Jean-Michel Basquiat: The Radiant Child

by Dax-Devlon Ross

When my ex and I moved to Newark nine years ago we used to spend our weekends with our friends Stephanie and Robyn in Park Slope. Pretty much every Friday or Saturday we’d take the train from Newark-Penn to 14th Street, hop on the 2/3 and ride to Grand Army Plaza. It was all we had to look forward to at the time. This was the fall right after 9/11 and we were both jobless and perpetually broke. If it wasn’t for my good friend Darryl we wouldn’t have even had a place to stay. I will always be grateful to Darryl for his kindness.

Those weekends helped sustain me during that bleak stretch of searching. I was 26, had just finished law school and wanted to be a writer. Leaving everything behind and moving “north” was the biggest risk I’d taken up to that point in my life. But I was determined to make it and relished the challenge of doing so.

At that time in my life I was reading two, three books a week and writing two books of my own. I wrote morning, noon and night. I read on the trains back and forth to New York. I felt I had to catch up and that the only way to do so was by outworking everyone.

I liked hanging out at Steph and Robyn’s place. They understood what I was striving for and encouraged me. Robyn especially was always pushing new books my way. She introduced me to the Czeh author Milan Kundera, the Egyptian author Naguib Mahfouz, and the Polish author Gunter Grass. I devoured everything I got my hands on. And then I wrote more.

One of the books that I spent countless hours studying at their place was Marc Mayer’s Basquiat. I had seen the 1996 Basquiat film starring Jeffrey Wright and enjoyed something about it, but it wasn’t until I had that book in my hands that I started to feel connected to Jean-Michel Basquiat as an artistic progenitor. Here was this incredibly gifted, prolific young black artist who’d left home in search of fame in the world of fine art. He threw himself into the downtown art scene and began creating this arresting work that the art world embraced. I’d sit up late into night with a glass of red wine (or whatever was available) studying his work, but also imagining. His art and its success gave me a vision for what was possible. It excited me. Even though I was working in an entirely different medium, he instantly became one of my artistic heroes.

A couple of years later I was up late one night flipping through the channels when I came across Downtown 81, a grungy art flick starring Basquiat (and Blondie and Fab Five Freddy) as a wandering artist in early ‘80s Manhattan. Like Wild Style, the film is more cultural artifact than plot driven feature presentation, but it’s engrossing in every way. Downtown continues to rank as my all-time favorite stumbled-upon at 2 AM movie.

This past weekend I went to the Film Forum in Manhattan to see Tamra Davis’s Jean-Michel Basquiat: The Radiant Child. I didn’t go in with any expectations in part because I felt as though I knew his story and had seen everything there was to see already. Of course I was wrong. The film is so much more than a documentary about Basquiat. It’s a document of a time in New York. So much of what we know as pop culture was already bursting forth in downtown Manhattan in the early 1980s. So much of the nostalgia we have for New York as the creative epicenter is rooted in this wild-west era. Kids had cameras, ambition and very little money and yet they made unbelievable art. They had no idea an internet would emerge, no idea that we’d be able to instantly transmit data from one end of the world to the next. As far as they were concerned, they were their own creative universe and they were creating that universe for themselves. Jean-Michel Basquiat was at the very center of that world.

I left the movie feeling a mix of inspiration, sadness and anger. I was inspired by his prodigious output and his precocious mind. I was saddened by his acquiescence to his fate. I was angered by the way the art world trivialized, fetishized and generally failed to recognize his genius.

After the movie I started a text dialogue with the artist Ellington Robinson.

Ellington Robinson at work

Robinson’s work deals with some of the same themes as Basquiat’s: jazz, hip hop, African/African-American history and culture. Robinson is also a student of art history, particularly of black artists such as Henry Ossawa Tanner, Romaire Beardon, and Jacob Lawrence. Our texts eventually became too much to contain in 160 characters so I suggested a podcast in which he could share some of his insights into the impact of Basquiat’s life and work on his art and the culture in general. Here it is along with some visuals of Basquiat’s work.