Madonna, Warhol Flop, Heroin Death Color Basquiat Documentary

Jean-Michel Basquiat
Artist Jean-Michel Basquiat. "Jean-Michel Basquiat: The Radiant Child" is a new documentary about the late artist. Photographer: Benno Friedman/Arthouse Films via Bloomberg

Even before Jean-Michel Basquiat died of a heroin overdose at 27, his friends began selling the paintings he’d given them, cashing in on his meteoritic success.

“Jean-Michel was really upset with that,” said Tamra Davis, a filmmaker and friend of the artist. “He gave all these things to people as gifts.”

That’s one reason Davis waited 20 years before turning the footage she shot of the artist in the 1980s into a new documentary film, “Jean-Michel Basquiat: The Radiant Child.”

“I didn’t want him to think that I was one of those friends,” she said in a recent interview in Manhattan.

Davis filmed the artist in his studio over three years and shot an interview with him in 1986, two years before his death. The documentary mixes this previously unseen footage with archival images and comments from ex-girlfriends, dealers, curators and fellow artists.

Intimate and fast-paced, the film tells the story of a charismatic renegade who made his mark in the New York graffiti world as a teen and emerged as an art star at age 21. He had an affair with Madonna, collaborated with Andy Warhol and appeared on the cover of the New York Times magazine. Along the way he bedded and dumped countless women and turned his back on people who helped him.

Davis, 48, was an exception. They met when the artist came to Los Angeles for a solo exhibition at Larry Gagosian’s gallery in 1983. Their relationship was flirtatious, but the two never dated, “which is partially why it lasted for so long,” she said.

Fame Grew

Over the course of their friendship, his fame grew. His exhibitions sold out and prices for his paintings jumped to $30,000 from $200. She took him to Los Angeles clubs, the race track and the beach. She was a film student and he suggested she make a film about him.

“You could make a whole movie about people’s crazy Jean-Michel stories, but I wanted to focus on his art,” said Davis, sporting strawberry-blonde hair when she arrived for our meeting on a scooter. “And I also wanted to completely dispel the myth that he was some idiot savant, wandering the streets and tumbling into these situations.”

Her film has several people testifying to Basquiat’s ambition, his desire to box with another young star artist, Julian Schnabel, who made a feature film about him in 1996, and to penetrate Warhol’s inner circle.

When his coveted collaboration with Warhol turned into a commercial and critical flop in 1985, Basquiat was crushed; his self-doubt, drug use and paranoia kicked off a downhill slide that ultimately led to his tragic end, according to the film.

Unable to Paint

Shortly before his death, Basquiat met with Davis in Los Angeles, she said. He was demoralized and unable to paint.

“And then he said, ‘I can’t do it anymore. It’s over,’” she recalled.

“The candle had burnt out,” Davis said.

The more than 1,000 paintings and as many drawings Basquiat left behind turned into a lucrative market. His auction record of $14.6 million was achieved at Sotheby’s New York in 2007.

“Jean-Michel Basquiat: The Radiant Child” will run through Aug. 3 at Film Forum, 209 W. Houston St., with daily screenings at 1:15, 3:15, 6, 8 and 10.

(Katya Kazakina is a reporter for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are her own.)

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