Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art


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PostPosted: Fri May 11, 2018 6:24 am 
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SARA DRIVER: BOOM FOR REAL: THE LATE TEENAGE YEARS OF JEAN-MICHEL BASQUIAT (2017)

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Jean-Michel Basquiat

Basquiat becoming Basquiat and the New York scene

No matter what else happens, Jean-Michel Basquiat will continue to draw wider public interest as the monetary value of his artwork grows. And that value does grow. When I reviewed Tamra Davis' documentary The Radiant Child in 2010, I noted that $14 million had just been paid for one of his paintings. (It was sold by Lars Ulrich, the drummer for Metallica.) A couple of years ago, a Basquiat went for $57 million.

Well, forget that. Last May the same billionaire Japanese collector, Yusaku Maezawa, bought a large Basquiat skull painting, Untitled (LA Painting), for $110.5 million, the sixth highest price ever paid at auction for a work of art, and the most ever paid for a work of art by an American. So last year, the first big show of Basquiat's art was finally held in London, at the Barbican. It was called "Boom for Real," like Sara Driver's short documentary. The focus in both cases was Basquiat's late teens when he ran away from home from Brooklyn to Manhattan to live on his own and seek his fortune.

It was a messy, crowded show (apart from the jumble of people), not the best way to be introduced to this artist, I felt, though carefully planned and long contemplated, a great collection of documents, objects, and relics as well as art works. Basquiat is a painter, as perhaps the purchases of Maezawa show, so London might have had a gallery or museum that showed off his paintings better, something a little like the magnificent retrospective at the Brooklyn Museum I wrote about so ecstatically in March 2005 - which, true enough, had taken eighteen years from Basquiat's death to come together. The process seems slow (except for the accelerating accolades of rich collectors), but certainly more shows and more films are, and will be, welcome.

However, the point of "Boom for Real" comes through when one views Sara Driver's film at leisure. Its focus is on a fertile time and place. It's the chaotic, bankrupt New York of the late Seventies, a place almost burnt-out but open and free. The city was broke. In the film's opening moments, we hear President Gerald Ford making his declaration that the federal government would not be bailing out the financially failing city.

Basquiat ran away at 17 and died at 27. The last seven years were his period of frenetic, intense creative production, ending with his death of a drug overdose. The first three years, he was a free-floater. He was trying his hand at everything, and his touch with golden. He was preparing to become famous - he knew that he would be - and was becoming known and desired by many. Driver's film talks to his remaining friends, acquaintances and lovers, part of a vivid scene of late Seventies and Eighties New York.

A time of disaster, if not too dire, can be better for art than a time of posh complacency like today's post-Bloomberg, De Blasio New York. Manhattan is never cheap, but in the late Seventies it has not been taken over by the rich. Here in the film we see how clubs like the Mudd Club and CBGB's figured in the lives of the young and artistic of the day. The Mudd Club was open and flourished as a late night live music and dance spot from 1978 to 1981, exactly the period of Boom for Real. The Lower East Side, we learn, from a roster of cultural movers and observers like Glenn O'Brien and Raymond Foye, was like a burnt out zone, with only a few living in largely empty buildings. Available spaces, cheap rents in Manhattan, a thing unknown today. Neighborhoods were so quiet a bar left its door open and for blocks away you could hear its juke box, which filled with nothing but Bobby Vinton records.. There is a sense of a raw edge and freedom. A world open to new talents.

Basquiat originally wanted to be a cartoonist, and his propensity for simple, childlike drawing fits that definition. He also was a writer. He hadn't, at 17 or 18, yet decided he was a painter. But since we hear from several of the notable graffiti artists of this generation, notably Fab Five Freddy, we get an idea of the progression. The writing and the graffiti he did as SAMO (from "same-ol'-same-ol'"), sharing the tag with his pal Al Diaz, till, Diaz tells us, he announced to Diaz that he was taking it over exclusively. ©SAMO was recognized for Basquiat's stick figures but more for his memorable gnomic utterances, which he drew around SoHo directed at the art world, not subways.

But Basquiat was noticed anyway. Girls liked him, and he liked the girls, imposing on them for lodging. He seems to have charmed people early on, and thoroughly. And been at the Mudd Club, or anywhere things were happening, every night. With Michael Holman he formed the industrial noise band, Gray, named after Gray's Anatomy, the book his mother brought him in the hospital at the age of seven, whose imagery was a lasting influence. Other Gray members were Vincent Gallo, Wayne Clifford, and Nick Taylor.

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ALBUM COVER PHOTO FOR GRAY; GALLO ON LEFT, BASQUIAT ON FLOOR

Basquiat was in a band. This is the point of Boom for Real: it's an attempt to sketch in a picture of all the people and the rich mood of the times. It seeks to recall all that was going on in the subliminal hipster world that was alive and free in this fertile, down-and-out time in New York City. Then, New York was Basquiat's canvas, till Annina Nosei gave him his own basement studio under her gallery, and all the paint and brushes and canvases that he wanted. (This habit of painting on doors and other objects lingered, of course, as a remnant of his improvisational smarts.)

But Basquiat was also busy charming people, and Jarmusch talks about being with Sara Driver when he came up to them, then ran away and came back with a big flower for her that he'd probably nicked from somewhere. A woman friend says he was "cute," and many women wanted to be with him (and he wanted to be with them). A lady writer in London last fall, Miranda Sawyer says he was "a strikingly gorgeous young man." He may have never been more so than these "early" days; but of course they were all early, then too late.

Everyone was a polymath, in a band, making films, making hip hop verses, a conceptual artist, an actor, doing graffiti, collages like the postcards Basquiat sold a few of to Warhol in a restaurant.

A power of Boom for Real is that young Basquiat, and the Seventies Downtown Scene, and such vivid presences it never seems just a collection of talking heads. We do hear from people, like Felice Rosser and Alexis Adler, early girlfriend-protectors; Holman, Foye and Jarmusch; Diaz and Freddy and muralist Lee Quiñones; writer and bohemian Luc Sante. And we hear about key early shows that launched Basquiat, notably the MoMA PS1 exhibition called New York/New Wave; Glenn O'Brien of Interview whose public-access TV show featured Basquiat.

"The thing about Jean-Michel," Jarmusch says, "was taking things from everywhere, and if they move you they become part of you and you can put them back down. He was like a filter." In hearing about the filmmaker, the painter, the writer, the historian, the hip hop artist, who knew him then, we see this process in the raw.

This time, late Seventies, early Eighties, was also the dawn of the Superstar artist. From this fertility of decay in New York came a kind of renaissance.

All this recalls Picasso's story: "My mother said to me" he claimed, "'If you are a soldier, you will become a general. If you are a monk, you will become the Pope.' Instead, I was a painter, and became Picasso." This young man was a painter, and he became Basquiat.

Boom for Real, 78 mins., debuted at Toronto Sept. 2017, showing also at the NYFF, and a few other festivals. It opens in the US 11 May 2018 (IFC Center, NYC; coming to Landmark Theaters, Bay Area 18 May). TRAILER.

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©Chris Knipp. Blog: http://chrisknipp.blogspot.com/.


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