Portrait of an Artist, by an Artist Julian Schnabel Reveals His Friend Basquiat in an Edgy New Film

By Matthew Gilbert 1996, The Boston Globe | St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO), August 18, 1996 | Go to article overview

Portrait of an Artist, by an Artist Julian Schnabel Reveals His Friend Basquiat in an Edgy New Film


Matthew Gilbert 1996, The Boston Globe, St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)


IT'S the perfect detail: The movie director, dressed in khaki pants and a shirt unbuttoned to his navel, has paint spattered on his clothes.

It's perfect because this particular movie director, Julian Schnabel, is far more famous for his paintings, which stirred controversy and sensation in the 1980s New York art world. With the release of his first film, "Basquiat," this coming Friday, Schnabel may be taking one step toward Hollywood - but he's still a painter, with a wardrobe to match. "I was painting when I was making the film," Schnabel said on a recent visit to Boston. "Making the movie was the same thing as painting: I was making art."

"Basquiat" is a portrait of the artist who has been called "the art world's closest equivalent to James Dean." In the fast-lane 1980s, the dreadlocked Jean-Michel Basquiat (it's pronounced BAS-kee-ah) rose overnight from a struggling graffiti artist to The Painter of the Moment, eventually becoming a protege of Andy Warhol.

By 1988, the isolation of success and a nasty drug habit had gotten the best of him, and he died of an overdose at 27. The movie's cast includes Jeffrey Wright, who won a Tony for "Angels in America," as Basquiat, David Bowie as Warhol, Parker Posey as art dealer Mary Boone and Gary Oldman as a painter named Milo who, Schnabel says, is his own stand-in. Christopher Walken, Willem Dafoe and Dennis Hopper - all friends of Schnabel - make brief appearances, as do Courtney Love, Tatum O'Neal and Paul Bartel.

Schnabel, 44, came up through the same New York scene as Basquiat. His film, which cost $3.3 million, is the life of a painter by a fellow painter, and it is filled with insider details of the Manhattan art world and an intimate knowledge of the artistic process.

"I never could have made this movie if I wasn't an insider," Schnabel says. "I was a witness. I know all these people intimately. I have been in all of those places." He says that despite the movie's impressionistic flights - the audience sees some of Basquiat's hallucinations - he aimed for authenticity, setting scenes in their original locations and using a number of his own paintings as backdrop. Boone provided him with pieces from her early 1980s wardrobe; the Warhol museum lent him a wig, suitcase and jacket owned by Warhol.

"It helped that I didn't have to imagine anything," Schnabel says. "It's unusual for someone to know the subject that well and to have had a firsthand experience. When you make a movie about someone who's been dead for 100 years, it's a little tough. You can only read newspapers and draw a consensus about what he was supposed to be like."

Schnabel says he knew Basquiat well. They met in 1981, at a basement studio, and developed a friendship that often involved discussing each other's work.

"He came to my house many times. It was a normal relationship - people live in New York and they call you and you eat with them and you go shopping. He knew my kids. He came over and looked at my work a lot, and I saw a lot of his things." He says that Basquiat tended to be paranoid: "He was kind of tormented sometimes, and he felt unliked." In the movie, Schnabel re-creates a visit during which Basquiat urinates in Schnabel's hallway.

"I think he was in a lot of pain," Schnabel says. "Society does insinuate itself into your life and separate you from people who love you and care about you. You get isolated, you get chosen in some way. And a lot of people get lost. So many young actors get attention and are climbing the walls. Robert Downey Jr., for instance - and he's not the first one, God knows. Sometimes you think you're invincible, especially if you're young. Jean-Michel had an amazing constitution. He could take lots of drugs and be extremely articulate. He could also be totally obtuse and not talk to you if he wasn't in the mood.

"I saw him about a month before he died and I said, `Why don't you come over to the studio,' and he said, `Why, so you can humiliate me? …

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