Art’s Immortal Rock Star: Basquiat

by Tamara Davis SOURCE Nowness

Forever remembered as one of the art world’s brightest—and fastest burning—stars, Jean-Michel Basquiat began his meteoric rise to fame in the late 70s, when he ran away from home to live on the streets of New York.

Branding himself as a graffiti artist under the mysterious moniker “SAMO©” (a portmanteau of “Same Old”), he soon attracted the city’s counter-cultural royalty, collecting friends such as Debbie Harry, Keith Haring, Glenn O’Brien and Andy Warhol, before turning to painting and storming galleries in New York and Los Angeles with his brightly hued, neo-expressionist works. Basquiat produced thousands of artworks in his short life, dashing off his poetry-infused canvases at a hair-raising pace, but footage of the artist himself has been hard to come by since his death in 1988. Director Tamra Davis, who met and befriended Basquiat when he visited LA to exhibit at the Gagosian gallery in 1983, was one of few to document the artist during his lifetime. Profoundly affected by his death, Davis hid her reels for two decades. But in 2005, prompted by a friend working on MOCA’s Basquiat retrospective of that year, Davis returned to her 80s footage to create a short, 20-minute tribute to the artist. “Everybody at the museum flipped out because the footage I had was incredibly rare,” she says. “They said, ‘This is so important! You can’t just keep it in your closet––you have to show this film.” So Davis developed the short into a feature-length documentary with Arthouse Films, Jean-Michel Basquiat: The Radiant Child, seeking out Basquiat’s contemporaries, friends and admirers, from his longtime girlfriend Suzanne Mallouk to artist Julian Schnabel and early hip-hop maestro Fab Five Freddy. The film documents Basquiat's transformation from slouching street kid into international art world darling,  accompanied by graphic animations by artist Shepard Fairey and a soundtrack from Beastie Boys Adam Horovitz and Mike Diamond and Manhattan-based composer J. Ralph.