First and foremost, I offer my apologies for the lack of an Arty Bit last week (Editor’s note: Plus this week’s being late). This is the fault primarily of the editor, mainly because he doesn’t pay us enough or respect us enough, but secondly because he is generally an arse. Hence, I took it upon myself to have a well earned break, probably due to the fact that I was lost very deep inside the strange and twisted world of Hunter S. Thompson. And it was my birthday. Anyway, off with you naysayers, and let us resume our tour of the fascinating world of art. Last time I left you with my good friend Egon Schiele; this week however I have found myself looking up an artist far more recent, yet as interesting and tragic as Schiele.
Jean-Michel Basquiat was a New York born artist whose mother was Puerto-Rican and father was Haitian. He was born in 1960, and in 1977 began painting graffiti messages around Brooklyn. These were more text-based than images, and Basquiat adopted the street name ‘Samo’ within his work, writing messages such as ‘Plush safe he think; Samo’ and ‘Samo is an escape clause’ in simple black letters. Basquiat soon began producing more abstract image-based work however, and ended his graffiti era by repeatedly writing the message ‘Samo is dead.’
My interest in the artist arose after being shown the film Basquiat, which portrays his life and work. It was directed by Julian Schnabel, a fellow Neo-Expressionist who was close friends with Jean-Michel, and features an all-star cast. Jeffrey Wright (Hamlet 2000, Shaft, Casino Royale) stars as Basquiat, and is supported throughout the film by his friend Benny, aka Benicio Del Toro (Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Snatch, Sin City). Other characters are played by a fantastic list of actors that could make a critic drool, including Gary Oldman (Leon, The Fifth Element), Dennis Hopper (Rebel Without a Cause, Easy Rider, Apocalypse Now, Speed), and even David Bowie. Yes, David Bowie. Del Toro is fantastic as always, Jeffrey Wright portrays a fascinating Basquiat, and Bowie excels himself as the incredibly quirky cult figure of Andy Warhol. Bowie’s recent performances in films such as The Prestige have been impressive; hopefully we will see more of Big Dave on the Big Screen.
In 1978 Basquiat ran away from home and lived with friends in New York. Like much of the film, this time in Basquiat’s life is portrayed by Schnabel in quite a romanticised fashion. This Hollywood feel was the only thing I really disliked about the film, but you do find yourself expecting it with most movie biographies (I’m thinking here of The Doors movie). At this time Basquiat and his friends survived by selling T-Shirts and postcards on the street, and were getting into hard drugs in a heavy way. Unlike Trainspotting or Human Traffic, the film almost completely ignores the bad side of drugs, and again over romanticises the situation.
Jean-Michel soon acquired a certain celebrity status amongst much of the Manhattan art scene, which at that time was particularly focused around the Neo-Expressionists such as David Salle and the aforementioned Julian Schnabel. He was soon given shows in New York, participating first in the renowned ‘Times Square Show’, then being internationally launched after a review by Rene Richard (played by Michael Wincott) in the magazine ‘Artforum’.
In 1982 Basquiat began dating Madonna (which if you watch the film seems unbelievable), and he also became close friends with Andy Warhol. Many critics were sceptical of Warhol’s motives, believing that he was using the young and naïve Basquiat for his own gain. However, most people believe (and the film certainly portrays) that the two were true friends. The two produced many collaborative works and heavily influenced each other’s work, and remained close friends until Warhol’s death in 1987. It is believed that at this time Basquiat’s drug use spiralled, leading to his own death in 1988.
When Basquiat died he was 27 years of age – one year younger than Schiele, and the same age as Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, Brian Jones, Kurt Cobain and Jim Morrison. His death was somewhat inevitable – at the time he was mixing cocaine and heroin, leading to his mixed drug toxicity. The film conveniently avoids this brutal death. However, the film is fantastic – whilst being incredibly informative it also emotionally involves the audience to a great extent, and there is a real sense of excitement as you watch Basquiat’s climb to success. If you like the Arty Bit, you’ll love this film.