I Just Was
“I usually put a lot down, then I take a lot away, then I put some more down and I take some more away, so it’s like a constant editing process, usually.” As he describes his painting process for an interviewer in 1983, Jean-Michel Basquiat shifts in his chair. He doesn’t look ill at ease, exactly, maybe vaguely impatient. The answer suggests that he’s been asked this question before, and that his simplified response serves a purpose, namely, a celebrity’s usual self-promotion.
A few minutes later, the documentary Jean-Michel Basquiat: The Radiant Child offers a little more of this same interview. This time, Marc H. Miller wonders about a rumor he’s heard, that when he was younger, the artist was locked in a basement in order to paint. Now Basquiat is less accommodating. “I was never locked anywhere,” he says. “If I was white, they’d just say I was an artist in residence.”
With these two moments, Tamra Davis’ film, a loving and respectful meditation on its subject, lays out its limits, the stories it can repeat and the truths it can only guess at. Some of these stories are well known: he was a genius child, ahead of his time, and also “too fragile for this world,” as Madonna described him. He loved women or misread them. He challenged or was foiled by the art world’s corrosive elitism, he was intuitive and authentic, or he was acclaimed too fast and too easily. In all versions he died too young, at 27, of a heroin overdose, alone, undone by his father’s disapproval or by Andy Warhol’s death, or maybe by his endless frustrations with racism.
The other stories, less familiar but increasingly visible in his work and life, have to do with his blackness. The gallery scene and fine art industry, the judgments by curators and collectors, during the 1980s was overwhelmingly white, even more than today. And even when he was embraced, he was different and observed, unknown and desired. If he used his status as “outsider,” he was self-aware, too, a kid who grew up in New York and made art based on his experience.
Davis conducted her own interview with Basquiat, a longtime friend, in 1986, and has only now brought out the film, 22 years after he died of a heroin overdose. The interview itself is relaxed, a series of questions and answers that suggests both his frankness and perspicacity, his attention to the behaviors and expectations of those who admired, advocated, and exploited him. While Davis films, their mutual friend Becky Johnston asks Basquiat, about responses to his work. He smiles a little and shakes his head, noting that most reviews of his work were “about my ‘personality.’” Johnston repeats the word from offscreen, as he explains: “They’re just racist, most of these people. They have this image of me, wild man, wild monkey man…”
This is one of the very few instances in the film where Basquiat himself alludes to his career, specifically, the challenges of being a black figure in an overwhelmingly white context. For the most part, the film relies on interviews with observers and friends to tell Basquiat’s story, efforts to interpret the speed and tumult of his professional life. Those subjects who knew him personally, say, his girlfriend Suzanne Mallouk or his friend and fellow celeb Fab 5 Freddy, describe the early days of that trajectory, then wonder what happened near its terrible end.
Much of the story is told here by interviewees who didn’t know Basquiat well, but appreciated his art or knew the “scenes” around him. (This perspective is both like and unlike that of Julian Schnabel’s 1996 portrait, starring Jeffrey Wright, which Schnabel says here he made because “I wanted to tell him how I felt.”) MOMA curator Ann Temkin, for example, suggests Basquiat’s tragedy comports with the typical “romance about the artist whose life is so intense that it’s more than he can bear.” It’s a familiar and so, sadly comforting story about a damaged individual, but it omits specific and systemic reasons for that “intensity.”
That’s not to say the film omits systemic critiques. Fab 5 Freddy, for instance, provides an initial context for Basquiat’s breakout work, the 1978 tagging with Al Diaz under the name SAMO© (the long-A pronunciation referring to the “same old shit” endured by communities of color). “The whole objective in doing graffiti is fame,” Fab 5 Freddy explains, “To take control of that space and people are going to know me.” It helps that Fab 5 Freddy more or less embodies the association of graffiti with hiphop, so that the rest of that context can be visible if unspoken, that “taking control” of space is a particular political act for impoverished and oppressed communities.
Mallouk provides details of Basquiat’s own poverty at this point: he had left his middle-class home in Brooklyn and was living on the street, without even enough money to buy a drink at the bar where she worked. When he moved into her apartment, she says, his early efforts to find a job were hampered by the indignities he suffered. “We agreed,” she says, “that I would work and he would paint.” In pursuit of both fame and “control,” Basquiat produced an astounding body of work in a very short time (as the film notes in a postscript, he left behind at least 1,000 paintings and another 1,000 drawings), gaining the attention of gallery owner Annina Nosei, artist Diego Cortez, and critic Rene Ricard, whose 1981 essay in Art Forum helped to send the “radiant child” on his very public way.
“To Whites,” Ricard wrote, “every Black holds a potential knife behind the back, and to every Black the White is concealing a whip.” He saw in art a chance to “overcome” such racism, even as the stories enfolding Basquiat sustained such a fearsome “dialogue.” And so, even as Basquiat was compared to other, white artists (Picasso, de Kooning, Pollack, et. al.), he was also set apart and fictionalized, designated a “primitive” who came up from “the street.” Most of the documentary’s white collectors, curators, and gallery owners in the documentary don’t speak directly to these questions (though Hilton Kramer’s withering comment regarding the artist’s “miniscule” contribution to “art” plainly indicts Kramer and the establishment he represents).
Such questions, unaddressed, affected Basquiat, asserts Nelson George. “What the art world did to him reminds me of what happens at various points of black history to black artists,” he says.
You become a representation for white people of all black people because you’re the only black person they know. The guy obviously spent a lot of time thinking and angry about what his place in the world was and the place of black people and black men in the world. It’s all in all his work, over and over again.
Indeed, Basquiat’s work is insistently revelatory and thoughtful, defiant and deconstructive. The film includes an impressive number of pieces, most glimpsed too briefly and under a blues soundtrack, as well as footage of the artist at work (much of it filmed by Davis, who met Basquiat in 1983, when she was a film student in LA). Viewed here or elsewhere, paintings like “Self-portrait” (1982), “Untitled (Boxer)” (1982), “Trumpet” (1984), and “Oreo” (1988) indicate the many and innovative ways Basquiat made his concerns and insights visible.
The film types out one of Basquiat’s most famous self-observations, that “I cross out words so you will see them more: the fact that they are obscured makes you want to read them.” Just so, The Radiant Child makes you see again and again—in Basquiat’s own words, works, and self-presentations—that your own reading is crucial to the art’s effects.