Few artists have been the same source of public debate as Jean-Michel Basquiat. Even this year, the announcement of the fall Coach collection in collaboration with Basquiat’s estate provoked fierce controversy. Many believed using his work to sell high-end consumer products was disrespectful to his legacy. The timing of the incident is significant as this December marks what would have been Basquiat’s 60th birthday. Only recently, in 2017, the sale of Untitled broke records when it exceeded $100 million. Why are we so continuously fascinated by Basquiat? Aside from the inherent draw of his art, it is worth taking a deeper look at his legacy and considering the role of visual media in shaping our perceptions.
There are several films about Basquiat but the two most noteworthy to date are Basquiat and The Radiant Child. Basquiat was released in 1996 and directed by Julian Schnabel, who knew Basquiat personally. The film was sold on being a film about an artist by another artist, and Schnabel’s personal insight into the New York art scene of the time is significant. Almost 14 years later, another friend of Basquiat, Tamra Davis, released The Radiant Child. Using clips from a previously unseen Basquiat interview of 1986, the 2010 documentary presents a vastly different view of the artist. Both films share the intention to capture an old friend onscreen, and yet the techniques used vary significantly.
There’s a story which appears in both Basquiat and The Radiant Child. As a teenager selling home-made post-cards with his friend Jennifer Stein, Basquiat saw Andy Warhol and critic Henry Geldzahler at a restaurant. He approached and succeeded in selling them post-cards for a few dollars. This anecdote reflects many of the key myths associated with Basquiat: his rags-to-riches tale, his association with Warhol, and his drive for success. The origin story has become as synonymous with Basquiat as the death of Bruce Wayne’s parents is to Batman.
Schnabel and Davis both take different approaches to the material. In the biopic, the facts are heavily altered (Geldzahler is ‘replaced’ by Bruno Bischofberger (Dennis Hopper), and the post-cards are raised from $2 to $10). Though standard for a biopic, it emphasises an ambiguous relationship with the ‘facts’ of Stein’s account. Another change is Basquiat’s continued negotiation for a higher price. This extended conversation allows more screen time for David Bowie as Andy Warhol whose idiosyncratic performance dominates the scene. The idea alone of Bowie as Warhol is captivating and Jeffrey Wright as Basquiat is instantly pushed into the background.
The Radiant Child goes one step further. The documentary uses interspersed talking-heads to tell the story. None of the speakers are directly connected to the incident, as neither Stein, Warhol or Geldzahler appear. Instead, it is told by Kai Eric and Fab Five Freddie, who knew Basquiat, but can only contribute second-hand accounts. This again challenges the ‘facts’ of the situation but it is more noteworthy given the documentary form. In both cases, Basquiat is hardly present in his own origin story.
The relationship between citation and reality is significant from the opening of each film. The first words of Basquiat are a quotation by Rene Ricard: “Everybody wants to get the Van Gogh boat”. This appeared in Ricard’s 1981 article which put Basquiat in the spotlight (Ricard was also crucial to Schnabel’s career). This citation plays with myth. Van Gogh, the archetypal ‘tortured artist’, is a counterpoint to Basquiat, but only because Basquiat’s generation is presented as ‘self-aware’. Significantly, Schnabel’s most successful film is the Van Gogh biopic, At Eternity’s Gate (2018). The theme of the tortured artist goes some way to explaining contemporary fascination with Basquiat. He is the 20th century equivalent to Van Gogh, and we are continuously drawn to this myth.
The Radiant Child opens with the poem Genius Child by Langston Hughes. Again, we see the words of others used to give an impression of Basquiat as a troubled genius. However, the film does quickly cut to Basquiat. He flips candidly through a magazine as if unaware of the camera. The enclosed space creates a sense of intimacy as artifice is stripped away, in contrast to the clearly constructed reality of Basquiat. This image, the frame suggests, is Basquiat in his natural state. Nevertheless, the lack of eye contact suggests detachment between subject and viewer. The aloofness is almost definitive in representations of Basquiat.
Certainly, there is a greater sense of intimacy demonstrated throughout The Radiant Child (as the format allows this). Davis adopts a familiar tone. She opens with personal pronouns and describes him as ‘my friend’. While the biopic introduces Basquiat through his surname in block capitals, Davis opts for Jean-Michel. It is also worth noting that Basquiat did not have the rights to depict the original works. The paintings credited to Basquiat in the film were constructed by Schnabel and Greg Bogan to give an impression of the art. There is something profoundly symbolic in a film about an artist which is unable to show his art.
Conversely, The Radiant Child uses several montages with Basquiat’s original work. The fast-paced editing gives these montages a sense of frenetic energy, as if to capture the atmosphere of the scene at the time. These sections are set to a bebop track which further reinforces both the intimacy and energy. Basquiat famously worked to this music and was inspired by it, so it appears more personal. At these points, the sensory overload is disorientating. In the first montage, we see Basquiat playing with a dog, pictures of his work, the title card, a quote from the artist, and a quote from Madonna. As the film continues, this bombardment of information becomes overwhelming.
Basquiat avoids this energy. Throughout, the soundtrack is more sombre which is a reflection of the film. The opening credits run to the first verse of Fairytale of New York. In a literal sense, this reflects the simplification of Basquiat’s own story into a fairy tale as the film supports a rags-to-riches myth. There is also dissonance to hearing a Christmas song in a film which has little to nothing to do with Christmas. More significantly, due to its place in public consciousness, Fairytale of New York can no longer be purely tragic. It has too much cultural significance: the joy of Christmas and bitter family arguments. In the same vein, Basquiat’s story has taken on too many implications to be purely tragic anymore.
This bizarre ambiguity is also apparent in Wright’s central performance; he plays the character as a somewhat weak figure. As Beth Coleman writes, ‘ambiguity in the person of Basquiat is rendered as art of the noncommittal by Wright’. Both films ultimately struggle with this ambiguity. One copes by bombarding the viewer with information, while the other remains vague. Who was Jean-Michel Basquiat? This is the question the films pose and the reason we watch them. However, the answer realistically, is that no one knew apart from Jean-Michel Basquiat. His answers can only be found in short footage. Time and time again, the most interesting observations in The Radiant Child come from Basquiat himself. This is no coincidence.
Considering these attempts to document Basquiat’s life, one is struck that there is simply not enough information to make a complete portrait. The ambiguity in his life is what drives us to search for answers. If Basquiat were so easy to summarise, directors and friends would not return to try and capture his uniqueness. At one point, The Radiant Child quotes Basquiat in saying “I cross out words so you will see them more: the fact they are obscured makes you want to read them”. This is the definitive answer to why we are so fascinated with Basquiat’s life: because we will never know the rest of the word.