Jean-Michel Basquiat — The Radiant Child

For those need­ing an intro­duc­tion, Jean-Michel Basquiat was an Amer­i­can artist who began as an obscure graf­fiti artist in New York City in the late 1970s and evolved into an acclaimed painter by the 1980s.

Jean-Michel Basquiat: The Radi­ant Child (which you can see in its total­ity at the bot­tom of this post), is a doc­u­men­tary by Tamra Davis who was a close friend of the artist. In 1986, Davis sat down with him and filmed an inter­view, and only two years later, he was dead from a heroin over­dose at 27. Over twenty years later, Davis unearthed her footage and turned it into the feature-length Radi­ant Child.

The title of the film comes from a 1981 Art­fo­rum arti­cle by poet and critic René Ricard, who helped take Basquiat’s work from the streets to the gal­leries. By the time Basquiat became a rec­og­nized artists he was already “famous for being famous” due to the impact his graf­fiti work as SAMO had caused in New York city at the time. Both Basquiat and con­tem­po­rary Keith Har­ing took graf­fiti to the level of high art.

Through­out his career Basquiat focused on “sug­ges­tive dichotomies,” such as wealth ver­sus poverty, inte­gra­tion ver­sus seg­re­ga­tion, and inner ver­sus outer expe­ri­ence. Basquiat’s art uti­lized a syn­ergy of appro­pri­a­tion, poetry, draw­ing and paint­ing, which mar­ried text and image, abstrac­tion and fig­u­ra­tion, and his­tor­i­cal infor­ma­tion mixed with con­tem­po­rary critique. 

He pio­neered noise rock with his band Gray, his first pub­lic work under his own name, dur­ing a time when he was just “sur­viv­ing.” As he puts it in the film, he was “liv­ing place to place… look­ing for money on the floor of the Mudd club,” plan­ning on “being a bum” for the rest of his life.

Form my impres­sions of the movie I can say that Basquiat had a charm­ing per­son­al­ity and was a hum­ble indi­vid­ual in search of love and accep­tance like many of us sim­ple mor­tals but he had the guts to go the extra mile, only to find him­self empty at the end of the road. Watch the doc­u­men­tary, it is a lot of fun.

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