By 1980 the graffiti movement in New York City had reached its high point. Risking electrocution, ghetto youth would sneak into subway yards after midnight and paint murals on the sides of cars. Signing their work with tags like "Juan 233", they sought neither fame nor money, just satisfaction in the knowledge that others might possibly enjoy their art. You can see typical work from that era at: http://www.rendezvouswithgraffiti.com
Every so often an individual would surface from the depths of this movement into the mainstream, the two best known being Keith Haring and Jean-Michel Basquiat. Unlike the average graffiti artist, Basquiat always had his eyes set on fame and money. Born to a Haitian accountant father and Puerto Rican mother, he inherited many of his tennis-playing father's expensive tastes and habits. Even though he was virtually homeless starting out, he had thought through a grand strategy for upward mobility.
Basquiat was the celebrated "SAMO" (same old shit) tagger, whose graffiti appeared all over lower Manhattan. Using a magic marker, Basquiat would write statements like "SAMO as an end 2 playing art with the 'radical chic' on Daddy's$funds" on billboards or walls. Included in his usual itinerary were the walls proximate to the gallery of Mary Boone, who was to the art business of that time as Michael Milken was to investment banking. Basquiat's ploy was to write anti-materialism messages in plain view of some of the worst materialists around. This was not only a key to his rise to fame, but a stunning reflection of the tendency of the bourgeoisie to co-opt cultural opposition. As Thomas Frank puts it, "The countercultural idea has become capitalist orthodoxy, its hunger for transgression upon transgression now perfectly suited to an economic-cultural regime that runs on ever-faster cyclings of the new; its taste for self-fulfillment and its intolerance for the confines of tradition now permitting vast latitude in consuming practices and lifestyle experimentation."
When some of Basquiat's early work, which was a combination of painting and graffiti, first appeared in an "alternative" Lower East Side gallery, he was discovered by Henry Geldzahler, Mayor Koch's Commissioner of Cultural Affairs who had an eye for "transgression." While he was using his clout to elevate the career of a minority graffiti artist, his boss was using his bully pulpit to attack the city's black and Latino community as "criminal elements". Those well-versed in the city's economy understood that the rise in crime was related to cuts in social services and job opportunities for ghetto youth. Those cuts were being orchestrated by social forces represented on the board of directors of art museums that Geldzahler sat on. Citibank executives, et al, might be convinced of the need to put a Basquiat on the wall as a cheap substitute for hiring high school graduates from the South Bronx.
Within a year or so, Basquiat had developed his highly marketable style. It combined Afrocentric themes mixed with graffiti based on his own hermetic universe of symbols. Painted on unconventional media, including objects retrieved from the junkyard, Basquiat seemed to be attacking bourgeois society. A good example is the evocatively titled "Hollywood Africans" at http://www.europosters.com/basquiat/bqj1.htm. While ostensibly directed against racism, the painting is so much the product of Basquiat's private imagination that one can not possibly interpret it as a specific critique of anything. Anything too close to the bone would obviously not fit into the décor of Upper Manhattan or European apartments, where most of his work ended up.
Basquiat soon became touted as the most important African-American artist of the 20th century. Those doing the touting obviously had never paid attention to people like Harlem's Jacob Lawrence who labored away making oh-so-boring paintings of African-American working people or John Brown.
As Basquiat became more and more marketable, there was more and more pressure for him to produce. Since he had an enormous appetite for drugs, expensive clothing, fancy restaurants and first-class travel, this meant that he was tempted to work around the clock. Stoked by cocaine and marijuana, he'd often paint 18 hours in a row and then use heroin to get to sleep. When he awoke, he'd start off where he left off. As a modern-day equivalent of the Nibelungen, Basquiat labored away in the windowless basement of an upscale gallery run by an Italian woman named Annina Nosei who saw herself as an "ex-hippie". If he was a slave, he was certainly a well-dressed one. Basquiat worked on his paintings in Armani suits and often appeared in public in these same paint-splattered $1000 suits--a testament to his affinity for both mammon and bohemia.
Basquiat as artist and icon was eagerly embraced by the "postal" academic establishment who saw his graffiti as a form of Derridean 'ecriture'. His work was often grouped with Barbara Kruger, whose trademarked neon works including slogans like "I shop therefore I am" often appeared on the walls of the same upscale residences as Basquiat's.
>From Nosei, he went on to deal through Swiss mega-dealer Bruno Bischofberger, who would buy Basquiat paintings by the dozen, always paying in cash. He understood that the money would be turned over immediately to feed Basquiat's insatiable habits for the good life. Art world sharks like Bischofberger, Mary Boone and Leo Gagosian all had dealings with Basquiat at one time or another on the same sordid basis.
His last dealer was Vrej Baghoomian, an Iranian émigré widely suspected of being a CIA agent. Baghoomian was cousin to Tony Shafrazi, another dealer and sometime graffiti artist who earned notoriety for defacing Picasso's "Guernica." For some reason these sorts of 1980s "rebels" had it in for Picasso. When Basquiat was over in Europe on one junket, he and his cronies got high on coke at the Paris apartment of artist George Condo. As Phoebe Hoban put it, "There Basquiat indulged in the elite privileges of eighties success: he communed with Picasso by snorting coke off glass-framed drawings by the genius of another era. . ."
Near the end of his short life, Basquiat hooked up with Andy Warhol. Basquiat gave Warhol the cachet of being connected to the personification of youthful energy, while Warhol supplied the younger artist with introductions to wealthy clients as well as serving as a surrogate father figure. Apparently Basquiat was the only African-American that Warhol ever befriended, let alone got within close proximity to. The first time Warhol saw him striding toward his studios from across the street, he told an assistant, "Don't let that colored boy inside."
Basquiat also affected Warhol's affectless style. As Hoban describes it, "He stared through people, and mumbled in ironic monosyllables, a zombie-like effect no doubt enhanced by his profligate use of drugs." After Warhol died, Basquiat went off the deep end. On August 12, 1988 he died of a heroin overdose. He was 28 years old.
>From the bare elements of this sad narrative, artist Julian Schnabel decided to write, produce and direct the 1996 film "Basquiat."
Framed as a cautionary tale, it is of some significance that Schnabel took on this project since he, Basquiat, Haring, Kruger et al were all products of the sordid, bull market driven 1980s "avant garde" art scene. One can only suppose that by 1996 everybody had woken up to the fact that this scene had little to do with genuine cultural or human values and that Schnabel found it prudent to refashion himself for the changing times.
Schnabel's specialty was enormous canvases with broken crockery encrusted in layers of paint, like seashells on the beach. As an example, see "Blue Nude with Sword" at: http://www.nyu.edu/classes/finearts/karmel/modern/m_73.html
Robert Hughes remarked on Schnabel's meteoric rise to fame and fortune:
"The art looked radical without being so; it was merely novel, and that quality soon outwears itself. However, in 1980 the uncertainty of new-market taste was such that if someone stood up to assert loudly and repeatedly that he was a genius, there was a chance he would be believed."
Rather than understanding the complex interaction between art and commodification, Schnabel's film simply depicts the art gallery establishment as being populated by creeps. To make sure that this point is driven home, he went to central casting and lined up Dennis Hopper to play Bruno Bischofberger, whose lines are delivered in a sort of sneering Peter Lorre fashion.
Schnabel has a character Albert Milo (Gary Oldman) who functions as a stand-in for himself. In a scene that appears toward the end of the film, a broken, drug-addled Basquiat (Jeffrey Wright) shows up at Milo's palatial townhouse/studio. Milo attempts to whip Basquiat into shape but it is obviously too late. You see Basquiat urinating in Milo's hallway, while he and his adolescent daughter dance creepily to the strains of some forgettable rock tune in their oversized living room. On the walls are actual paintings by Schnabel. Basquiat's estate refused to allow the use of his paintings because they knew that when Basquiat was alive, he detested Schnabel.
The Basquiat of Schnabel's film has more in common with the flower-children of the 1960s than the kind of ambitious, consumerist character that existed in real life. He is seen as pathetic, emotional and vulnerable from the start. The real Basquiat was often a hard-driving, extremely demanding individual who hammered out deals with gallery bosses like one investment banker dealing with another. The film also has very little to say about the issue of racism, which is central to Basquiat's tragedy. Except for a passing reference to being unable to get a cab, the topic does not really get articulated in any meaningful sense.
Another of Schnabel's injustices is the portrait of two gay men who were important to Basquiat's development. One is Andy Warhol--played by David Bowie--alluded to above. The other is writer Rene Ricard (Michael Wincott) who went on a one-man crusade to promote Basquiat's reputation after meeting him early on. Both are depicted as simpering, limp-wristed queens. I have not seen Schnabel's latest film "Before Night Falls," based on the life of Reynaldo Arenas, a gay Cuban opponent of the revolution, but something tells me that my favorite critic Mr. Cranky has it right when he says that Schnabel's Arenas is "gayer than a Castro Street Judy Garland revival."
During a momentary exposure to the downtown art world scene in the early 1990s, I had occasion to meet and speak with Rene Ricard. He has absolutely nothing in common with the caricature in Schnabel's film. The real Ricard is a smooth, urbane, witty and intelligent man who favors navy-blue blazers. In the film, he appears as a Richard Simmons type hysteric who goes out of control when Basquiat abandons him. Nothing can be further from the truth. While not taking a position on the merits of such an enterprise, the real Ricard has continued to devote himself to Basquiat's troubled legacy.
Phoebe Hoban, "Basquiat: A Quick Killing In Art", (Penguin, 1998)
Robert Hughes, "Nothing If Not Critical", (Penguin, 1990)