In 1983, filmmaker Tamra Davis, then working at a Los Angeles art gallery, struck up an acquaintance with artist Jean-Michel Basquiat, subsequently shooting a lengthy interview with him in 1985. She cut her footage of him, capturing a handsome, enthusiastic, articulate young man into a 20-minute film, screened at MOCA’s major Basquiat retrospective 20 years later. Davis then realized she had the nucleus of a documentary that would take years to complete, tracking down archival materials and the numerous people who knew him before his drug-related death at 27 in 1988.
“Jean-Michel Basquiat: The Radiant Child” is a remarkably rich documentary possessing depth, range, insight and compassion. Basquiat was born into an upper middle-class Brooklyn family. Although intermittently felled by psychiatric problems, his mother exposed him to great museum art an early age. By 17, Basquiat found refuge in the teeming lower Manhattan art and club scene of the early ‘80s, and was nudged from graffiti artist to a full-fledged painter who could “paint with words” by curator and art dealer Diego Cortez.
When pressures to produce for galleries and clients began mounting, he turned to heroin to maintain “focus.” Andy Warhol, his idol, took a paternal interest, steering him away from drugs, but a disastrously received collaboration between the artists, soon followed by Warhol’s death, propelled Basquiat on a downward spiral.
Through all of this Davis adroitly reveals that for all Basquiat’s soaring fame and fortune he could not break into Manhattan’s elite art circles. The Museum of Modern Art rejected his work, legendary art dealer Leo Castelli declared himself too old to deal with such a difficult artist, and powerful art critic Hilton Kramer dismissed Basquiat’s talent as so miniscule that his importance was practically nil.
“Jean-Michel Basquiat: The Radiant Child.” MPAA rating: Unrated. Running time: 1 hour, 30 minutes. At the Nuart, West Los Angeles, through Thursday