The irony of Basquiat’s decisively short and explosive career is almost as thick as the dense noise he garnered in the band Gray, his first public outing as a ragtag, bohemian, barely still teenage New York wunderkind. I can walk five-minutes to the Menil Museum, a premier artworld destination dedicated to Surrealism and ancient African remnants, and spend elongated moments viewing his work, which seems to freeze-frame spasms of painterly intelligence, but I also am disappointed that not a single community college student I have taught in 15 years can name him. When prodded to identify a black poet, a few can muster up Langston Hughes, whose poem “The Radiant Child” profoundly frames the opening and closing sequences of the film. Also related to the baby motif used in the street art of Keith Haring, that metaphor was used in Rene Ricard’s profile of Basquiat in a winter 1981 Artforum article that helped pave the way for Basquiat’s hard-sought fame. Eerily, the same piece presciently warned of trouble en route, as well.
In this sometimes stupefying America where grown men memorize statistics about other grown men who play with balls under blaring stadium lights for millions of dollars, few men at all, black or white, know Basquiat’s work. For the masses of men who live in not-so-quiet desperation, Basquiat’s fame was as ephemeral as his graffiti. His SAMO tags were seemingly omnipresent in New York at the end of the creepy “Me Generation”. They even become the focus of a Village Voice article in 1978. Ricard likens such scripts to “the inherent pathos of the archeological site, the cry down the endless track of time that ‘I am somebody.’” They were a self-witnessing mode, as well: I am Basquiat, with the panoptic eye. They also posed as a kind of modern poetry-meets-DIY media outlet, an intrusion into the public sphere, where Basquiat could hide in the light, as cultural studies theorist Dick Hebdige once dubbed the ethos of aerosol street art.
Ricard describes this graffiti era aptly as “dyslexic development” by a second generation who were “capitalizing on territory pioneered by lost innovators” who did not get the blue-chip attention that quickly swarmed Basquiat. Indeed, Ricard forewarns, “We are no longer collecting art we are buying individuals.” Touché. When Basquiat later melded his work with Andy Warhol (who once bought small homemade art cards from pushy Basquiat at a restaurant), the radiant child was suddenly imagined as a deluded, willing accomplice to a hack. The godfather of pop might have been titular in Basquiat’s eyes, but the art world saw Warhol as a convenient straw dog – an easy target. Whereas as Basquiat’s paintings were voraciously scooped up during his first one-man shows, the film breathlessly notes, his show with Warhol was a disaster, financially and personally. He never saw Warhol again, and he was seemingly all the worse for it. He descended into his own private hell.
The film offers some rare footage—left in a drawer, unseen and untouched for 20 years – shot by the amiable director Tamra Davis, who befriended Basquiat in California. In these offhand and loose Betacam style moments, he feels less self-conscious, hesitant, aloof, coy, and elliptical, especially in contrast to the news and interview archives that capture terribly awkward reporters fumbling through questions that shed more light on their own ambivalence towards black artists, who always somehow become mouthpieces for primitivism, than offer insight into the tactics, intuition, work ethics, and overall cosmos of Basquiat.
Davis builds up a pixilated portrait of Basquiat from several angles: haughty collectors harbor visions of him as strong as their appetites; so-called dear friends recall how they turned paintings given to them by Basquiat as gifts into cash lumps when the going got rough; fellow mavericks like Thurston Moore (Sonic Youth) and painter turned film director Julian Schnabel offer close-to-the-ground insight about the lower Manhattan nexus, where noise bands, outsider art agitators, and frenzied intellectualism percolated. Hence, Davis draws viewers closer to the context of his paintings. Viewers sense not only the speed of his execution and delivery (sometimes he produced work in mere hours that looks as layered and nuanced as a finessed Cy Twombly painting), they engage the range of his interests, too.
Basquiat tirelessly churned out 1,000 paintings, and another 1,000 drawings, often with two TVs blaring, cash dropped like candy-wrappers around the apartment, and non-stop visitors worming their way through his life. Like Hughes, Basquiat was no simpleton, either. His work focused firmly on social and ethnic justice, the reclamation of a proud and distinct African culture, and cohering the scattered bitmaps of tumultuous pop culture. He offered homages to finely etched anatomical drawings, soul-stirring be-bop, and apex art of all periods, like Picasso, whose Guernica made an indelible impression on him at a tender age. His work was a resplendent product of diligence, almost bar none. His ambition alone could fill trucks, and yes, he did covet fame, from magazine centerpieces to catwalk exposure to Madonna’s kisses, but he also coveted time. Time to work, work, work.
People continue to ply the life and times of Basquiat because he has become mythic. Professor Daniel Wojcik once penned a wonderfully canny and lucid overview titled “Pre’s Rock: Pilgrimage, Ritual, and Runners’ Traditions at the Roadside Shrine for Steve Prefontaine,” (Shrines and Pilgrimage in Contemporary Society: New Itineraries into the Sacred, 2008), which re-imagines the mustached icon of Nike as an outsider runner-cum-folk hero. Basquiat is equally parts folk hero, as well. Don’t doubt me here. In fact, run with me.
Both Prefontaine and Basquiat were wily, tough, and ambitious. Prefontaine was a gawky runner who endured and pushed through pain. Basquiat was by no means a learned painter, he was a self-styled autodidactic, equally tempered, who pushed through boundaries and conventions, enduring his own pain. Both were the sons of immigrants. Prefontaine’s mother was a German war bride, Basquiat’s Haitian father’s love eluded him even as his son became one of the saviors of the art world. Each man engendered energetic fans that still flock to their heroes, drawn into a cult of personality profoundly shaped by the perceived charisma, magnetism, and rebelliousness of the folk heroes. Each was an underdog who challenged assumptions, authorities, and agencies of their cultures, from Manhattan magazine and gallery gatekeepers to track and field bureaucracies. Nike wholeheartedly broadcasts Prefontaine as mythic, with no end in sight, and in turn the runner’s myth has been shaped by two film biographies. Iconoclast art bad boy Julian Schnabel gave Basquiat a belated ode in 1996, a full-color romp through cinema featuring David Bowie and Willem Dafoe, and documentaries such as this carve his myth more permanently each year.
Both figures rose up from the pedestrian and workaday worlds of common people; each embodied a special, coveted kind of fluency and power in their fields, seemingly unmatched even today. Each lived wholeheartedly, boisterously, with gusto and panache. Each dared to push and shove when needed but were also known to be earnest as well. Each seemed almost martyr-like, willing to suffer for their art, let alone endure the weird media blitzes and the difficult navigation of friends, cohorts, and fans in a suddenly changed world. Both died far too young. They were extinguished quickly, mysteriously, and as unsettlingly as a candle snuffed by a bruised, bare finger, quick as a Polaroid sprung onto the world or a baby’s contagious cry.
Fans of both continue to construct meanings from their deaths, re-affirm the ethos and genius of their heroes, and flock to their residual materiality. In the case of Basquiat, the paintings and drawings call us back, again and again. The site of Prefontaine’s death in the wooded hills overlooking Eugene, Oregon, provides solace and sanctity. Such journeys become a kind of pilgrimage, a way to observe and pay homage, a way to experience the last physical traces of such heroes. At the rocky outcrop where Prefontaine’s car overturned, he lingers, invisibly. Meanwhile, paint-smeared canvases house the imprint of America’s radiant black child, a friend to Blondie, Fab 5 Freddy, and us, as well. Still, we must listen to Basquiat’s lessons, rendered visible by the lesions on his face. The moonscape of such loss and confusion can be seen in Davis’ “lost” video footage, which truly narrates a tragedy about the hyper-mediated age. Inside the devouring belly of this culture, people are disposable commodities, eager to burn hard, and destined to crash even harder.