Jean-Michel Basquiat face to face
The back story
When I encountered Jean-Michel Basquiat, in Manhattan across a couple of weeks during the fall of 1985, he was at the pinnacle of his success. Twenty-four years old, with the crown of his abbreviated dreads disarranged to perfection, with his quizzical smile and stern stare held in fine balance, he projected the understated cool of stardom. Earlier that year he had been portrayed on the front cover of the New York Times Magazine, barefoot, in a paint-spattered suit. Armani, it was said. He looked out at the reader with an air of disdain ... or was it defensiveness, vulnerability?
We filmed him at the Tony Shafrazi gallery, in SoHo, posing for another celebrity portrait, this time in the company of the mentor he had most fiercely sought to get close to, Andy Warhol. The backdrop was provided by paintings the two artists had made together, and were there to promote. But already there were mutterings in the city that their collaboration had generated good commerce and bad art.
Jean-Michel’s international success had made him rich enough by then to freely order eye-wateringly expensive meals for whoever was in his entourage that night, and to hand out a fistful of dollars to panhandlers he passed in the street. He had flown the world that year to attend solo shows at prestigious galleries in America, Europe and Asia. The renowned scholar, Robert Farris Thompson, had written in one catalogue that Jean-Michel was “a heroic embodiment of the impact of Afro-Atlantic civilizations on the world”.
We filmed him late at night, painting in the Bowery studio where he worked and lived. It was property he rented from Warhol. It was big, low-ceilinged and dark, not a fantasy, light-filled loft, high above the streets. That night Jean-Michel had before him a row of doors stretched along a wall, and he would proceed along this wall, stabbing and almost scraping the doors with an oil stick. He’d walk back and forward to repeat the process with different coloured sticks. Five doors at a time, the paintings slowly emerging.
Later, in a living space upstairs, Jean-Michel knelt on the floor, surrounded by his drawings, fat books and an expansive collection of magazines, looking like the detritus of a teenage bedroom. While he worked with pencil and crayon on one of his complex fusions of cramped text and fragmentary images, he occasionally glanced up at a fuzzy gray and white film from maybe the 1950s. One scene I remember showed the violent interrogation of a prisoner tied to a chair. The thuds and screaming in Italian blended with Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie performing athletic solos on the speaker system. Coincidence, no doubt, but this music was also from the1950s ... the days when the Abstract Expressionists, the first American artists to conquer the world, were at their pinnacle.
Jean-Michel was keen to please, but something was bothering him throughout our encounters. The interview. He knew that we were making a series of films on the contemporary art of the time, for international broadcast, and for subsequent installation in scholarly libraries around the world. We were taking him seriously, and placing him in serious company. Artists of such cultural currency as Anselm Kiefer and Joseph Beuys, Cindy Sherman and Mary Kelly were being featured alongside him. He didn’t want to mess up.
He knew that the sharks were swimming around him in his pool of celebrity. Inevitably, the most articulate of his critics were the most devastating. Robert Hughes, with his scalpel-sharp mind and diamond-sharp wit, dismissed Jean-Michel from the start. He saved his worst for an obituary piece but he, and others, said similar things when Jean-Michel was alive, often with a whiff of racial condescension:
“(He is) a wild child, a curiosity, an urban noble savage - art’s answer, perhaps, to the Wolf Boy of Aveyron. Basquiat played the role to the hilt ...a small, untrained talent caught in the buzz saw of artworld promotion, absurdly overrated by dealers, collectors, and, no doubt to their future embarrassment, by critics … Basquiat never looked like he was turning into a painter of real quality. His ‘importance’ was merely that of a symptom.”
I and my co-author of the tv series, Sandy Nairne, believed then (and believe now) that the best of Basquiat was as great in its way as the art of the people he revered, even people such as Parker and Gillespie, and most certainly Warhol and Twombly, artists he especially looked up to. But could he trust us to be fair to him? Could he trust himself to make a good case in speech as well as paint?
We arranged three times, or maybe it was four, to turn up after dark for the interview. He would disappear upstairs and then return to say, what about tomorrow, or maybe the day after? One time I went up to seek him out. We sat on the floor, with loud music in air, and talked about jazz. I couldn’t fail to notice that, as these evenings progressed (is that the word?), his chemical balance became increasingly unstable.
For all his fame and fortune, Jean-Michel Basquiat was still the vulnerable child of a fierce father and mentally fragile mother, and inevitably, of course, the fractures of American society. Look hard at his work, and those fractures become ever clearer. And they are one of the reasons why his paintings have gained their epic status in the past thirty years, and why they have failed to follow the course predicted by Robert Hughes et al.
I discovered in later conversations with people who knew him well that Jean-Michel could be charming and kind, a delight to be around, but a lot of the time he could be a ballbreaker, nasty, selfish and single-mindedly on the make. In both good times and bad, his friability was there for all to see. He look destined to crumble. Even the way he held the pencil, oilstick or brush could look like evidence of inner torments and his uncertainty about his true status in the world he was so desperate to succeed in.
If you see archive footage and photographs of Jean-Michel you’ll see shadows of pain, fear, disconnection and defiance cross his face frequently. That is what I see in this sequence of pictures we captured when the interview did finally take place. An unsettled and unsettling portrait of a very young man who seemed destined to die before he could gain maturity, stablility and contentment. He was dead within three years of this hard-to-get interview. Cause of death: “acute mixed drug intoxication”. And a whole lot of other afflictions.
When I asked Jean-Michel on camera whether it was a coincidence that so many of the faces in his paintings looked angry, he replied: “I’m not out to frighten people…”
Then I asked whether there was any anger inside him. He said: “Of course there is. Of course there is.”
But when I followed up with the question, What are you angry about? he went silent. In the achingly long gap that followed, with the camera still running, all those expressions and more crossed his face. Finally, he uttered: “I don’t remember.”
Since that time I have often reflected on this answer. Part of me considers that Jean-Michel had taken so many drugs to steel himself for this serious (as opposed to celebrity) interview that he may have blanked out and forgotten the question. Another part of me wonders whether his few years of success had tossed him into a world where hecould be rebellious but he couldn’t cross a line that alienated his best customers and most influential critics. Certainly he had given all his dealers one helluva time. Merchants, he dismissively called them. But my final speculation –the one I am most convinced by- is that Jean-Michel was working so hard to face so many different directions that he could no longer remember the right way to look, or even who precisely he was. He had lost his identity, if he had ever really gained it. In his final years he evidenced complete disintegration, within himself and on canvas – which is why his very last paintings are so hard to look at.
My long-awaited and undoubtedly fractured interview concluded simply:
Q: Black people in this country get a rough deal. Is that part of what your work’s about?
A: “Yeah, I have to say so, yeah.”
Jean-Michel Face to Face x 5 is a recently published edition of 50 prints direct to aluminium.
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