New York City is my home and has been since the 80s. I was too young to have known
the artist Jean-Michel Basquiat, but my first boss, at La MaMa Experimental Theatre Club, Wickham Boyle, did.
For those who don’t follow the fine art world, the name Basquiat might not have any relevance. But for those who follow the work of African-American fine artists, this man’s art, life and death remain of interest. At a recent art sale this past May “Untitled,” a Basquiat painting from 1982, sold for $110.5 million at a Sotheby auction. The news of the sale was significant because, in this exclusive world, not many pieces of art ever get to join the $100 million-plus club and it was reported, in the salesroom, that the amount a collector was willing to pay made the assembled crowd gasp. I think Basquiat would have loved to witness that collective inhale of air! It’s a 1982 painting of a skull.
In the new documentary (screening at the 55th New York Film Festival), “Boom for Real: The Late Teenage Years of Jean-Michel Basquiat,” director Sara Driver gives an intimate glimpse into his life, struggle and his rise in the art world. “I don’t think about art when I’m working,” Basquiat once said. “I try to think about life.”
In many ways, it was his very lean years in New York City that helped shape his work. And he made art everywhere. That included using the sides of buildings, discarded pieces of trash, refrigerator doors, bathroom doors, radiators, coats, dresses and canvases, all of them an outlet to help express the ideas, thoughts and imagery that lived inside the man. In examining Basquiat’s life pre-fame, Driver weaves the story of his life in the city with never seen works, writings and photographs.
When I asked my former boss about Basquiat’s personality, she offered this slice from her memory: “OK so Jean-Michel was a downtown fixture and as so was I, not a cult figure, but still I was downtown endlessly running a theater called LaMama. All of us on the Lower East Side and so I saw him. I rode my bike everywhere, at all hours of the night, went to the Mud Club, Area, CBGB’s and Phoebes. We were a much smaller group back then, just kids, as Patti Smith’s book title says. Jean- Michel had a sweet, far-away sense about him, and he was often scribbling and making what we now know is world-changing art.
“I was not into drugs or booze. No high and mighty calling, just not my thing. But I went to parties where everything flowed, and then I’d ride my bike home to TriBeCa, where only artists and rats seemed to live.
“I saw Jean-Michel at his most human in TriBeCa down on North Moore Street at Carlos and Paulette Almada’s crazy spread out the loft. Carlos was involved with the Club MK. We had kids the same age. I lived across the street and Jean-Michel was often there for dinners or holidays and of course, the kids adored him. He was one himself.
“Tragedy seemed sewn into the arts community in the 80s. The AIDS crisis was seemingly everywhere and it terrorized all of us as we watched friends fall every week. So, when Jean-Michel succumbed to a drug overdose it hit hard, but it was another tall timber hitting the cluttered forest floor.
‘I bet he would not have been surprised to see the copycats and soaring prices. Don’t we all wish we had scooped up the scribbles as a nest egg for old age after decades downtown.”
His life was short: Jean-Michel Basquiat was born Dec. 22, 1960, in Brooklyn, N.Y. He died Aug. 12, 1988.