The battle for self-expression and the yearning that artists have, within themselves, to place their thoughts, their feelings — indeed, their very soul and being — onto canvas can be an all-consuming endeavor. How does one convey that which is so deeply felt, that internal longing to break free of one’s physical confines and perpetuate a moment in time?
That is what transforms the merely good artists into great ones. But the quest to achieve that end can only lead to sacrifice. Sometimes, the sacrifice can be to one’s mental state; at other times, it can mean giving up one’s corporal ability to create; and still others may have to forgo their lives for their art.
That is the price, to put it plainly, for artistic immortality.
He was born in Brooklyn, New York. He lived and worked on the Lower East Side — literally, in the streets — during the height and rediscovery of graffiti art and its equally viable cousins, street art and visual art.
His name was Jean-Michel Basquiat, and he was of Haitian and Puerto Rican descent. He was fluent in several languages, including French and Spanish. He rose to fleeting fame and fortune among the glitterati, yet he experienced a precipitous fall, as well as an early death, at age 28, in 1988 of a drug overdose.
His all-too-limited but event-filled life became the subject of the biopic Basquiat (1996). Did you say, “Suffering for his art?” Indeed we did! And Basquiat was a walking, talking textbook of the artist in form, shape, substance, and style. But did he SUFFER for his art? Good question!
The film starred the equally young and charismatic Jeffrey Wright of HBO’s Westworld, who gives a remarkable performance as the titular soft-spoken artiste. Wright is so good in the part that one quickly gets to dislike, and almost hate, his self-destructive behavior as well as his imprudent lifestyle and relationships.
In fact, thirty years after Basquiat’s death an article appeared in the July/August 2018 issue of The Atlantic entitled “The Enigma of the Man Behind the $110 Million Painting.” The subtitle of the piece poses the question: “Was Basquiat an artist, an art star, or just a celebrity?”
Since Basquiat’s untimely passing, the article goes on to state that the price for his works has “climbed steadily upward,” but that few of those “in the know” can explain its worth as art, or what exactly make his art so valuable. The early fascination with his paintings and the undue praise heaped upon them has been termed an over-exaggeration; that their childlike scribbling and so-called “primitivism” inaccurately (or unfairly) reflected the true substance and quality of the youth who created them.
Basquiat’s canvases, author of the article, Stephen Metcalf suggests, “were made by a young man, barely out of his teens, who never lost a teenager’s contempt for respectability. Trying to assert art-historical importance on the paintings’ behalf, a critic comes up against their obvious lack of self-importance. Next to their louche irreverence, the language surrounding them has felt clumsy and overwrought from the beginning. What little we know for sure about Basquiat can be said simply: An extraordinary painterly sensitivity expressed itself in the person of a young black male, the locus of terror and misgiving in a racist society. That, and rich people love to collect his work. We have had a hard time making these two go together easily. But so did he.”
Love it or loathe it, Mr. Metcalf’s assessment of the artist’s work comes many years after his East Village heyday. While providing some retrospective value, apart from this piece we must look closely at the film itself, which was made not eight years after Basquiat’s demise by one who knew him personally: director and co-writer Julian Schnabel. In doing so, we are faced with a decision: whether Basquiat was or was not “the real voice of the gutter,” as one of his many admirers declares, or simply a streetwise black youth who failed to develop his art beyond its nascent state.
Advertisements at the time of the movie’s release hinted that Basquiat (according to a New Yorker press release) was this generation’s James Dean. I’m not so sure that’s an accurate depiction. What this fictionalized account seems to do is associate the artist’s fleeting connections to established pros, such as Andy Warhol and his crowd, with his abrupt success.
In the film, when Warhol dies suddenly after a post-operative procedure to remove his gallbladder, Basquiat’s world starts to fall apart. In truth, let’s say that Basquiat had been doing drugs and freebasing more-or-less on a routine basis. While living on the edge, Warhol’s passing only pushed Basquiat further over the cliff.
To quote from Metcalf’s perceptive Atlantic article: “after he became famous, Basquiat went, in quick and ghastly succession, from sweet East Village magpie to café-society boor to dead.” The film follows this sad trajectory religiously and to the letter. What it fails to explore, in sum, was Basquiat’s affect on the overall art world; if his peculiar style of street art (one he rejected over time, and also tried to destroy) would result in a school of eager followers.
In real life, Jean-Michel Basquiat could barely draw figures accurately. When he turned to fellow black performers and athletes as models, the poignancy of his creations could finally be discerned. To equate what he freely drew with modern masterpieces (i.e., those of Picasso) does him a disservice. If anything, Basquiat was a uniquely raw talent, albeit a poorly developed one. Perhaps this very poverty inherent in his abilities became the very thing that made his work so accessible to the average Joe.
Directed and co-written by fellow Brooklynite Julian Schnabel, who was also a painter and no stranger to the artistic milieu (he, too, profited from his work), the movie is replete with familiar faces in supporting roles. Among the talents involved are such bona fide scene-stealers as Gary Oldman as Albert Milo (a Schnabel stand-in), Michael Wincott as René Ricard, a fresh-faced Benicio Del Toro as Basquiat’s friend Benny Dalmau, Claire Forlani as girlfriend Gina Cardinale, Dennis Hopper as art collector Bruno Bischofberger, Christopher Walken as the Interviewer, Courtney Love as “Big Pink,” Tatum O’Neal as Cynthia Kruger, and of course the enigmatic David Bowie (wearing an atrociously ill-fitting wig) in a very individualized, fey take on pop-art specialist Andy Warhol, one of Basquiat’s mentors.
On a personal note, I accidentally ran into Warhol himself many years ago, in Midtown Manhattan, during the mid-1980s. I remember his hair as stringy and bleached pure white on the top; underneath, it was jet black. And Warhol was very tall and thin, with spindly legs that seemed never to end.
Similar in content to Basquiat (that is, the rise and fall of a notable, and perversely original, American artist), this warts-and-all portrait of avant-garde painter Jackson Pollock in Pollock (2000) is a worthy film effort by first-time director and screen actor Ed Harris. Harris (The Right Stuff, The Abyss, Snowpiercer, HBO’s Westworld), who also starred as the volatile abstract expressionist, spared little in depicting the alcoholic rages of the gifted but deeply flawed, “clinically neurotic” artist.
Pollock developed a spontaneous style of painting known as “drip-technique,” which was variously described as “volcanic” and “full of fire.” He gained fame and a reasonable amount of notoriety in the 1940s for his brash, impulsive approach to modern art. That he took the art world by storm is an understatement. Today, Pollock is considered by many art historians to be an innovative but tragic figure.
His equally rocky relationships to family, especially to the women in his life — among them, his long-suffering wife Lee Krasner (played by Marcia Gay Harden, who copped a Best Supporting Actress Award for her role); and art collector and millionaire socialite Peggy Guggenheim (Amy Madigan) — were fraught with ups and downs and fueled by his exhaustive drinking bouts.
Too, Pollock’s love-hate relationship with his family and close relations is also captured in a particularly raucous Thanksgiving Day gathering, where the artist literally explodes with rage as he overturns the dinner table. All of which are exclusively captured by Harris and screenwriters Barbara Turner and Susan Emshwiller. Jennifer Connelly played one of his lovers, the artist Ruth Kligman.
Pollock was killed in a car crash at age 44 near his Long Island home. The crash also took the life of Kligman’s friend, Edith Metzger. Significantly, Harris was urged by his father to read about and study the life of Jackson Pollock, who the elder Harris insisted bore a striking resemblance to his son Ed. Harris agreed wholeheartedly and to which we are all indebted.
Here is another cinematic biopic in the modern-day trend of presenting celebrated personalities from the past as (quote) real people with real-life hang-ups, issues, and other so-called “defects” — to include bisexuality, alcoholism, slovenliness, and infidelity, along with radically opposing political viewpoints.
Not that any of these defects prevented them from realizing their artistic aims. It’s just that coming as Frida did on the heels of Ed Harris’ Pollock, the life and naïve folk art of famed Mexican painter Frida Kahlo, excellently portrayed on the screen by Mexican-American actress Salma Hayek (of Lebanese descent on her father’s side and a dead ringer for Ms. Kahlo); and helmed by veteran opera, theater, and film director Julie Taymor (The Lion King on Broadway, The Magic Flute at the Metropolitan Opera), refuses to take wing.
Produced as well by Ms. Hayek (another bold, historic move), the film races along at a breakneck speed in an attempt to cover as much of Frida’s short yet significant artistic and personal life as it possibly can.
Certainly her off-again, on-again relationship with the womanizing, large-scale mural painter Diego Rivera (a particularly adept Alfred Molina), her tryst with notorious Russian revolutionary and Marxist theorist Leon Trotsky (Geoffrey Rush), and her debilitating bus accident and subsequent ill health, are given only as much detail as a two-hour flick can allow. Meanwhile, Frida sits and paints with her back strapped to a wheelchair.
If there is anything going for this fast-and-loose biopic is the fact that Hayek bears an impressive and uncanny resemblance to the real Frida Kahlo. And, yes, the real Frida was a headstrong, driving force — especially where it concerned her art and those numerous self-portraits of her in differing states of repose and/or native dress.
Scored by Oscar-winning composer Elliot Goldenthal (Ms. Taymor’s real-life husband), the concluding song, “Burn It Blue,” is performed by Brazilian songwriter and singer Caetano Veloso and Mexican-American singer-actress Lila Downs. Edward Norton, who plays a rather low-key Nelson Rockefeller, another art-loving financier who has the dubious honor of having destroyed Diego Rivera’s monumental Rockefeller Center-based mural, also contributed unofficially to the screenplay.
(To be continued….)
Copyright © 2019 by Josmar F. Lopes