Jean Michel Basquiat: Demystifying Myths
In the two films Basquiat (1996) directed by Julian Schnabel and Basquiat: The Radiant Child (2010) directed by Tamra Davis, we get two different representations of Jean Michel Basquiat (1960-1988). I will through the medium of film, discuss how far the portrayals of Basquiat by his acquaintances can demystify the myths that surrounded him.
In the documentary (2010), we get a sense of the wider artistic context that Basquiat was living in—New York in the 80s, which we do not get in the film (1996). New York at the time was brimming with artistic bohemian types and the documentary (2010) makes a distinct point of showing that Basquiat and his lifestyle was in the zeitgeist of the time and place of New York City in the 80s. The remarkable thing about Basquiat is that he was an artist that reached such high acclaim in such a short amount of time. The reason I point out the contextualisation given by Davis in the documentary is because the film (1994), written by Julian Schnabel, did not correctly cover all of the contexts. The specific reasons for his lifestyle choices were never explicit. His hatred for institutions due to his mother’s institutionalization from when he was 13, led him to leave his home at 15 and take up his street lifestyle, which was an extreme opposite of his middle class upbringing. It is important to point this out because the myth or perception that was often fixated upon, was this notion of Basquiat as a Black street artist which plays with certain aspects of race that associate his art work with un-cultivation and un-education. Basquiat was trilingual and had been exposed to art from a young age. The street aspect of his art was a part of his gimmick or popularity and the film (1996) shines a light on this irony in his upbringing in the re-dramatization of an infamous interview where the interviewer referred to Basquiat as “primal” and Basquiat pedantically challenges the adjective.
The fact that Albert Milo was an alter ego of the director himself and the fact that his self-portrayal in the film put him in a more central role than he held in real life, hints at the agenda that Schnabel had in the film, which I will go into later in the essay. There is a sensationalized portrayal that focuses on the persona and Basquiat’s lifestyle in the film (1996) there is a focus on Basquiat’s drug abuse throughout and this was manifested in a few different negative ways. The actor Jeffery Wright has hardly any narrative in the film and his speech is often stunted and his movements disjointed. However, actual footage of Basquiat shows a coherent Basquiat who is in his hay-day was able to present himself in a cleanly and civilized manner.
In a short clip about his exhibition Art and Film at the Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO) in 2010, Julian speaks about his motivations for wanting to direct a film about Basquiat. He says as he is sat in his pyjamas in his studio: “When Jean Michel died and somebody asked me to help them talk about what a painter’s life was, I felt that I owed it to him to portray that in the right way. I had been in that basement with him, I had seen those things so I didn’t have to make those things up. I knew my subject.” This stated relation and sensitivity for Basquiat has been heavily criticized by some art critics. Basquiat in death had reached immortality. Schnabel knew Basquiat on a professional level, they were by no means friends and it was perceived that Schnabel resented the stardom that Basquiat received.
There is no real focus on Basquiat’s work but a focus on his drug taking and unruly lifestyle. This especially stands out because the only real juxtaposition that we get of another artist in the film other than Warhol, was a representation of Julian Schnabel himself in the character of Albert Milo. Art curator Okwui Enwezor put it aptly: “At every turn, it is Schnabel’s benevolent mug, his quietly confident posture, his sedate and settled family life (wife, kids and parents) and lovely house filled with his huge operatic paintings, that are matched against Basquiat’s insecure, nervous, itinerant and autistic presence. It is also a fact that the only original artwork in the film is Schnabel’s, including the sloppily repainted ‘Basquiats’.” Enwezor argues that Schabel’s portrayal of Basquiat is a case of an artist’s envy because he uses anecdotal evidence to build a persona with a few egotistic nods to himself throughout. Julian Schnabel’s relationship with Basquiat was merely a professional acquaintance and nothing more, but his portrayal in the film (1996) placed him closer to Basquiat than was the truth. Basquiat lived a very public lifestyle and was not camera shy. He cannot speak for himself, but he appeared enough and affected enough people for his portrayal to go beyond mere anecdote. Can we brush over the falsification because it is “only a film”? I would argue no because the director’s intent cannot be ignored.
In the documentary (2010), directed by Tamra Davis, we get a more complex portrayal of Basquiat. This goes beyond the aspect of the medium of documentary, which allows one to conduct interviews with those that knew the subject. Davis had access to actual content, which Schnabel was denied by Basquiat’s estate; she effectively commemorated Basquiat’s artistic genius. Davis focused her documentary around Basquiat as a multi-faceted persona. She effectively portrayed his artistic expression and the contexts in which he was inspired, as well as his methods, all in real time. We see footage of Basquiat with his paintings, painting his artworks and in the press, at parties, on television shows and most interestingly, in interviews. This is especially poignant in contrast with Schnabel’s portrayal because we see more than the drugs. Basquiat is coherent, aware, conscious and at the very least, able to string together a sentence. The cinematography of the documentary is exceptional. From the music: erratic jazz played behind jumping scenes of images and quick cuts that almost mirror Basquiat and his exuberance. The visual essays are especially informative and analytical about Basquiat; how he was feeling when he created the paintings, his influences and the content that he covered.
In both films it is hard to separate the directors’ agenda from the portrayal of Basquiat. The fact that Tamra Davis included her voice in the movie may have been a choice to show her sentiments. However, the inclusion made the documentary far too subjective. There were also the voices and opinions of those whom she interviewed, possibly, further mythologizing the persona of Basquiat. In the film (1996), Schnabel included and amalgamated characters into one with the representation of Albert Milo being interpreted as his own image or personification. In conclusion, both directors are not exempt of putting in their own opinions and selves in their representation of Basquiat.
 Chou, Kimberley. “Basquiat: Behind the Interview.” Art in America. 21 July 2010. Web. 8 Oct. 2015.  Enwezor, Okwui. “Frieze Magazine | Archive | Basquiat.” Frieze Magazine RSS. 1 Feb. 1997. Web. 8 Oct. 2015. <http://www.frieze.com/issue/article/basquiat/>
July 16, 2019