Basquiat Before the Art Boom

‘Boom For Real’ ruminates in Jean-Michel Basquiat's graffiti punk years.

Magnolia Pictures

The phrase “boom for real” appears multiples times in the long dream of painter and cultural icon Jean-Michel Basquiat, the art world’s biggest post-Warhol rock star who, with a rock star’s tragedy, was dead at 27. In Julian Schnabel’s 1996 biopic of the man, which starred Jeffrey Wright, the phrase is discovered from an anguished voice yelling on a TV screen before it is repurposed, like cardboard found on the streets, into an instrument of personal expression, an onomatopoeic slap of Roy Lichtenstein without the clichés.

The real Basquiat was known for throwing the expression around at opportune moments, maybe when struck by an idea and maybe accompanied by his hands mimicking a volatile explosion. In Basquiat’s even longer post-mortem, it has lent itself to the titles of books and exhibitions, and it appears again in the title of Sara Driver’s feature documentary debut, Boom For Real: The Late Teenage Years of Jean-Michel Basquiat.

The film that follows is a warm catalog of Basquiat’s early life, and one remarkably different from both Schnabel’s movie version or its biggest competitor, Tamra Davis’s 2010 documentary, Jean-Michel Basquiat: The Radiant Child. Both of these feature performances of Basquiat talking about, and transplanting meaning upon, his own work (Davis’s film, in fact, was expanded from an extended interview she had conducted with the artist at the height of his fame).

A Haitian-American artist whose initial medium was street art and whose talent dominated the imagination of the global art scene, Basquiat and his work still double as political signifiers for the changing face of what an artist looks like. Only last year, just 30 years after his death, Rupert Murdoch’s Sunday Times absurdly bemoaned his success as not “properly earned.”

If Basquiat was not already a literal hundred-million-dollar token in the culture wars, Driver’s lack of interest in any of the discourse might scan as an act of political or racial erasure. But maybe we already know this Basquiat, who even wears a Che beret on the movie poster. Unlike Schnabel and Davis, who were Basquiat’s colleagues and fellow front-line trench warriors in the fight between downtown New York and the NEA, Driver was merely a contemporary who happened upon a collection of Basquiat’s work through her friendship with Alexis Adler, who lived with Basquiat in that time and discovered, decades later, that she owned a trove of the artist’s work.

“I bought a camera and just started shooting because I didn’t know what was going to happen with her archive,” Driver has said of her movie’s inception (the archive ended up at Christie’s in 2014, billed as “Jean-Michel Basquiat: Works from the Collection of Alexis Adler”). Much of the documentary’s second half features Driver’s film of this collection, perhaps the last time these works will ever be seen as a cohesive whole.

Before he became bigger than New York, Basquiat was only the size of it and Boom For Real functions as an intimate, if occasionally too perfunctory, walk through the wild side that Driver and Basquiat shared in the pre-cleaned up punk ‘70s. Yes, Driver serves us that Gerry Ford headline and too much polluted sepia tone than is ever good for the health. But in between, Basquiat is resurrected in the choruses of former collaborators and girlfriends. As an NYU student and, later, an indie film director, Driver had been on the edges of the scene that Basquiat first tried to break into, before succeeding beyond his wildest dreams and moving on. It is no surprise that the “late teenage years” end around here.

At first, he is just a word. The tag SAMO—a project between Basquiat and the forgotten Al Diaz— begins invading Soho and the territory surrounding SVA. The project gets notably written up by the Village Voice and, almost as quickly, Basquiat moves on to cut-up visual art and scenester punk rock (his band, eventually called Grey, featured another dabbler, Vincent Gallo) and, eventually, things he could put in a gallery. In 1981, these things are exhibited next to Keith Haring and Robert Mapplethorpe, and this is around where Driver caps things off.

The documentary’s under-90-minute brevity makes these events feel like they are happening even faster than they did, creating a simulacra of witnessing Basquiat’s talent. Michael Holman—one of Basquiat’s bandmates and who later wrote the script for Schnabel’s Basquiat— recollects an anecdote of trying to upstage the artist before a show at an art gallery. Holman constructs an elaborate drum set, some Mad Max-chic nonsense, and Basquiat responds by picking up a cardboard box from the trash, giving it a little touch and then, on stage, rises out of it. This, in Holman’s memory, steals the show and also represents the power of Basquiat on the small stage of art scene hacks.

There is something elegiacally romantic in stopping here. It reminded me of Michael Azerrad’s celebrated chronicle of underground ‘80s punk, Our Band Could Be Your Life, which halts its story at the point when some of its more successful subjects signed to major labels. Here is when Basquiat was part of us, Driver seems to be saying, though I doubt she would put it like that. In her film’s only autobiographical cameo, the director Jim Jarmusch—Driver’s longtime partner—fondly recalls Basquiat trying to steal his date and, briefly, agreeing to be in one of his movies. Jarmusch is wistful: Basquiat would appear in no Jarmusch joint, his name never to appear alongside custodians of cool like Tom Waits, Iggy Pop or Screamin’ Jay Hawkins.

It is common to assume that artists would prefer to be remembered for their work, but what Basquiat left behind was more than a corpus to be traded around at places like Christie’s and Sotheby’s—which is good, because few museums can afford a Basquiat. What he left behind was a kind of style, an ineffable cool that collectors like Jarmusch spend their entire careers trying to pin in elaborate dioramas. Driver’s film is no elaborate diorama: it is instead an occasional document: glimmering Basquiat’s shadow, excitement that lights the eyes of everyone she interviews. The boom was real.

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