Saturday, April 09, 2011

Art Month Continues on Independent Lens: The Radiant Child

Jean-Michel Basquiat had to be a great artist. He was so famous, after all. Truly, he learned from a master: his friend and mentor, Andy Warhol. From his overnight success to the tragically early final days, Basquiat’s rockstar-like artistic career is documented by Tamra Davis in Jean-Michel Basquiat: The Radiant Child (trailer here), which airs this coming Tuesday as part of the current season of PBS’s Independent Lens.

A longtime friend and confident of the artist, Davis shot extensive footage of the artist that had never been seen by the general public until she completed this film. Basquiat began his career essentially homeless, living in the East Village at a time when such Bohemianism was considered trendy. Quickly falling-in with the Blank Generation hipsters, he soon became the coolest among equals.

Basquiat’s initial artistic endeavors consisted of the graffiti he spread across strategic locations under the SAMO tag he shared with friend Al Diaz. He then parlayed the mystique surrounding the(ir) SAMO persona into a cult following that attracted the attention of gallery owners. Through the patronage of Annina Nosei, Basquiat was provided supplies and studio space. He held up his end, producing voluminous work. However, it was a fateful encounter with Warhol that really spurred his development.

Thanks to the bio-picture directed by Julian Schnabel, a fellow artist of the preceding generation, Basquiat’s fame continued to grow after his death. Now his work has been nearly canonized by the cultural arbiters, with the only brief dissent allowed in the film coming from the ever-principled Hilton Kramer. Yet, one cannot help but wonder how history will treat his oeuvre over the next fifty or one hundred years. Yes, the legions of experts are certainly correct when they speak of the energy of his work, but little is said about his technique.

In truth, Basquiat might be more interesting as prism to examine that late 1970’s-early 1980’s period of cultural history, especially as it pertains to the New York scene, than as a figure in his own right. For all the glowing generalities about Basquiat’s magnetic personality, we get very little feeling for him as a person in Radiant. However, the film evokes a vivid sense of his time and milieu.

Regardless of viewers’ opinions of Basquiat as an artist (and to her credit, Davis showcases some eye-catching and intriguing work), he had a good ear for music. Surprisingly, a number of classic jazz recordings from the likes of Dizzy Gillespie and Miles Davis can be heard throughout the film’s soundtrack and iconic musicians such as Charlie Parker and Robert Johnson are seen represented in his paintings.

Radiant passes a crucial test for documentaries. It is interesting even for those who were not previously fans of its subject. Holding a similar appeal as the recently opened Blank City (in which Basquiat’s name is frequently dropped, though not always favorably), Davis has assembled a pretty compelling history of the New York art scene at a particular point in time. Certainly worth seeing on free TV, Independent Lens will broadcast Radiant this Tuesday (4/12) on most PBS outlets, but as always, check local listings.