I met Basquiat tonight. Oh sure, I've known his brilliant work for years - and loved it for as long as that - but, tonight, I spent 90 glorious minutes in the enigmatic artist's inner sanctum. I was no longer a detached viewer engaging his work from a comfortable, art historical distance; I was a confidante with whom he shared his most intimate thoughts in a Beverly Hills hotel room. I met Basquiat tonight.
Tamra Davis, the producer of Jean-Michel Basquiat: The Radiant Child, actually was Basquiat's friend and the person who he allowed to know him, beyond the façade of the intensely radical bohemian artist he projected to the rest of the world. A little more than a year before his death, she interviewed him in his room at L'Ermitage in Beverly Hills; rare footage of a man often photographed but scarcely filmed. After his death, she put away the film: out of grief, out of respect, and out of fear - fear that he'd feel betrayed by a friend (a paranoia that had haunted him since his first moment of success). Now, some 20 years later, Basquiat should feel anything but betrayed by this beautiful tribute to a dear departed friend.
Davis takes us on a journey through an epic story of triumph and tragedy as told through spliced footage of her interview with Basquiat himself; countless photographs of the 1,000 paintings and 1,000 drawings left by the prolific artist; and interviews with those who knew him best (dealers Bruno Bischofberger, Tony Shafrazi, Larry Gagosian, Jeffrey Deitch, and Annina Nosei; curator Diego Cortez; and his longtime former girlfriend Suzanne Mallouk). Music also plays prominently in the film, another form of homage to the artist who always worked with music on or the television on - source material, as he called it.
I met Basquiat tonight. Rather than present you with the artist, the film poignantly introduces you to him. With every moment, you grow increasingly fond of him and gain a better grasp of the tumultuous state of his psyche. The viewer's perceived "relationship" with Basquiat builds throughout the film, almost imperceptibly, and one's heart grows heavy in anticipation of the moment you know is coming - for his history has already been written - that dreaded moment when drug abuse leads to the tragic and early death of a genius; a genius who has suddenly become, a friend.
I met Basquiat tonight. In only 90 minutes I came to understand him, not simply as an artist but as a man, and I grew to love him. How this new love of the artist will impact my experience of his art, I can't precisely predict, but I only wish I could see MOCA's breathtaking 2004 survey again through these fresh eyes - though I loved it then, I can only imagine what I'd see today.
Basquiat's first known identity in the art world was as SAMO - an acronym he used for same old shit - yet, in truth, he was anything but ordinary. Following the screening during a special q & a, MOCA director Jeffrey Deitch called this film "the definitive documentary" on the artist who took all the street energies and channeled them into high art. Davis said she wanted to make a film she'd have been proud to show Jean-Michel, a film that would give the tragic actor the opportunity to finally speak on his own behalf, and indeed she did. I met Jean-Michel tonight and now I'm left to mourn him all over again.
Jean-Michel Basquiat: The Radiant Child is now playing at the Nuart Theatre (11272 Santa Monica Blvd., Los Angeles)
Show times: 12:30 2:50 5:10 7:30 9:50pm