Kenneth Baker, writing for The San Francisco Chronicle, reviews Tamra Davis’ documentary on the late artist.
Jean-Michel Basquiat died at 27 of a drug overdose at – or, he feared, just past – the pinnacle of a painting career that today symbolizes the headlong spirit of money-drunk 1980s culture.
Filmmaker Tamra Davis begins her tribute to Basquiat with footage of an interview that she shot in Los Angeles two years before his demise. We see his natural charm and liquid smile. We also see a tentativeness that, in the course of the film, comes to seem symptomatic of his circumstances at the time: lionized and rewarded but also exploited, backed into the role of a representative figure – the self-taught genius who revitalized an exhausted art form, and just happened to have Caribbean roots.
When Jeffrey Deitch, former high-flying art dealer and current director of the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art, says of the teenage Basquiat “he knew exactly how to position himself,” it translates as “we knew exactly how to position him,” especially after Davis reminds us of the seven- and eight-figure prices that Basquiat’s work has fetched at auction posthumously.
From the opening music – Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker’s “Salt Peanuts” – to the zooms and pans across Basquiat’s early street graffiti and his paintings and drawings, Davis uses every device in the documentary book to evoke the frenzy of the downtown Manhattan scene that welcomed Basquiat, then a charismatic, indigent runaway. Debbie Harry of Blondie bought for $200 the first painting that Basquiat sold. (It might well bring 500 times that at auction today.)
Davis makes no mention that Basquiat broke out of a short-lived graffiti painting “movement” fabricated by some of the art dealers who speak on camera. She does not shrink from suggesting that too much money and notoriety and too little preparation for handling them killed Basquiat. But she underplays the place of drugs in the downtown club scene, treating the artist’s heroin use as a nearly unaccountable late affliction.
Only the reactionary Hilton Kramer, in a snippet from an ’80s CBS interview, belittles Basquiat’s achievement. The art market has spoken loud and clear in Basquiat’s favor, but his critical standing still has a lot of sorting out before it. Davis’ footage of Basquiat painting in L.A. attests to his comfort with her, but it also makes us wonder whether she might have found herself in possession of a Basquiat or two, which would discredit any pretense on her part to documentary impartiality.
People who have seen fellow painter Julian Schnabel’s “Basquiat” – with its star-making portrayal by Jeffrey Wright – may reasonably trust its truth as a tribute over Davis’ ostensibly more factual exercise.
For the original article go to http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?f=/c/a/2010/09/02/MVCJ1F5SCD.DTL#ixzz0yR60YPfp
The photos, which accompanied the original article, are by Lee Jaffe.