Jean-Michel Basquiat: The Radiant Child, out in select theaters today in New York, draws on before-unseen footage of filmmaker Tamra Davis in conversation with the artist, and new commentary from Basquiat's contemporaries and supporters, among them Julian Schnabel, dealer Bruno Bischofberger, and longtime girlfriend Suzanne Mallouk.
The documentary also revisits what was once thought to be the only existing video-taped interview with Basquiat, short clips of which feature in Radiant Child: a 1982 interview at Basquiat's Crosby Street studio, conducted as part of a program on "Young Expressionists" by the video magazine ART/new york.
The duo behind ART/new york (from 1981–1985), Paul Tschinkel and Marc Miller, approached Basquiat after being impressed his work at the New York/New Wave show at P.S. 1 the year before. ART/new york had covered the show and had shown the tape to Basquiat. "He was very happy. He stood out as one of the stars," Miller said, but at the time the painter was still "a bit of a mystery."
The ART/new york interview with Basquiat captures the artist just as his career was experiencing a seismic shift. He was leaving his dealer Annina Nosei (who had given him a studio space in her gallery's basement), and was showing at the gritty Fun Gallery in the East Village while at the same time establishing relationships with kingmakers like Larry Gagosian and Bishofberger.
In the video interview, a 21-year-old Basquiat explains elements of his work and process to interviewer Miller, and comments on how the New York art world sees him. There are roughly 10 minutes of the Basquiat interview in the "Young Expressionists" program, which also features Francesco Clemente and Julian Schnabel. The interview is one of 75 that Tschinkel and Miller made in four years working together, and "Young Expressionists" is one of 17 programs they sold to schools, libraries and art institutions.
But over the years, the Basquiat interview has become best known for what Miller calls its "awkward moments." The complicated legacy owes much to the different forms in which the footage has lived: edited into the "Young Expressionists" tape, produced and sold in its full length by Tschinkel (who continued ART/new york after Miller left and still makes tapes), and included in other films about the artist.
At one point, Miller quotes what other critics and reviewers have written about Basquiat - that his work is "some sort of primal expressionism."
"Like an ape? A primate?" Basquiat returns. When Miller stammers, "I don't know-" the artist insists, "You said it, you said it."
Though Miller wants to make it very clear he did not say those words, he recognizes the greater significance of Basquiat's response. Miller's stunned reaction, his inability to clarify his words, reflected the lack of articulateness around racial sensitivity at the time, in New York and in the art world. "This was not 2010. This was 1982," Miller said. "This was the beginning. There was no multiculturalism there, there was not even multi-genderism there... It wasn't a multicultural art world."
In Radiant Child, the clip is followed soon after by a part of the Davis-Basquiat interview where the artist further voices his suspicions that some in the art world see him as a "monkey with a paint brush." The editing in the Davis film will likely not help the ART/new york clip seem any more racially sensitive. Miller said he can "almost guarantee" that those are the clips that will continue to be replayed.
"I'm basically proud of that interview with Basquiat and it's upsetting that it's being used the way it is," he said. "People like to see conflict" like "the art world marginalizing a black artist."
Perhaps most famously, the ART/new york interview is played up in Schnabel's 1996 biopic Basquiat. Christopher Walken plays villainous art critic in an interview set-up clearly inspired by the ART/new york tape, though it is never explicitly named. In the scene, Jeffrey Wright, who plays Basquiat, is wearing an Amherst T-shirt; in the ART/new york tape, Basquiat is wearing a Wesleyan shirt. The Walken character asks Basquiat what it's like to be called the "pickaninny" of the art world and about his mother in a mental institution—two things Miller did not say.
But Miller has mostly good things to say about Radiant Child, as well as the Schnabel film. In Basquiat, the interview served as inspiration and was dramatized to fit the filmmaker's vision. "I was just a little collateral damage," Miller said.
And with Davis's film, Miller said, "I think they've convinced themselves that [the interview] captures some essence of Basquiat, his willingness to attack."
He would like the edited version of the interview, as it appears on the "Young Expressionists" tape, to be put out there as a "very minimal counter" to the few uncomfortable moments in the full interview that has come to be the focus. Miller has put the 10-minute interview on his web site. "I'd like to be judged by the basis of the tape that's out there, not on the basis of 30-second, 20-second snippets," he said.
He thinks that the tape shows the artist enjoying the interview and enjoying being challenged in a conversation. Basquiat's quick intellect and personality shine through. The subject of race comes up in another part of the interview, brought up again by the artist. But Basquiat's answer here—in response to the rumors that his dealer Nosei has him "locked in the basement and ordered to paint"—is an astute one:
"That has a nasty edge to it, you know," Basquiat responds. "I was never locked anywhere. If I was white guy, they would just say artist in residence rather than say all that other stuff."