In 1986 Tamra Davis, still in the first half of her twenties and working at an LA art Gallery, interviewed the artist, her friend, Jean-Michel Basquiat. By then Basquiat, at just 25, had established himself as an exciting and iconoclastic new voice of the US art world. A friend and collaborator of Andy Warhol’s, he was in the vanguard—just two years later, however, he died aged 27 of a heroin overdose. At the time too distraught to do anything with the footage, the film Davis had shot of her friend which comprised not just the interviews but saw him busy at work in his studio—Basquiat had been prolific—was locked away in a drawer.
In 2008, though, while speaking to curators of LA’s Museum of Contemporary Art (at that time working on a retrospective of the artist’s work), Davis was urged to reconsider leaving the tapes to their fate. And it is to our great benefit that she was persuaded to do so, illuminating for us a time just a little over 20 years earlier, in which she had captured the man and his effervescent personality. Their simple, seemingly uncomplicated friendship allows Davis to see beneath the caution and veneer of a high profile artist still coming to terms with his fame—in a way a seasoned journalist or documentarian might never be able. Starkly aware of the attendant pressure and expectation of his fame, we are presented with a Basquiat who is by turns honest, coy, candid, and guarded.
Guarded not because of anything Davis asked, said or did, but because of experience. When asked how he survived with no money in the early days sleeping on friends’ floors or the street, he was out of his comfort zone. Additionally, he was aware by then that he stood out in his field as a young, vibrant black man, adrift amid a sea of mostly older, drier, almost exclusively white peers. He had been understandably stung by a perceived lack of art world cognoscenti approval, whereby it was clear that—for some at least—his works just didn’t fit the idea of museum painting at that time. Reading between the lines, it was also clear that, often, it wasn’t so much the shock of the new as it was his face not fitting. Although embraced in some quarters, Jean-Michel Basquiat was, as a black man in an elitist, very white world, commonly relegated to the position of ‘wild’ or ‘primitive’ artist. How many other artists suffered (and still suffer) such a fate?
The recovered historical material makes up a significant proportion of what would become Davis’ 2010 documentary, Jean-Michel Basquiat: The Radiant Child; it is interspersed with and complemented by contemporary footage. This is skilfully selected and assembled by Davis, so that as well as bringing us closer to Basquiat, we are drawn into his world. It is one richly populated by fellow and rival contemporary artists (Keith Haring, Julian Schnabel); friends and collaborators such as hip hop pioneer Fab Five Freddy; Al Diaz from his early SAMO graffiti days—more of which shortly—and later, Warhol. Art dealers and gallerists such as Larry Gagosian and Bruno Bischofberger are prominent and lavish with their praise on his work. This collage of voices artfully and roughly chronologically tells the story, not just of Jean-Michel Basquiat and his relationship with the art world, but of New York, and wider popular culture. It paints a picture as vivid and grimy as if it had been shot by photographer Bruce Davidson (who documented early 1980s New York via its subways).
We pick the story up as Basquiat runs away from home for the final time and begins his new life as graffiti artist SAMO (‘same old shit’), in which he honed his use of language and flair for a turn of phrase, along with his willing accomplice Al Diaz. Flash forward to 2018 and his words still resonate, sounding fresh and full of meaning. So much so that Boom For Real, the first large-scale exhibition of his work in the UK, currently on display at London’s Barbican, takes its title from one of these phrases. The exhibition’s curator Eleanor Nairne, in elucidating this timeless quality, explained: ‘In a way it's very enigmatic and difficult to interpret, and in a way it's very straightforwardly understandable: it was a kind of exclamation when something really inspired him.’
From there, the story flows unrestrained, as if the 20 years it took Davis to tell it meant she had to let it loose on an audience. The recovered film is fed to us in fragments, like (or, in fact, literally as) exhumed memories. Its power lies in the fact that it is untainted by the knowledge of what comes next, and it lends the footage—true or otherwise—a quality of nostalgia for a different, youthfully energetic and more naïve time. It means that, for the duration of some of these fragments, we are allowed to throw off the shackles and jaded nature of the cynical present and, at least while it lasts, gaze upon undiluted promise. For all its hope, however, it is hardly a document of unfiltered joy and innocence, and while immersed in the film, one feels as if experiencing the ultimate story of what might have been.
As such, it chronicles Basquiat’s steep rise and tragic descent. But, deftly (thankfully), Davis manages to sidestep falling into the clichéd territory of trying to push the 'doomed rock star artist' narrative too hard; likely because of her clearly-still-raw emotional connection she feels for her friend. Instead of pushing the viewer down the usual, unquestioning cul-de-sac of too much too young, hers is a richer, more nuanced take. Madonna, with whom Basquiat had had an affair, is on record as saying ‘he was too fragile for this world’. While the consensus seems to point to the fact that there is some truth in his not being equipped for the travails of art superstardom—curator Richard D. Marshall said of Basquiat that he ‘first became famous for his art. And then he became famous for being famous. And then he became famous for being infamous.’ Through the eyes of Davis, though, we are granted deeper insight, and the film’s denouement amounts to a thoughtful and respectful ‘why what happened might have happened.’
It is worth noting that the film is aptly bookended (on screen at the start, spoken at the end) by poet Langston Hughes’ Genius Child; so apt in fact that you could believe it had been written for this very purpose:
This is a song for the genius child.Sing it softly, for the song is wild.Sing it softly as ever you can –Lest the song get out of hand.Nobody loves a genius child.Nobody loves a genius child.Kill him – and let his soul run wild.
But I want to give the last word to Jean-Michel, who, speaking about his rise and conviction in his artistic practice, declared: ‘I feel like I was right, y’know what I mean?’