And much like his work, he exploded to become the most famous artist of his generation within the short span of two years. It didn't happen all at once, but rather a fire that burns hot from one match head to another until, finally, there was nothing left except the memory of hot blues, reds, and amber.
There was the Times Square Show, a multi-artist exhibition in 1980 that he joined with artists Keith Haring and Kenny Scharf. There was the New York/New Wave P.S.1 Show where anyone could hang their work. There were his first canvas paintings created in the basement of the Annina Nosei Gallery in SoHo. And then there was the artistically written introduction, The Radiant Child, by Rene Ricard.
"What is it that makes something look like art? I can't answer that. I asked someone once why he liked Jean-Michel's work and why it was being singled out for acclaim and he said, "because it looks like art." — Rene Ricard
One of the few remaining memories was released this year by Tamra Davis. She shot interviews of Basquiat in 1985, when he was at the teetering peak of his career and she was a student. The first version was a 20-minute film, which was shown at the 2006 Sundance Film Festival.
The full-length feature with the people who knew him is a masterpiece of a masterful and suddenly tragic life. The balance between their memories now, recaps of the past, and a bed of sights and sounds creates a collage that is fitting for his life's work. And it's less of an epitaph than a celebration from beginning to end.
Davis might not have been part of the art scene in New York in the late 1970s, but she might as well have been. Her cast of people touched by the Basquiat as well as her own research creates a spellbinding image powerful enough to long for the pool of artists that eventually became the Downtown 500 in Lower Manhattan, along with the poetry of SAMO, a creation of Basquiat and Al Diaz.
"A pin drops like a pungent odor." — SAMO
It was their opportunity to take some space and own it. SAMO made Basquiat famous as a graffiti artist, but the compassionate psychological documentary reveals many layers of the young artist, who even had a band with Shannon Dawson, Michael Holman, Wayne Clifford, Nicholas Taylor and Vincent Gallo.
They called it Gray. They weren't musicians, but it worked as noise. It also became the instrument of inspiration for the Downtown 81 from New York Beat Films. The heart of it picks up almost halfway into the production.
The glimpse into Basquiat from Downtown 81 inexplicably hides an artist boiling somewhere just under the surface. He could have been anyone. But he wasn't.
"If you wanna talk about influence, man ... then you've got to realize that influence is not influence. It's someone's idea going through my new mind." — Basquiat (by attribution).
He was neoexpressive in an era where minimalism had taken root and almost destroyed some appreciation for the art. Even the first few minutes will give you a glimpse of the canvas he etched to bebop, classical, and jazz, often with the television set on and his head in a book. Whoosh.
The film opened for a short run at the Film Forum in New York City and then a handful of select cities. Where the Arthouse Films is doing better with the distribution is in the after-release market and, recently announced, second showing from Dec. 15-21 at the Film Forum in New York City for anyone not lucky enough to see it the first time.
Jean-Michel Basquiat: The Radiant Child By Tamra Davis Paints An 8.9 On The Liquid Hip Richter Scale.
Never mind what you may have seen in the 1996 biographical drama. The film was interesting, but not in the way Davis and friends tell it. She dispels the notion of Andy Warhol abandoning him, but instead captures the likability of someone who always seemed to know he would be famous, but never considered the wealth that might come with it.
Jean-Michel Basquiat: The Radiant Child is available on iTunes. The film is also on Amazon.
Davis is dedicated to having the film be seen as proceeds seem to be funding showings. In New York, she will host a question and answer session after the 8 p.m. showing on Dec. 15. I wish I could be there.