VIFF Preview| Jean-Michel Basquiat: The Radiant Child

As the Vancouver International Film Festival draws closer and the VIFF Program Guide drops today (check here for pick up locations), I will be previewing some of the many art related films that will be part of this year’s schedule in the coming weeks. So many films, so little time!

Basquiat posing in front of one of his signature canvases c. 1980's
There are several moments of twentieth century cultural history that I would love to have experienced first hand—Weimar Berlin in the 1920’s, the Golden Age of Hollywood in the 1930’s, post-war Rome and Paris in the 1940’s, San Francisco in the late 1960’s, and then there is the New York art scene of the 1980’s. This final milieu forms the backdrop of the much awaited new documentary on the life of the enigmatic visual artist Jean-Michel Basquiat. Emerging on the New York art scene as a young graffiti artist in the late 1970’s, Basquiat came of age during the intoxicating moment when a seismic shift in the New York art market, fuelled by new corporate art investors and the influx of Japanese money, resulted in the demand for large painted works to decorate the walls of corporate offices and million dollar New York lofts (think Gordon Gekko and the general vibe of the 1987 Oliver Stone film Wall Street-- which incidentally has a timely sequel opening tomorrow). As auction houses began to sell directly to this new breed of collector, the world of art buying and art producing, together with art promotion and art criticism, underwent profound transformation. Importantly, many artists became caught up and obsessed with the management of their public persona and fortunes at the expense of what many claim was the actual art they created. It is not unlike the cult of personality attached to celebrity artists such as Damien Hirst and Jeff Koons that was explored so brilliantly in another great documentary from last year's VIFF, Ben Lewis's The Great Contemporary Art Bubble.

Basquiat and a young Madonna in
an intimate snapshot
The Radiant Child is a documentary portrait of Basquiat directed by Tamra Davis and inspired by a set of never-before-seen interviews and footage that the filmmaker made twenty years ago while friends with Basquiat. Basquiat’s identity (born to a Haitian mother and Puerto Rican Father) together with his good looks, interest in street art and close associations with musicians and performers from Manhattan’s Lower East Side (he famously dated the young and yet to be discovered Madonna) lent him the kind of instant mystique and outsider position that many of the new collectors were drawn to. It didn’t hurt that Andy Warhol liked and promoted him a whole lot as well—and so Basquiat became a 1980’s art superstar. As Basquiat biographer Richard Marshall sums up (and is reiterated in the trailer for the film): “Jean-Michel Basquiat first became famous for his art, and then he became famous for being famous, and then he became famous for being infamous.”
Basquiat and Andy Warhol
photographed by Michael Halsband
Because of the particular context which lead to Basquiat’s fame and some argue resulted in his very tragic end (he died of a drug overdose in 1988 at the age of 27), the questions surrounding Basquiat’s critical contributions to the history of contemporary art have been complex. As the New York Times review for the film concludes, Davis “places Basquiat’s art in a cultural context with an enthusiasm and zest that make the many pictures shown come blazingly alive. His bitter contemplations of black history, in particular, have an epic, historical dimension, while also reflecting his own insecurity about being treated as an exotic, token black star in a predominantly white art world.” I look forward to seeing this film and thinking about how Basquiat's life story contributes to our understanding of the art superstar phenomena that is still very much part of today's contemporary art world.

The Radiant Child will be running at VIFF on Thursday, September 30th @ 6:15pm (Empire Granville 7) and Sunday, October 3rd @ 11:00am (Vancity Theatre)

Trailer for The Radiant Child

Further Reading:

Buchhart, D et al. Jean-Michel Basquiat Hatje-Cantz, 2010.

Marshall, C. "Jean-Michel Basquiat, Outsider Superstar." International Review of African American Art 16.4 (2000): 32-36.