Thursday, November 25, 2010


Reality bests fiction again

By Edward Copeland
In 1996, artist Julian Schnabel made his directing debut with a film about his late fellow artist and friend, Jean-Michel Basquiat, in Basquiat. I wasn't impressed, though Schnabel's third film, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, ended up being my favorite film of the last decade. Now, another friend of Basquiat, Tamra Davis, using interviews and footage of Basquiat himself she'd filmed in 1985, has made a documentary Jean-Michel Basquiat: The Radiant Child that brings the artist to life for me in a way the fictional feature didn't come close to doing.

Davis combines the footage of the informal interview with Basquiat she says she put in a drawer in 1985 and never looked at again with many of the people who knew him and footage of the artist taken at the time. Granted, it's been nearly 15 years since I've seen Schnabel's feature take on Basquiat's life, but Davis' documentary left me feeling as if it were my first introduction to the artist because it paints such a clearer portrait of who he was and of his meteoric rise in the '80s art world.

You actually witness the change in the man from a somewhat bashful person who knew he'd be famous to someone who did change once that fame proved so overwhelming. If there lies a fault in the documentary, I just find it hard to believe that he was able to hide his heroin problems from his friends so successfully that no one saw a problem developing to try to help him before his overdose death at the young age of 27 in 1988.

While I'm personally not into some types of modern art, Basquiat's journey from mystery graffiti artist to phenomenon still proves quite interesting. He also does have some interesting ideas such as mixing words with his paints and crossing out some of the words, saying that if you cross out a word it draws more attention to it and makes you consider it more closely. It's an interesting notion and not one I would associate with art.

Then again, Basquiat wasn't just a painter. His mixture of words with the art made him more interesting, as did his work process itself, which often required plenty of distractions such as televisions and music going on simultaneously while he worked.

Some questions go unanswered. It doesn't really address how a young man from a middle-class family chose to leave home and basically live on the streets before he basically stumbled into his art via his graffiti and the postcards he made and sold just to get by that he happened to give to Andy Warhol one day. Still, Jean-Michel Basquiat: The Radiant Child proves to be a far more enlightening look at the art star who burned bright before he flamed out than the fictional look at his life did.

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