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SAMO IS DEAD: Long Live Basquiat!

By Kathy Brew

SAMO IS DEAD. That was the graffiti tag that defined the beginning of the meteoric rise and tragic fall of artist Jean-Michel Basquiat. It's been over 20 years since he died, and more than 10 years since Julian Schabel made his directorial debut with Basquiat, the fictionalized bio-pic that starred Jeffrey Wright as the young artist, David Bowie as Andy Warhol, Dennis Hopper as gallery owner Bruno Bischofberger, and a host of other actors playing New York City art-world characters. Now, with Tamra Davis' documentary Jean-Michel Basquiat: The Radiant Child, which Arthouse Films is releasing this summer, viewers have the opportunity to hear directly from Basquiat himself.

One of the uncanny things about film is that it can re-animate those no longer with us in a kind of pseudo-resurrection, where life after death temporarily exists. Back in the 1980s, Davis met Basquiat while she was a film student and he was visiting Los Angeles for his first show there. They became friends and immediately bonded over their mutual love of cinema. Davis began filming Basquiat painting, and whenever he returned to LA, she would film him while they were hanging out. In 1986, when he was 25 and already at the peak of his success, she shot a lengthy interview with him.  

When Basquiat died two years later, Davis put the footage away in a drawer; she didn't want to be one of those friends who appeared to exploit him and his work for profit. But 20 years later, when she was speaking to a curator/friend at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles as it was preparing for a major retrospective of Basquiat's work, it became clear to her that enough time had passed. Davis realized she had footage that offered a rare look into one of America's most important artists of the past 25 years, and it was time for Basquiat's voice to be heard, even if posthumously. 

Davis initially made a 20-minute film based on her footage, which was shown during the MOCA retrospective and at the other venues on the exhibition tour. She screened the short at the 2006 Sundance Film Festival, where she met David Koh of Arthouse Films. He asked her if she could make the short into a feature, and Jean-Michel Basquiat: The Radiant Child is the result. 

Davis liked the purity of Basquiat talking, and was a bit skeptical about adding other voices, but she knew it was necessary to add context to the story. So she did "a ton of research" and began the process of interviewing people in Basquiat's sphere. She didn't want to just make a bio-pic; she wanted to follow more of a narrative structure.  She also tracked down quite a bit of archival material, even though her own material serves as the strongest thread in the film. Throughout, she tried to keep Basquiat's voice in mind while making the film; she wanted it to "have the heart," yet she also wanted to make sure she had the art history right. 

Besides being a portrait of an artist, the film is also a portrait of a time and place-New York's downtown art scene in the 1980s. Along with the archival footage, some of which captures the relationship between Basquiat and Warhol, the film features interviews with Schnabel, hip-hop pioneer Fab 5 Freddy, dealers Bischofberger, Annina Nosei and Larry Gagosian, Basquiat's longest-term girlfriend (now a psychiatrist) Suzanne Mallouk, editor/writer Glenn O'Brien and author/curator Diego Cortez, among many others. The filmmaker herself has a small cameo, but it is in the intimacy of her interview off screen with Basquiat where her presence is most strongly felt.

Clearly there was a comfort level, a trust and connection not always felt between subject and filmmaker. After all, they were friends. For Davis, this is a very personal film. Her editor, Alexis Manya Spraic, kept pushing her to go deeper. It was difficult to be so vulnerable, and yet this intimate access is what makes the film more authentic and allows people to get a true sense of Basquiat, understand his process, appreciate his creative output and ultimately recognize the tragedy that came with his sudden rise to fame. 

The 90-minute film had a sneak preview at the Art Basel Miami Beach Art Fair in December 2009 and its official world premiere at the 2010 Sundance Film Festival. Since Basquiat and his work are "so international," the film is being picked up around the world. It will have its New York City theatrical premiere at Film Forum this July and will also be broadcast on PBS at some point in the future. According to Davis, this is "exactly what Jean-Michel wanted." After all, television is more populist than the art world.

For Davis, "It's wonderful to see the reaction with an audience." I recently showed the film to a class of university art students, some whom had never heard of Basquiat. It was interesting to experience the class observing and learning about this artist who was at the height of his career--when he was just a few years older than they are now--and who brought a street energy to the gallery world and the art world at large. I sensed that the students could consider him some kind of role model. And yet, by the end of the screening, although they were inspired by his street smarts and his creative output, the students were ultimately saddened by his life tragically cut short.

And so the tragedy reads like a Shakespearean tale: the rise and fall of a tortured hero--a story we see too frequently in our overly star-crazed, media-feeding-frenzy universe. Davis's film helps Basquiat channel his own voice to a new audience, offering glimpses into the life and art of this "radiant child" who shone too bright and left too soon.


Kathy Brew is an independent filmmaker, media arts curator and writer, who also teaches at The New School, The School of Visual Arts and Rutgers University.