In Search Of Basquiat: Revisiting Jean-Michel Basquiat

After watching the film, The Radiant Child, at the Film Forum, I was moved to purchase the film on DVD when it was released in October.  Directed by Tamra Davis, the documentary was both haunting and moving and upon a second view at home, I decided to revisit the history of Jean-Michel Basquiat.

I knew that The Radiant Child provided a rare close up view of Jean-Michel as it was told mostly from his perspective.  And I figured that it was probably as close to his truth (or the truth that he wanted to share with anyone) as possible.  However, the film was like opening up Pandora's box for me.  I wanted to know more about the artist and the man that he was.  In fact, I feel so close to his story and his life that I have become a bit obsessed with him---in a friendly fan sort of way of course.  I also have this distinct and almost eery feeling that I may have actually seen him around Washington Square Park when I was kid hanging out with my father, though I cannot possibly confirm that.

To learn more about Jean Michel the person, I picked up the biography, Basquiat: A Quick Killing In Art by Phoebe Hoban.  I found a copy at the St. Mark's Bookstore in the East Village and began reading it immediately.  I finished it rather quickly as I literally could not put it down, which says a lot about the subject and writing of this book.  I highly recommend it for anyone who is curious about Basquiat or is a fan of his work.

What I liked most about the book was that the author, Phoebe Hoban, delved into the personal and creative life of Basquiat as well as everyone else who surrounded him.  She addressed the history of the market, his artistic influences and even the cutthroat behavior of the art dealers and collectors who hounded him.  Now, having watched the film and after reading the biography, I feel that I have a clearer vision of Basquiat as a person, not just as an artist.

I'd like to compare and contrast the film, The Radiant Child, with the biography, Basquiat: A Quick Killing In Art, to give a better sense of what I mean.

  1. The biography talks more about his personal and family history, addressing his childhood and living situations before leaving home and moving to the Village. The author talks to his family and childhood friends. She also speaks to his former classmates in high school and even school teachers and administrators. This gave a clearer vision of Basquiat's life prior to becoming the downtown sensation and prolific artist. In contrast, the film speaks more about Basquiat as a person and an artist. It also begins with his life after leaving his home in Brooklyn and living like a hobo in the Village.

  2. The biography discusses his personal, professional and romantic relationships in great detail. The writer seems to have located almost every ex-girlfriend and writes about their history with Jean-Michel. Some of the stories were funny and moving, others were heartbreaking, all of which showed rare glimpses into his personality and his life. The writer also talks to family members and others he was involved with personally or professionally. Their stories were also pretty dramatic, funny and heartbreaking and very revealing. In the film, however, they interviewed only two or three ex-girlfriends, a few close friends and all of his art dealers. (After reading the book and then watching the film again, it was really nice to put the faces to the names.)

  3. The book can be a bit gossipy at times, which is both good and bad. The stories about his relationships with dealers, friends, girlfriends, assistants, drug dealers and club kids, would have made great tabloid fodder. And I suppose that some actually did. There is ample discussion on his sexual prowess and even multiple descriptions of the length and girth of his manhood. His international travel and epic drug use are also discussed greatly. And the writer also points out that toward the end of his life when he was severely addicted to drugs that there were rumors about him being infected with AIDS.

  4. The film, on the other hand, focused more on Basquiat as an artist. It features his artistic techniques and inspiration. I felt like the film showed his true talent and genius, showcasing his artwork and interpreting it for the audience. And while the book discussed his talent, it focused more on the art history of the era, the art market, the art dealers. When it addresses Basquiat's artwork, it tends to focus on his technique of copying his artistic influences and even using cartoons, books and the artwork of children as his inspiration. In a way, this seems to diminish his talent and genius.

  5. The book also details his behavior and lifestyle as out of control from the very beginning. There is a greater emphasis on his drug use, bad attitude, troubles, and contentious relationships with everyone he knew. Whereas, the film focused more on his talent and frustrations of being a black artist of his day. It spoke to his isolation, frustration with racism and being an anomaly ("the black fine artist"). He was burnt out from the demand for his grand scale masterpieces and the harsh art critics who were dismissive and overly critical. From the film, you get the feeling that his partying and drug use were really forms of escape. While the biography seems to think that his excessive drug use and partying was more related to him liking the feeling of being high and his high tolerance for drugs. It kind of discounts his frustrations, isolation, and heartache as causes for his lifestyle.

  6. The film also points out the great amount of work he did for art dealers and galleries in such a short amount of time. However both the book and film point out how Basquiat was used, abused and taken advantage of. This led to his paranoia and distrust of people later in life--and with great reason.

  7. I felt that the biography spoke more to the tragedy of his life, while the film spoke more to his spirit as a human being and artist. The film also explained the downward spiral of his last years on Earth and the break up with Andy Warhol. It explains that the critics had deemed him "washed up" after the exhibition with Warhol was seen as a failure, and this led Jean-Michel to be more emotional, depressed and co-dependent on drugs. This led to the vicious cycle of drug use, guilt, loneliness and depression as Basquiat struggled to save his life and career. Although he made several attempts to clean up, and even had a triumphant return with his final exhibition, Basquiat succumbed to an overdose in the summer of 1988.

In the end, I recommend that fans and those seeking information on Basquiat's life and career, read the biography Basquiat: A Quick Killing In Art and watch the documentary The Radiant Child for a clearer picture of Jean-Michel Basquiat.  I know that as a fan of his work and the artist himself, I found that both mediums served this purpose for me.

Just for fun, I decided to visit Basquiat's old loft building on Great Jones Street in NoHo.  No longer the hip red brick building where the artist lived and died, it is now a restaurant and butcher shop.  The street, wide and a mix of industrial and commercial buildings, now features plumbing and heating company, fire station, and three parking lots as well as a bar, art gallery and fashion boutique.  It probably doesn't have the same downtown feel of the 1980’s scene we all love and have nostalgia for.  I took pictures of Great Jones Street building, which had been owned until recently by the Andy Warhol estate, just for kicks.  I didn't see any ghosts of Jean-Michel Basquiat.  It's too bad.  I have so many questions for him.