The artist Jean-Michel Basquiat is in danger of being as over-exposed in death as he was in life. Here’s another documentary to add to the list of post-mortem assessments.
Like the 1996 feature film “Basquiat,” directed by artist Julian Schnabel, “Jean-Michel Basquiat: The Radiant Child” is made by someone who knew Basquiat personally. This is Tamra Davis, whose career includes a lot of TV work and comedies such as “Billy Madison.”
Basquiat shot to stardom in the New York art scene of the 1980s, and died of a heroin overdose in 1988, at the age of 27. Davis has unearthed an old video interview she did with him, and uses it to tie together an account of his brief time as an art darling.
The early going is mostly a collection of hipsters recounting their supposedly glorious youth, but after a while Basquiat begins to come into focus (as much as anyone who stayed as elusive as he did can come into focus).
First known for his graffiti one-liners, Basquiat soon began painting seriously. Even from an early phase of his career, the paintings we see (and we see a lot of them) are clearly the work of someone with sophisticated ideas about painting, especially in the way he blended fine art and folk art traditions, with the verbiage of graffiti thrown in as a kicker.
As the film shows, Basquiat bristled at being considered some sort of primitive (and he ascribed some of that criticism to racism — his father was from Haiti and his mother from Puerto Rico). He was right to bristle; you can see from his paintings that the guy knew exactly what he was doing.
Even if he refused to articulate it — which he did. More than one interviewer in the movie is stymied by Basquiat’s determined inability to explain what his paintings were about.
And why should he? A painter’s job is to paint, not talk about it.
The New York art market was especially trendy and full of itself in the ’80s, and what now looks like real talent on Basquiat’s part was frequently characterized as part of an over-priced, over-hyped scene.
The film has interviews with many of Basquiat’s friends and a couple of significant girlfriends, but none of them can explain how this very prolific and dedicated artist got seduced into heroin addiction at the height of his powers.
Someone speculates that Basquiat was drawn to the image of the artist as someone who burns out quickly and brightly. Maybe so. It certainly was quick.
More than the memories or anecdotes, the copious artworks on display make the case for Basquiat’s authentic contributions. On that score, Davis’ film completely succeeds.
“Jean-Michel Basquiat: The Radiant Child” ½
Documentary portrait of the art superstar Basquiat, who died in 1988 at age 27 after a dizzying rise to fame. Along with anecdotes from friends, director Tamra Davis (a friend of the artist) makes the case for Basquiat as a significant artist simply by including a great many of his works.
Rated: Not rated; probably PG-13 for subject matter
Showing: Northwest Film Forum