the new basquiat doc is a searing statement on art and race today
'Boom for Real: The Late Teenage Years of Jean-Michel Basquiat' shows how the art world has changed since the 80s, and how it hasn't.
Image courtesy of Magnolia Pictures
Art is a powerful medium. People are drawn to it for a myriad of reasons, but great artists often use it as conversation starter about fraught parts of culture. Case in point: Jean-Michel Basquiat, one of the most prolific American contemporary artists, who tackled race in America and its impact on the lives of people of color.
While Basquiat’s work has awed people since the heyday of the New York art scene for its childlike quality and poignant nature, Basquiat the person is equally captivating. Fans are now getting a inside look at the artist himself in a new documentary by director Sarah Driver, Boom for Real: The Late Teenage Years of Jean-Michel Basquiat, which examines Basquiat’s early life before stardom.
Through a series of interviews with close friends, collaborators, and art and cultural critics, Boom for Real paints a picture of Basquiat’s artistic journey, and why it was important to shed light on the harsh realities of being a black person in America. The film explores the early years of Basquiat’s life prior to becoming the a household name we know today whose artistic productions go for millions of dollars at auctions.
The phrase may considered trite now, but fundamentally, for Basquiat, the personal was the political. Art was an extension of himself and his worldview. When people refused to use certain images in their work, Basquiat did, pulling the curtain back on the hard truths about being a black person in America, regardless of any potential pushback.
A product of a Haitian-American father and a Puerto Rican mother, Basquiat was born in Brooklyn and briefly lived in Puerto Rico with his sister and father as an adolescent. When he turned 15, he started living on the streets of New York, taking refuge in Downtown Manhattan, which was populated by young creative rebels like Madonna, Robert Mapplethorpe, Patti Smith, and countless others who were coming into their own as artists. While they differed in style, their sensibilities were often in direct contrast to the prevailing high-brow culture of the time. Basquiat was a mainstay in the underground art scene of the mid-to-late 70s and 80s where he formed relationships with fellow artists of all disciplines for his work as a graffiti artist under the pseudonym Samo — short for same old sh*t. He started using it on the recommendation of his friend Al Diaz, a fellow graffiti artist.
During this era, graffiti was everywhere in New York City, plastered on public walls and MTA subway cars. Unlike some of the pieces people had grown accustomed to seeing, like name tags in public spaces or renditions of famous paintings like Andy Warhol’s Campbell’s Soup Cans painting, Basquiat used graffiti to share musings about life and the art community, since he didn’t have a stable home at the time. With messages such as “Samo is coming” and “Samo as an end to 2 confining art terms,” people who encountered across his work were forced to stop and think deeply about the world around them and the content of the messages. It built him an impressive fanbase even when people were unaware of who Samo was.
Quite strategically, as explained in Boom for Real, Basquiat exclusively tagged in the Soho area, the center of the New York art world during this era. It was a way to capture the attention of the upper echelons of the art world that scoffed at graffiti as a whole. “Nothing about graffiti at that time was celebrated. It was the scourge of the city at that time. It was hated. It was a blight to a great extent, but there was but they was a lot of creative energy within that blight, which people didn’t take the time to look at and examine,” American visual artist and hip hop pioneer Fred Brathwaite (aka Fab 5 Freddy) explains in the film.
In spite of these prevailing notions about graffiti being a despicable craft, Basquiat continued to make himself and his visual presence known all over town, metaphorically flipping off those who disagreed with his practice. So when he eventually gained mainstream recognition for it, it was revolutionary moment for graffiti culture. Here was a person participating and elevating a visual style considered by many as vandalism. “I remembered the Village Voice piece on Samo, which is, like, incredible. For anybody that did anything connected to graffiti to get any kind of relatively positive exposure was a revelation,” Fred says.
Today, Basquiat’s paintings and drawings on canvas are what most people (art lovers or not) know him for. No matter the project, Basquiat constantly pushed boundaries of what people expected of artists at a time when minimalism was all the rage, tackling pressing and often taboo societal and political issues tactfully. Take Defacement (The Death of Michael Stewart) for example: a painting depicting 25-year-old graffiti artist Michael Stewart, who was beaten to death at the hands of New York City police officers in 1983. The black figure in the foreground represents Stewart, surrounded by two men in police uniforms, both with batons in hand ready to strike.
Defacement is a striking and visceral piece of art, one that fits right into our current political climate where videos of extrajudicial killings of people of color often go viral on social media — exposing a widespread phenomenon that’s taken the lives of far too many people. Basquiat’s painting was a bold move, one that could have easily cost him his career, and yet he took the chance. This makes Boom For Real required viewing for every American. The film sheds light on Basquiat’s fearless commitment to using his platform and artistry to highlight the lived experiences of black people that are often dismissed by the powers that be. This is especially true in the art world, where curators choosing are overwhelming white. A 2015 survey by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation found the majority of the leadership team at art museums — 84% to be exact — are white. Brooklyn Museum recently hired a white curator for its African art collection, prompting protests from an activist group arguing that the move perpetuated “ongoing legacies of oppression.” No wonder museums and galleries are mainly populated with the work of white artists.
Despite these barriers, Basquiat successfully pulled off a feat most young, black artists still rarely accomplish. He broke through the art world’s thick glass ceiling, allowing his art to not only be seen but respected and highly revered by the masses — even when its imagery tackled politically charged subjects. And for that, he will always be remembered as one of the most prolific contemporary American artists of the 20th century.
“When they talk about Leonardo da Vinci, and when they talk about Willem de Kooning, and when they talk about Jackson Pollock, and talk about Titian, and talk about whoever, they will also mention Jean-Michel Basquiat,” muses musician and writer Felice Rosser at the end of Boom for Real. “And in a world where black people are not celebrated or supported — the art world, right — he did it. He blew the roof off that sucker and you have to love him and the power of that.”