Section 4 - Jean-Michel Basquiat
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When Paul Tschinkel and I taped Jean-Michel Basquiat in November 1982, he was just rising to art-world stardom. With upcoming exhibitions scheduled at top-tier galleries like Bruno Bischofberger in Zurich, and Larry Gagosian in Los Angeles, Basquiat's decision to show at the Fun Gallery, a raw, under-capitalized space in the East Village that mostly worked with graffiti artists, was both a gesture of solidarity with onetime compatriots, as well as a declaration of independence from his soon to be ex-dealer, Annina Nosei. In the early 1980s Basquiat was a regular in the downtown art and club scene, where he often crossed paths with Paul and me. Our friend Patti Astor, the co-director of the Fun Gallery, wanted us to tape the exhibition and encouraged Jean-Michel to do the interview.
Basquiat was just waking up at 3 pm when we arrived at his second floor loft on 101 Crosby Street just east of Soho. Basquiat was a child of the television age and seemed eager to perfect his video persona. In the interview Basquiat emerges as a man of few words and short replies, and I quickly ran out of prepared questions. He was most comfortable talking about his paintings. He was less comfortable talking about the specifics of his life and the way he was being portrayed in the press. For the most part, Basquiat appeared to be having fun, revealing a light, playful side when talking about his art, and a more cutting wit when confronted with misconceptions and hints of racial stereotyping. At some moments he tightened up, perhaps wary of revealing too much, or alert to the danger of puncturing the mystery of his art. The videotaping moved quickly with Basquiat fully engaged right up to the humorous food-munching scene that was his way of bringing the 40-minute interview to a close.
We used about four-minutes of the interview along with footage of the Fun Gallery exhibition in Young Expressionists (ART/new york #19, 1982/3), and another minute in Graffiti/Post Graffiti (ART/new york #21, 1984). After Basquiat's death in 1988, the importance of the tape became clear: it provides a unique portrait of the artist at age twenty-one, just coming to maturity and ready to talk at length about his life and art. Although it was not our original intention for the interview to be seen in its entirety, under these new circumstances, Paul decided to release the complete unedited version as Basquiat: An Interview (Art/new york 30A, 1989). Even awkward moments and innocuous exchanges can be resonant, and the interview has become an important primary source for any serious Basquiat scholar.
The restaging of the interview in Julian Schnabel's film Basquiat (1996), with bad guy actor Christopher Walken playing my part, however, is another thing entirely. At some point in 1995 as I was walking along West Broadway in Soho, Schnabel bolted across the street shouting at me, "That's no way to conduct an interview!" Perhaps he was at that very moment conceiving his own version of the interview in which Basquiat would be portrayed as a vulnerable outsider in a hostile and cynical art world. Schnabel had access to the complete unedited interview and honed in on the sections where Basquiat was most reticent. In his restaging, Walken (the Interviewer) and Jeffrey Wright (Basquiat) use words, phrases and body language from the interview but, by means of artful selectivity and outright fabrication, the friendly mood of the actual conversation is transformed into something aggressive and vaguely sinister. Most troubling are the totally made-up parts where Walken calls Basquiat a "pickaninny," and confronts him with "having a mother in a mental institution." This may be dramatic filmmaking but it is a distortion of the truth. It is probably for the better that ART/new york was not given credit as the source for this segment of Schnabel's film.
All videos and photographs courtesy of Paul Tschinkel and ART/new york.
Videos may be purchased at artnewyork.org