through the course of this documentary and the soft eloquence of his words, Basquiat emerges as a fiercely intelligent, vibrant and prolifically creative individual who was passionate about revolutionizing art and making it more inclusive.

“I cross out words so that you will see them more”. (Basquiat)

1 comment:

  1. Good write-up, Soph. They had a Basquiat retrospective in LA a few years ago, one of the more intriguing shows I remember seeing. I always loved the old Julian Schnabel film, as well.