'Radiant' Basquiat is genius

The Washington PostSeptember 26, 2010 

It doesn't come right out and say it, but the documentary "Jean-Michel Basquiat: The Radiant Child" would have you believe that the painter (who burst onto the Lower Manhattan scene while still in his teens and rose to rock-star prominence in the 1980s art world) was something of a genius.

Known for wild pictures that mixed snippets of poetic language, pop culture, folk art, fine art, graffiti and personal history in an explosive and visually distinct stew, he died from a heroin overdose in 1988, leaving more than 1,000 paintings and a similar number of drawings.

The absorbing but flawed film has all the stuff of drama: a charismatic hero and a tragic end. It's an end the filmmaker Tamra Davis foreshadows by running lines from the Langston Hughes poem "Genius Child" as the movie opens:

Nobody loves a genius child.

Kill him - and let his soul run wild.

That couplet poem also tips the film's hand about just what Davis thinks of Basquiat. Nearly everyone she interviewed - the artist's dealers, old lovers, collectors and friends - sings the artist's praises, using words like "epic" and "masterpiece" to describe pretty much anything Basquiat ever set his hand to. "He was blessed," says gallery owner Jeffrey Deitch, "with astonishing sophistication as a teenager."

The lone vote of dissent comes from the notoriously conservative critic Hilton Kramer. Kramer's stingy assessment of Basquiat's place in art history - a contribution Kramer calls "so minuscule as to be nil" - comes across as so curmudgeonly, not to mention wrongheaded, that his appearance actually buttresses the case for Basquiat's unmitigated brilliance.

But whatever your own view of Basquiat's talent, "Radiant Child" is not an art review. Davis does not hide the fact that she was a friend of the painter.

The film (whose subtitle comes from a 1981 article in Artforum magazine by Ren Richard) is built around softball interviews that Davis shot, and that were conducted by their mutual friend Becky Johnson, in 1986. It means to tell Basquiat's story not from the point of view of critics but of those who knew him and loved him.

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