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Film Review of Jean-Michel Basquiat: The Radiant Child – an Artistic Genius

Dec 03, 2010 by D. J. Schwartz

Radiant Child is a documentary movie about the rapid rise and epic fall of one of the most important modern artists of the late 20th century–Jean-Michel Basquiat.

Filmmaker Tamra Davis, a close friend of Basquiat, conducted a series of interviews with him while he was living in Los Angeles

Unbelievably, for over 20 years, she kept the videotaped interview of Basquiat literally stashed away in a drawer before releasing them.

The film provides the viewer with as close of an understanding of Basquiat’s character, thinking, artistic temperament, work and aesthetic influences, business and personal dealings, his friends, his exhibitions, and his relationship with other popular contemporary artists during that time– including Andy Warhol, Kenny Sharf, Julian Schnabel, and Keith Haring.

There was another excellent biopic movie previously produced and directed by Julian Schnabel about Basquiat, which was a solid attempt to take stock of him–both as a person and as an artist. The movie drew mixed reviews, but was fairly well received as an art-house movie–not to be redundant.

Running away from his home in Brooklyn for good when he was about 17, Basquiat was homeless, broke, unknown, and lived from hand to mouth. Yet his incredible charisma and talent enabled him to turn any opportunity into an opportunity for him to pursue his passion for art.

He used the pseudonym SAMO, adding it to his incorporation of cryptic sentences attached to his graffiti in and around Lower Manhattan. Because of his deliberate use of word and imagery, the Village Voice wrote a story about it.

Around the same time, Basquiat formed a punk rock band named Gray, that played at the major punk rock venues including the infamous CBGB, Hurrah, and Max’s Kansas City clubs.

Basquiat was part of the “Downtown 500,” a term coined to describe the notion that New York culture had been taken over by a small set of creative, influential club-and-gallery-dwelling nighttime people,.

Basquiat would often paint with the TV on, the record player playing, and a stack of books that he would intermittently refer to. We see that frequently in the movie, and as well, an impromptu dance by Basquiat showed a part of him that was part of his free and good natured personality. For Basquiat, multi-tasking had a patron–himself–before the term became common. Apparently he found inspiration in all that and seemingly was able to have an immediate connection to object and subject aesthetic.

In spite of Basquiat’s immense strife at the beginning of his career, it didn’t take long for people to start asking questions about who the elusive SAMO was, and where they could get more of his unique take on graffiti art. As the name SAMO grew, so did Basquiat’s.

Basquiat gained further art world interest in June 1980, when Basquiat participated in The Times Square Show, a multi-artist exhibition sponsored by Collaborative Projects Incorporated (Colab) and Fashion Moda. In 1981, Rene Ricard published "The Radiant Child" inArtforum magazine, which brought Basquiat to the attention of the art world. Source: Wikipedia

In a few years, he went from enigma to superstar, earning millions while attracting acclaim, press, and inevitable derision.

His form of art at the time was labeled part of the Neo-expressionist movement. In February, 1985, he appeared on the cover of The New York Times Magazine in a feature entitled "New Art, New Money: The Marketing of an American Artist".

But Basquiat’s art was nothing at all ever seen on a commercial basis–it had heavy African influences, wild use of colors and word, and at times, indeed quite frequently, appeared to be primitive. Essentially, people tend to either love or hate his art, up to the present.

During the movie, it was pointed out that other parts of his art, paid homage to previous artists to whom he was influenced by including Cy Twombly, Willem de Kooning, and Jackson Pollock.

The movie, Radiant Child, chronologically documents this intense and somewhat shy individual, whose overwhelming intelligence and ambition propelled him within just a few years into an international art sensation and wunderkind.

Yet, although his paintings and artwork during his lifetime were selling for hundreds of thousands of dollars– he was never accepted and indeed, denied major showings at all of the important and major Museums around the world during his lifetime.

As most trained in art history are aware of, newer art is based on older art, and according to Henry Geldalzher, the former curator of contemporary art in the late 20th century, as well as a modern art, art historian and art critic, he went into great detail in his book, Making it New, that a lot of modern art movements are formed out and from the foundation of previous ones. Geldalzher is best known for his work at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and as New York City Commissioner of Cultural Affairs, and for his social role in the art world with a close relationship with contemporary artists.

”One knew from the start that he was going to live out his own time span,” Henry Geldzahler said. ”He lived very high, very fast, and he did a lot of great things.”

Based on this, and the incredible stupidity of the world’s most influential curators, not only didn’t they and most people not understand Basquiat’s dramatic, imaginative and fascinating oeuvre, it’s now a historical and heart wrenching fact of art history.

Basquiat’s death, just as with Van Gogh, created the posthumous flow of admiration of his art albeit nobody really understood his art while he was alive. (although he did achieve marked success during his lifetime unlike Van Gogh),–so those that built him up and tore him down–again further metaphorically resurrected him, to use his art for pecuniary exploitation and financial gain (an enormous emotional reoccurring theme in Radiant Child, and from Basquiat’s statements and feelings about being used and manipulated as a “black artist”).

In the case of Basquiat, although he reached the pinnacle of success as an artist during his lifetime, his fame and the prices of his art, verily exploded after he died–albeit that may sound farcical it’s true–his paintings regularly now sell upwards for tens of millions of dollars, and he’s among the perennial who’s who in the contemporary art world vis-a-vis art dealers, auction houses, and International exhibitions and Museum Collections.

Beginning and ending with the Langston Hughes poem "Genius Child" (choice line: "Nobody loves a genius child"), the film proffers both symbolically and literally, Basquiat as perpetually misunderstood, discarded, and tormented.

As much as this is a truism, ironically, the duality of how Basquiat’s status as a black artist in a predominately white scene–which partly helped him become famous–soon became an easy label—and one, furthermore, which he despised. And tragically, perhaps it helped to fuel his early demise due to both his genius and his race.

And as the curator of MOMA in the film Radiant Child admits, he was simply too far advanced in his art and thinking for them to be able to actually understand the true genius which his paintings represented.

From his use of African imagery, word play and assemblage, and incorporating an intentional primitive and child-like emotional freedom, Basquiat prodigiously created over a thousand paintings and a thousand drawings within a brief few year time-primarily because Basquiat worked hard to keep at the top of the art world during his post success time and place. Although ultimately self-defeating, he felt it necessary and driven to always try and live up to the sensation that he had become –and for what he was being praised for.

In the beginning he painted on anything that he could find off the street–doors, metal, glass, etc.

During some of the interview segments, we catch nuanced glimpses of Basquiat’s emotional and intellectual honesty; as well as to what helped to shape his “world view”, which belied his approach to his artwork.

Growing up language adrenal, speaking French, Spanish, English and some Creole, he trained early in art school, and had developed an invincible character trait hat he could and would never be told what to do. In that, perhaps he had a sixth sense of how to get noticed and through his networking, he quickly was sponsored by the art dealer, Annini Nosei.

Yet, being sensitive about his black ethnicity, combined with the totality of the lack of his father’s love , affection and approval–which Basquiat desperately wanted but only to be shown disdain by his dad despite his success–and later his sensitivity to the bitter and savage attacks from the art world’s critics. All of this sudden fame combined with Basquiat’s emotional baggage, eventually caused him to buckle.

All too frequently the story remains the same–being young and having success literally overnight, Basquiat was determined to maintain his super-star status at the same time, due to this duality both self-imposed and as well very real, because he lacked both a proper support network and as fellow artist and friend, Julias Schnabel said and explained in the movie. in the end Basquiat just couldn’t “navigate his way through the sea of shit” of the modern art world.

After befriending Andy Warhol, and becoming best friends, they decided to do a joint show together. Subsequently the show was savaged by the press, primarily attacking Warhol, whose influence was on the wane, and apparently this induced Basquiat into an emotional downward spiral, and a self-imposed shell, as he thought that the show would definitively serve to show that he had reached the pinnacle of the then contemporary art world.

Instead, the show was shredded by the critics and was closed after only one showing.

After Warhol shortly died thereafter–which in turn created more conscious and subconscious emotional chaos as Basquiat became more isolated and soon developed a drug addiction to heroin, which only served to make his life and work increasingly erratic, further causing him to become more and more paranoid that everyone was using him–which they probably were.

Although he frequently traveled to both California and Hawaii to get clean and concentrate on his painting, his ultimate return to New York City proved to be the place where he was born and died. His eventual overdose, resulted in another incredibly sad story of a shooting star–which only gives more credence to the saying, “Only The Good Die Young.”

Photos courtesy of LeMaze Studio

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