Movies about artists always piss me off. They assume that if someone is good at art, it’s some sort of overcompensation for being an inarticulate, humorless bore, whose art stems from being trapped in a state of juvenile and thus histrionic emotional development. I thought “Basquiat” might be different, because it was written and directed by a fellow contemporary artist, Julian Schnabel.

Movie poster for the dreadful trivialization, courtesy of Julian Schnabel

I’m not sure how I suddenly got interested in Basquiat. I think I completely missed the boat the first time around. He simply didn’t come up when I was in art school, and I had such a bad experience in graduate school that I didn’t follow the contemporary art world for well over a decade. I’ll save elaborating the horror of grad school for another time, but basically I had the bad timing of attending a rabidly politically correct art program when the anti-white male movement was in full swing, and white male teachers were being purged, in which case I really needn’t have applied. One of my teachers actually said to me during a graduate seminar, “We’ve heard from you for 2,000 years, and we aren’t interested in what you have to say anymore.” I didn’t stand a chance.

I’m also an artist’s artist, which means I like to see a good show of talent. The stuff that looks like your dog could have done it doesn’t excite me. Basquiat’s crude scribble style would only have impressed me when it transcended itself, which it sometimes does. So, for various reasons I never stopped to give him any consideration until a few days ago. I didn’t even know that he’d done collaborative paintings with Andrew Warhola. I learned this from the documentary, Jean-Michel Basquiat, The Radiant Child.

Advertisement for show of collaborative paintings by Warhol and Basquiat. WTF?!

The documentary has a lot of interviews with the artist. I don’t think I was expecting anything, but I was pleasantly surprised by his gentle personality and sweet smile. He seemed like a nice guy, so I persisted with the documentary, despite the annoying over-sized yellow Spanish subtitles on the You Tube version I’d clicked on.

Clip from Radiant Child. That’s the real Basquiat. Looks like he wouldn’t hurt a fly.

There are a few things about his story that intrigue me, and which I’m trying to research. Chief among these is his friendship with Warhol, and their collaboration. I’m interested in why their joint paintings flopped, and what the hell they were thinking. Why was the art world so taken with the work of an artist barely in his twenties, who didn’t even go to art school? The whole SCENE was peculiar, and an aberration of excess: the huge sums of money; the glorification of celebrity; and the overvaluation of young artists.

I downloaded Schnabel’s film about Basquiat in the hopes of gaining further insight into the New York art scene of the period, as well as Basquiat himself. What I watched was more like an episode of Happy Days. Rather than give any glimpse into the reality, it coated it with layers of treacle. We see so little of Basquiat’s art that it’s impossible to gain any insight into it. There was no probing into how or why he was capable of making art worthy of showing in the best galleries and museums. Warhol, played by Bowie, was even more two dimensional than the real Warhol, who one at least expects is putting on a show of insipidness in order to shield his true self from the public eye. So there was no insight into their relationship at all.

Rather than offer insight into Basquiat, his relationship with Warhol, and the New York art scene of the 80’s, the movie took the cliches at face value and reinforced the facade.

Basquiat and Warhola collaboration. Warhol did the logos and other copy illustration, and Basquiat did the more expressive scrawls.

The portrayal of Basquiat, in terms of acting, was OK, but I hadn’t noticed the real Basquiat going around perpetually with a limp wrist. Also, as a female friend I watched the first half of the movie with said, the real Basquiat is better looking [I endured the latter half in private, for research purposes, having already decided it wasn’t even worth watching]. The real artist was also a good deal more likable. And what was with the scene where Jean-Michel is picking at a blemish on his face in the mirror? There was way too much emphasis on that to be relevant, in which case it just seemed a bit of a mean way to put down the artist.

Schnabel's Basquiat
Schnabel’s Basquiat, played by Jeffrey Wright. I suspect the acting was not bad, but the role was shit.

I came away knowing less about Basquiat, the art scene, or anything else than when I started the film, unless you count learning the film was garbage. You can learn more about the real artist by looking at one of his paintings for 30 seconds.

Dustheads, by Basquiat, 1982. This sold for over $48 million. Uuuuuh, it’s one of his better ones because it’s got lots of color and there’s some good stuff going on with the blues and greens on the right head, but, I don’t think it’s THAT good.

There was also Schnabel’s strange inclusion of himself and his art into the movie. When Basquiat begins to unravel after the death of the Warhol puppet, the Schnabel character invites him around to visit his own home/studio. There, Schnabel tries to impress, or rather crush, Basquiat with his much larger canvases, his home, family, and success. Soon after, Basquiat succumbs to self-defeat, and overdoses on heroin.

Basquiat dwarfed by the monumental canvases of the writer/director himself.  Opera played during this scene! This is Schnabel’s attempt to prove that he is the GOD of contemporary art, though sometimes bigger is just a bigger mistake.

The movie goes out of its way to prove that Schnabel is the real ART GOD of the era, even if he’s still alive, and in so doing doesn’t shed any light on Basquiat’s work, while also casting doubt on Schnabel’s half-baked Neo-Expressionism (His work looks like if it were only 15% better it would be great, but always falls short). If he’s so intensely deep and expressive, why did he make such a stinking, superficial, trivializing film about his fellow artist?

Julian Schnabel, St. Francis in Ecstasy, 1980. Oil and plates on wood. 96 x 84″. This is one of his very best paintings.

I saw there are a lot of reviews of the film, but wanted to write up my impression before they have a chance to influence me. Perhaps the reviews will help me get a better understanding of the phenomenon of Basquiat.

One thought on “Schnabel’s Basquiat a Basket Case

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