Jean-Michel Basquiat would be turning fifty years old this fall. Instead, he has been dead for twenty-two years, the victim, at twenty-seven, of a 1988 heroin overdose the art world witnessed more or less firsthand. Basquiat’s crack-up begat a frenzy of speculation that drove that decade’s art-market crash (since the rise of the contemporary auction ecosystem, there seems to be about one every decade). His funeral reportedly featured more art dealers than mourners; Jeffrey Deitch—now the director of LA MoCA, then the high-flying founder of Citibank’s art-advising arm—gave the eulogy. According to Phoebe Hoban’s detailed account in her unsparing book Basquiat: A Quick Killing in Art, the ruined artist left behind “917 drawings, 25 sketchbooks, 85 prints, and 171 paintings.” That, and a counterfeit fable of overnight sensation for biographers, filmmakers, and groupies to pore over.
At last count, the obsession with Basquiat’s rise and fall has produced seven books (not including exhibition catalogues) and three feature films. The most recent item is a dewy-eyed documentary directed by a one-time Basquiat crony turned moviemaker named Tamra Davis (her other films include Billy Madison, starring Adam Sandler, and Half Baked, starring Dave Chappelle). Titled Jean-Michel Basquiat: The Radiant Child, Davis’s idealized effort situates the raucous highs and lows of Basquiat’s life in the make-believe of a children’s story. A gussied-up tale of troubled genius, The Radiant Child repeats the trope of Basquiat-as-tragic-artist originated by the cutthroat eighties art scene and later canonized by schlocky Basquiat hagiographies.
Basquiat’s brief real-life art career reads like a druggy Reader’s Digest version of Lust for Life. He did several things well, including paint frantic pictures of downtown anomie. But he was even more interesting—and useful—as a kind of kamikaze entertainer. An art star in paint-splattered Armani who placed vomit pails near canvases so that he could simultaneously work and smoke cocaine, Basquiat routinely freaked out, nodded off at social engagements, and alternately attracted and alienated people by acting out—a performance of the age-old role of tortured artist that doubled, for his paying audience of dealers and collectors, as a portrait of racial unease. Basquiat’s Caligula impersonation proved irresistible to those who wanted to exploit him financially or socially. Either way, he was fucked.
If Basquiat’s affectless buddy Andy Warhol—with his Big Brother–like films and camp Factory version of Hollywood stardom—is the father of reality television, then Basquiat is the classic fatal victim of the body snatching we’ve gotten used to calling celebrity, a condition that is as coercive as it is voluntary, instant powdered mass fame. When Warhol biographer Victor Bockris wrote about Basquiat in his book The Life and Death of Andy Warhol, he pegged the shooting-star routine with these words: “Jean-Michel’s career paralleled many [of Warhol’s] Superstars’—two years of extreme fame, and then disintegration, even death.”
Today, we hardly mention Warhol’s superstars, except to puzzle over their cold maestro. So why do we still care so much about Jean-Michel? His work retains an undeniable energy and a magpie’s love of art history (Basquiat constantly recycled shiny bits from books that littered the floor of his studio), but the canvases—despite their attractions—remain remarkably beside the point. Simply put, Basquiat was not just young, gifted, and self-destructive, he was also black. A perfect victim of radical chic, Basquiat embodied a kind of radiant hostility, expressed as cagey surliness in public and sporadic rage in his work, that didn’t complicate the bargain—it purified it. The paintings could be as angry as Basquiat wanted them to be; they were still for sale.
Those sales bought him something: a place in liberal culture that afforded him class privileges in exchange for racial ghost-busting. The last credible name to be attached to the myth of the downtown artist as a dark-arts demiurge—recent applicants have failed to deliver anything like Basquiat’s substance beneath their trucker-hat mannerisms—Jean-Michel’s celebrity continues to radiate the movie version of bohemian New York. A middle-class son of an immigrant accountant, Basquiat embodied his own counter-narrative; like much of his complex life, his race and Haitian origins were also consumed by fame. To paraphrase Roland Gift of the Fine Young Cannibals, Basquiat the art star was not black, he was famous. Except, of course, when he wanted to hail a taxi.
Christian Viveros-Fauné is a New York-based writer and curator. He writes regularly for the Village Voice and ArtReview magazine and is a visiting professor at Yale University.
See Also: “Tuxedo,” by Jean-Michel Basquiat