Was it his talent or was it the New York art scene that decided he would be the next big thing? Or was it both? I’m conflicted. He was precocious, but was he that good, that important? Part of my conflict about Basquiat is that I don’t really like his work that much, even after having seen it in various museums.
The documentary helped me understand him and his work, appreciating the electric energy he brought to it. I learned about his use of text, including erasing words in whole in part, and then letting all of that process be seen. I was fascinated by his painting method of having the television on, while also leafing through magazines. He was a multi-tasker before the word existed and that real-time interaction with pop culture was his source material. He responded to what he was experiencing at the moment.
Part of the overall mix of his fame and importance is the fact that he was the first African-American superstar artist, only happening in the 1980s. He explicitly highlighted black culture, history and race issues.
While clearly smart and talented, he certainly had gaps in his ability to function well in the world. That did not impede his self-awareness, as well as his awareness of the forces that drove his fame as well as the ups and downs in critical favour. He suffered from the inherent questioning of his success and talent as a person of colour.
Because of the documentary, I can appreciate his talent, energy and innovation in bringing graffiti and street art into the gallery world. But the fundamental question remains, was he a genius or was he made by the powers of the art world? Asking the question obviously puts me in the corner of being made by the art world as so many talents have to work for decades to break through - or not at all. But, many of those interviewed who are world renowned artists, particularly Julian Schnabel, feel that he was an extraordinary talent. So I’m going to have keep struggling with the conundrum. That does not stop me from feeling sympathy for someone who still at a young age could not manage his drug addiction and other demons. It certainly would have been amazing to see his talent evolve over the decades rather than the one decade during which he flourished.