Sunday, August 29, 2010
Paint, Nostalgia, The End Of The 80's, And More Of The Same Old Shit
He was supermodel beautiful. No wonder journalists wanted to take pictures of him in fancy suits that few young artists could ever afford to buy. He could afford to buy them. But it wasn't always that way.
This post is dedicated to Gardenia, who sent me a heads up email a few months ago about a documentary on Jean-Michel Basquit. We have been waiting for it to hit chicago and we were able to see it yesterday afternoon. Thanks Gardenia!
We lost three outstanding artists within a couple years of each other in the late 80's. Who would have imagined that Andy Warhol would have been one of the cult of people who died too young? No he wasn't as young as the classic beauties of Cobain, or Hendrix, or Morrison, Or McQueen. But he had decades of time to make more artwork, and for an artist, a painter especially, hitting one's stride occurs in one's 40's and 50's. After years of hand to eye rote fluency. Not to say that a young musician or painter or actor doesn't have skills and dynamic range early on, but the nature of the practice is that with years of work a currency of language and experience can make for a breathless, seemingly effortless, artist. Picasso's best work was done in his 80's. Bob Dylan's better than he ever was. Matisse ignored his arthritis and became looser and more delicate using a long brush to help him fight physical pain to make his most poetic stories. Cormac McCarthy seems to write with more empathy and free-flowing poetry, no longered hampered by the weight of previous writers.
We will never know what kind of paintings Jean-Michel Basquiat would have painted in his 50's or 80's. Understanding the organic, and anthropological history of hand=to-eye corodination, the result of neotony on the human brain/animal plays into the life- work of musicians and artists, and other craftspeople. But here we have the odd exception in Basquiat. He was extremely sophisticated socially and he understood his world so very well at so very young an age. How many people know he was from an upper-middle class family and he spoke several languages? He moved to NYC from the suburbs because he knew he wanted to be an artist. He and his partner formed a graffiti monster that intrigued the whole city for years under the moniker of "SAMO" for "same old shit", He was 17. They wrote graffiti that was filled with literary, economic and sociological punches utterly savvy of of the world in the late 70's and early 80's. The record of their graffiti is still outrageous and profound today.
The documentary The Radiant Child takes it's lead from the Langston Hughes poem. Explanatory in the poem is the idea that a precocious young person is resented in our society and they will not last. Stagg and I were both a little hesitant about this movie, after all, the hero dies. So it's a matter of how much tissue are we gonna need, ya know? Add to that he and I were both so excited by art at this time period and NYC. We had both experienced what it was like to ride the insane painted subways back then. I was almost afraid, the scrawlings all over the inside of the cars was intimidating. Later NYC bought subway cars from Canada that repelled graffiti making felt pens and spray paint bead up and fall away.
The director of this documentary was friends with Basquiat and she had interviewed him and filmed him painting for a couple of years. The footage of him painting is compelling. He had an unusual way of holding his materials emulating a child. He could paint with a whole party of people in the room with him. When Basquiat died the director took her film of him and stored it away. I feel it is to her credit and a sign of her integrity that she didn't make the film till now. Also, it doesn't appear she went out looking for some big budget, or if she did, I don't think she found it. The result is a very personal feeling to the film in that it doesn't have fancy font or titles, it has old sometimes rough film and video. It feels very grassroots and somehow that suits the story.
Tamra Davis, the director, was able to find and interview many key players in Basquiats life, the most charming and important his serious gorlfriend, Suzanne. Suzanne is sitting in a comfortable setting and recalls many of the times she spent with Basquait and early in the film, we see a still photo of her in full club regalia. she was gorgeous and young and fabulous in her 80's make-up and nightclub clothes. I had tears well in my eyes. This is soft a spot for me. I spent a great deal of time in my 20's dancing and partying in many of the places shown in the film.
One of the great pleasures and anticipations of going to see a film is to experience soemthing different. To see the world shifted, from someone elses point of view. To feel a paradigm shift, to feel excited or alive. Hence why so many movies with CGI, or wild action scenes and sci-fi can be so popular. The Radiant Child was not that kind of journey for me or Stagg. This was a world we knew so very well. Stagg has a picture of him and Keith Harring together. i met Keith Harring and got some of his posters and buttons right from him, in the Fun Galllery. All through the 80's I would head down to the Island airport in Toronto and catch a cheap $40 flight to NYC and crash with my friend who was at NYU, check out the galleries and dance at Area, Danceteria, Lucky Strike, Berlin, Mudd Clubb, CBGB's, and Pyramid. Heady heady times. These are all the places where the artists hung out and where Basquiat would frequent. The excitement surrounding a new art opening and show was something that would rev me up. It seemed you could just show up in the lower east side, where my friend lived, and on any given evening there was an amazing event.
Davis has a lot of footage and a lot of the mood that brought Basquait into the world's awareness. fortunately she interviewed Julian Schnabel (who made the excellent movie Basquiat with possibly the most brilliant casting in film history:David Bowie playing Andy Warhol!). Schanebel offers an older brother history to several ex-girlfriends memories and an excellent interview with Rene Ricard, the poet who adored Basquiat's work. We also see a lot of Basquiat's work. A LOT. He was prolific and seeing his paintings so large and illuminated is worth the theatre visit alone. Stunning! We also see some of his drawing from when he was a teen and drew comics. Any cynic's doubt about his skills is erased. He could draw whatever he wanted, he chose to draw and paint the way he did, it wasn't for lack of skill or experience.
This isn't the best documentary in the world, there are some problems with the subtitles and some of the editing is unusual...but it's so very very touching. And for a glimpse of what it was like to be in the most exciting city in the world at the time, it shows the good and the bad. Stagg and I both fought tears throughout the movie often because of sentimental feelings for the music of time ,because we were young then and artists. The soundtrack is delightful with bee bop and early rap. (the Beastie Boys helped out with the soundtrack, yea baby!)
Before they were famous: Basquiat and one of his girlfriends, Madonna. Both about 21 years old.
One shocking bit of the film is with Andy Warhol. He is seen with Basquait and Andy seems like a young kid. Basquiat is jubilant because he can't believe he is friends and hanging out with Warhol. Warhol took Basquait under his wing and Basquat awakened something in Warhol. Warhol is giggling and hugging him and looks so very warm and affectionate...something we don't usually associate with his Warhol persona. We also see Kenny Sharf at work, clips of Keith Harring, Madonna and Basquiat...and we enter the time when we lose first Warhol, then Basquiat (and we know Harring dies a couple years later). It's hard for me to rate this film because it stirred up so many emotions for me...but I believe it is a good insight into the life of an artist, and a fantastic record of a small window of time. There were a lot of surprises, even for Stagg and I. 10/10 despite some charming rough edges.
Debbie Harry was one of the first people to buy a Basquiat painting. And her lyrics haunted me this morning as I mulled what to write about this film. "Die Young Stay Pretty". Even Warhol managed to get his ass in on that act.
Fortunately, death doesn't have it's greedy paws on art.
A year ago we wAnt to Milwaukee with our friends Tricia and andy and saw "The Last Decade" show of andy Warhol. I have meant to post about that series of paintings as we got the catalogue from the show but I just keep not being in the right space to write about it. It was really stunning partly because of Warhol's work, but they also had a bunch of collaborations between Basquiat and Warhol. It was thrilling to see the paintwork of Warhol and his drawing. Warhol was a master draughtsman and people often forget he could paint whatever he wanted but he chose to paint with silkscreen many times. Sound familiar? (anoher detail people don't realize is the Warhol often painted over top of his silkscreens!). The collaborations between these two artists are wonderful. At the time, critics totally hated these paintings and trashed them. I thought the critics had gone stark raving mad. These are amazing paintings that now are coming round to be recognized as the masterpieces they are. Here are a few...