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Predictable Writing on the Wall

By Hal Hinson
Washington Post Staff Writer
August 16, 1996

In 1981, the work of an unknown 19-year-old graffiti artist named Jean Michel Basquiat began appearing on storefronts and subway stations around Manhattan. Within seven years, he rose from total obscurity to become, according to the New York Times, "the art world's closest equivalent to James Dean."

By the time he died in 1988, Basquiat had become one of the most famous names in art, and the first black artist to break into the powerful (and very white) downtown New York art establishment.

Basquiat was, in critic Rene Ricard's words, "the radiant child" -- an artist blessed at birth with remarkable natural talents. "Basquiat" is Julian Schnabel's record of the young street artist's phenomenal rise and fall. In the movie's first section, Schnabel shows the fledgling genius, played with sensitivity and feeling by theater actor Jeffrey Wright, in his early days, searching the streets for food and dope, and scribbling his trademark "SAMO" on every blank space he can find.

What's curious, though, is how closely Schnabel's narrative follows the standard Hollywood bio-pic blueprint. Despite the movie's suffocating sense of chic Soho hipness, it touches on all the square cliches about the tragic life of the misunderstood artist. As the movie opens, Ricard (played here by a twitchy Michael Wincott) can be heard quoting aloud from his article on Basquiat about how nobody wants to miss the next Van Gogh -- that is, if there's a genius slaving away somewhere in his garret, ignored and unrecognized as van Gogh had been in his own time, the art world wanted to find him and give him the recognition he deserved.

It was this mentality, Ricard suggests -- this guilt over having blown it with Van Gogh -- that prepared the way for a phenomenon like Basquiat. (He even evokes the iconographic image of Kirk Douglas as the tortured painter in "Lust for Life.") And Schnabel agrees. After the dreadlocked artist met Andy Warhol (played with a seen-it-all cynicism by David Bowie) and made his breakthrough, dealers from the downtown galleries swooped down like vultures to exploit this hot new property.

The dealers -- played with a killer gleam in the eye by Dennis Hopper and Parker Posey -- are the real villains here. And, clearly, Schnabel -- who's a world-famous painter in his own right and knows the scene firsthand -- wants to skewer them for their role in his fellow artist's destruction. But instead of attacking them directly, he's sneaky and vague about what happened at the end of Basquiat's life when -- as rumor had it then -- his handlers used to lock him in a room and supply him with all the drugs he wanted until he'd finished enough canvases to fill their orders.

The whole movie, in fact, is fuzzy and evasive on most of the important points -- who its subject really is, for example. Though the artist is supposedly plagued by depression and lethal self-doubt, the character as Wright presents him doesn't look as if he's suffering. Instead, he floats through the movie like a pure spirit, looking distracted and bored.

In the end, Schnabel falls back on an old idea: that the young genius was a sacrificial lamb, destroyed by the same hype machine that created him. Ultimately, he says, it was fame that killed the artist. What a surprise.

Basquiat is rated R for drug use and adult material.

© Copyright 1996 The Washington Post Company

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