Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Jean-Michel Basquiat At 50

By Lars Trodson

Today is artist Jean-Michel Basquiat’s 50th birthday. He was born Dec. 22, 1960 in Brooklyn and he died of a drug overdose, just as his fame was at its peak, on Aug. 12, 1988 in Manhattan. There’s Basquiat merchandise available now and in the last few years some of his paintings have sold for millions of dollars.

Basquiat died a year and a half after Andy Warhol, and it’s a little startling to think that, as young as Warhol was when he died (he was 58), he still had 30 more years than Basquiat. The two artists were frequent collaborators in the mid-1980s. Something in the New York art world has never been quite the same since they left.

I first came across Basquiat when I watched the eponymous Julian Schnabel movie from 1996 that starred Jeffrey Wright. Wright gives an absolutely beautiful, stunning performance in this movie -- completely overlooked, in my view -- and it is one of the (very) few movies about a painter in which you see the actor playing an artist actually paint. The scenes in which Wright -- as Basquiat -- sort of lopes up toward his empty canvases and starts to paint his images and words are unlike anything else I’ve ever seen in a movie about art. They’re hypnotic.

There is also Tamra Davis’s documentary, “Jean-Michel Basquiat: The Radiant Child”, which I have not seen, and the amazing “Downtown 81”, which stars a very young Basquiat and was shot over two months at the end of 1980 and early 1981 in New York, when the post-punk scene was glowing. I’ve seen this little movie, and it’s an incredible document -- even if the soundtrack was lost and the voices, including Basquiat’s, had to be dubbed.

In this film you can see the old New York landscape. There are porno movie theaters. The twin towers of the World Trade Center are standing. Some of the New York streets are in ruins, and there are the rooms where punk was born, the Mudd Club and all the others.

There’s a great scene -- the movie has no real story -- in which Basquiat and a friend are trying to get into a restricted club and so they get a limo driver high and ask him to drive them around the block as a favor. When Basquiat and his friend pop out of the limo they’re allowed entry into the club. One gets the distinct feeling this actually happened. This is a charming and funky little flick, which offers a great view of an art scene no longer happening.

On the DVD version there is a terrific bonus: there’s a video extra of Basquiat (then known as the graffiti artist SAMO) sitting in as a guest on a New York show called “TV Party” that’s hosted by Glenn O’Brien, who wrote the screenplay for “Downtown 81.” This is a few minutes of early black and white cable access video narcotic bliss that you just have to see. Watching Basquiat sit there amid all the technical chaos is a work of art all by itself.