Artist's Portrait of the Artist as a Legend
An interview with painter Julian Schnabel about his first film, Basquiat
by Ken Magri
(Originally published in Sacramento News and Review, August, 1996)
Without legends the History of Art might get pretty boring. Nobody really knows, for instance, if Vincent van Gogh went after Paul Gauguin with a knife, or if Brunelleschi won a huge architectural commission by balancing an egg on one end. But the perpetuation of these stories adds a beautiful mythology to art history that transforms it from a bland chronology of aesthetic movements into a more passionate allegory for our lives.
No artist in recent history has become as much of a candidate for mythology as the late Jean-Michel Basquiat (pronounced bos-key-ought, top photo by James Van Der Zee). Originally touted as a rescued street artist from lower Manhattan, he was in fact an accountant’s son from Brooklyn who rose up from a self-imposed poverty. Although his large scale paintings of primitive heads scrawled with words appeared childlike, they seemed tailor-made for a ready and waiting crowd of nouveauriche art collectors.
Some art journals have eulogized Basquiat as an exploited prodigy, a victim in servitude to greedy art dealers. Others say he was in on his own hype, often jumping from gallery to gallery, and selling artworks behind his dealers’ backs to feed a decade-old drug habit that finally devoured him at the age of 27.
Eight years after his death the film Basquiat may raise more questions than it answers about the young artist’s meteoric career. Written and directed by fellow painter and friend Julian Schnabel, it weaves an insider’s view of the real Jean-Michel Basquiat (bottom photo) into a carefully orchestrated fiction (second from bottom photo) about his attempt to blossom within the voracious 1980s Manhattan art scene.
It’s territory that Schnabel is familiar with. Like Basquiat, Schnabel’s own success came quickly through the self-conscious, star-making art market of the Reagan era. Schnabel likewise endured the disdain of some art critics who felt that his broken-plate paintings and plush velvet surfaces amounted to gimmickry, intended to make up for a basic inability to draw.
Nevertheless, Schnabel survived a recent reassessment about important artists in the 80s, and in now attempting to transcend the world of fine art by jumping to the silver screen. Perhaps because of his background, rather than in spite of it, he has managed to create a beautiful first film, although not necessarily about Basquiat. Schnabel chose instead to turn him into an archetype for a larger view, both good and bad, of an art community many aspired to be a part of. Basquiat may be the best film ever made about an artist in America.
By Hollywood’s standards this film’s $3.3 million budget amounted to chump change. Schnabel
talked several of his actor buddies, like Dennis Hopper, Willem Defoe, Parker Posey and Tatum O’Neal into taking minor parts for scale. They buttress an already excellent cast that features Tony Award winner Jeffrey Wright as Basquiat, David Bowie as Andy Warhol, and Benicio del Toro (second photo from top) as Benny, Basquiat’s street companion.
After a recent screening of Basquiat I spoke with Schnabel about the fallen artist and the film that purports to tell his story. Asked if the film was an attempt to beatify Basquiat in order to sustain a healthy market for his art, the director said he doesn’t spend much time thinking about those issues which brought on controversy. The main reason for making the film, Schnabel said, was his shock at the “philistinism” of hostile art critics who he feels misrepresented Basquiat.
By Schnabel’s own admission, Basquiat is not a definitive biography. Still he says, “Most of the stuff in this movie happened, I witnessed much of it. The rest, I hope, is true to his spirit.”
Ken Magri: You have described Basquiat, even amid praise, as being ‘diabolical’ at times. How did you mean that?
Julian Schnabel: "Diabolical, in a funny way, were the things he was writing which had some kind of political commentary, like, “A lot of bums used to be executives.” In a meaner or more unconscious way, I think how he behaved with his girlfriend was not particularly nice.
Certain characters in the film are fictitious, while some key players from Basquiat’s life get left out entirely. Why is that?
Ultimately, you are making something that’s a work of art, and it has to work as a film. The excuse of the bad novelist is to say “Oh, it really happened.” Some of the characters are composites of people, and some events occur when Andy [Warhol] is with Jean that really happened with Jean and me.
Like the conversations they had on the streets of SoHo?
Many of those conversations were things that took place. The fact is that Andy always said to me, “Can you talk to Jean about not taking drugs. And the conversation my character had with him was true, about how Andy really cared for him.
The interview scene with Christopher Walken was powerful because you see Basquiat go through a range of emotions, from flippant to bewildered, as the questions get more viscous.
I like that scene very much. I wanted to show how, at first, you open your door because you are being complimented in some way. But people have their own agendas, and as the thing progresses, you see it turn into a car accident…What’s important is that when [Walken’s character] says something that really hurts Jean’s feelings, he clams up and doesn’t say anything back.
But wasn’t the real Basquiat capable of being more articulate than that?
I think he was very articulate when he was talking to Andy and said, “They talk about me being locked up in a basement. If I was white they would say ‘artist-in-residence.’” Or when Walken asks “Where do you take your words from?” and he brings up Miles Davis: “Would you ask a musician where he took that note from?” I don’t think a lot of painters are smart enough to talk about painting in reference to music.
You did a good job of dealing with racial issues without being obvious about it. Is it true that Basquiat could just blow off the racism in his life?
Yes, definitely. But his feelings were still getting hurt about stuff like that. When he was sitting in a restaurant and some executives were making fun of him, he paid their bill. Except in real life he said they were picking straws to see who would have to come over and thank him.
You were kind to yourself in casting Gary Oldman as your alter-ego, Albert Milo. But how do you reconcile this against potential criticism that, in a film about Basquiat, you wanted to talk about yourself?
Well, when I first wrote this thing I wasn’t even in it. But when we worked with others on the film they said it was too obvious a miss, because you are leaving out something that was important to Jean. I think my role is not that important in the film other than that of a messenger.
The line that stands out in your character’s scene with Basquiat is when Gary Oldman says…
“Your audience hasn’t even been born yet.”
Exactly. It seems like Basquiat walked through life with a child’s disposition.
Right. I think Jean died before he was a man, and maybe the child in us is the artist in us…Most of the artists I know are extremely infantile people. Even if they have families and responsibilities, there’s an aspect of their character that remains in the sandbox. It’s always hard to reconcile being inside the sandbox and being outside of it.
In the film Basquiat has a reoccurring vision of a surfer in the sky, which you create with a superimposed video image. Is that Julian Schnabel, the painter, playing with the screen like a canvas?
Absolutely. If we’re dealing with film, let’s be filmic about it. A lot of the movie, when I’m showing paintings for instance, has these large pictures that go past the screen. They have interiors that are different from the interior of the room. So it seems like an exterior. It’s an interesting aspect, dealing with these two disagreeing realities at once, which is part of my painting and part of the way I made this film."
There is something existential about it. A windy but sunny late afternoon is to me a most hauntingly memorable image. Yellow hues, long shadows and a warm breeze have the melancholy one usually associates with sadness. But in this crack-in-the-world moment there is no sadness, only an onrush of flashbacks to the lonely afternoons of my life:
-Standing on a hillside on Van Ness Street in San Francisco, the breezes blow cold and the sun shines only briefly. Homeless people cluster on every corner, as the shuffle of passing cars and occasional horns provide an urban symphony.
-Walking out of a bullfight in Barcelona the day seems long and the climate humid. Children run and jump, imitating the victorious matadors of the afternoon. Dance clubs and St. John’s holiday celebrations await the darkness.
-Watching the pine trees shimmer in the breeze at Desolation Valley, the two Lover’s Leaps across the canyon turn shady grey while the sun races behind them.
-From a gas pump in Sacramento, listening to the wind flap of banners, the sunshine beats on my forehead until the breeze momentarily chases it off. -KM
Notes from a Native Son
A response to Joan Didion’s 1965 essay about
Sacramento in “Slouching Towards Bethlehem”
...fifty years later
by Ken Magri
In “Notes From a Native Daughter” Joan Didion wrote that Sacramento began to change for good in 1950, from a sleepy farming town insulated by coastal mountains on the west and mighty Sierras to the east, into a jet-age city with the pace of a post-WWII metropolis rapidly filling up with outsiders. Joan was just 16 years old in 1950, but she already began to mourn the loss of something she couldn’t quite identify, something quiet, insular, that was now going to be lost. She lamented the emerging aerospace industry and its absentee owners. She wrote about expansion and losing the hops fields on H Street, and about the renaming of M Street to Capitol Avenue.
With retrospective elegance she recalled her family discussing the mountain roads that used to close after every winter snowstorm, and listening on the radio to reports of the river rising during flood years. She described with sadness the housing developments south of Highway 50 that were making the California wildflowers disappear, and again, her beloved hops.
She told a “Sacramento story” of a rich family who once owned thousands of acres along the Sacramento River, who had a daughter they sent abroad. The daughter married a prince, returned to Sacramento and they threw lavish parties at their riverfront mansion. Later they all died and the only surviving son lives on a trailer next to that burned-down mansion where only the chimneys survived. And that was Joan’s metaphor for Sacramento, a sort-of Scarlett O’Hara standing before a devastated Tara after the Civil War. Except in this version, Scarlett settles for life in an Airstream.
Ms. Didion ended by sympathizing with people like me, of the next generation, who she predicted would lose sight of her precious valley town and replace its real history with a manufactured one. Why? Because, she says, Sacramentans think California started only when they got here. Joan concluded her essay by writing that Sacramento was undergoing so many dramatic changes it had “lost its raison d’être,” its reason for existing. Ouch.
The words sting because people across America and around the world have read these melancholic notes believing that Joan’s take on Sacramento was the real Sacramento.
But it’s not. It was only Joan’s version, her customized city of relative privilege for the sons and daughters of a more narrowly defined social class. And even that particular construct never entirely went away. The thing that went away? It was Joan.
Her Sacramento Still Exists. The roads still close in winter after a heavy storm, and the news stations still send live shot reporters up to Blue Canyon or Pollock Pines to film the giant Cal-Trans snow removers. Sacramento still floods whenever a warm, snow-melting rainstorm comes through, and radio is still the best way to get fresh information when the water is rising. Joan’s dreaded housing tracts south of Highway 50? Yes, they begat more housing tracts. And then came more sprawl, and yes, natives complain. But the flowers and trees never left. The marine breezes still run across the valley floor in the evening, cooling off the hot July days so that you can sleep with an open window.
I grew up around the neighborhoods of Joan’s youth, went to her middle school, drove the same streets, felt the same valley fog go down to my inner bones in the muffled silence of a gray Sacramento January. I fell in love, just like she did. I played in the same rivers, lost a friend in those same rivers, read the same newspapers, went to the same California State Fair and saw the same agricultural displays in
the Beaux Arts styled Counties Building. If my sister and I behaved, Dad would stop at Merlino’s orange juice stand on the way out and buy us all orange freezes. It still sits on Stockton Boulevard, across the street from what used to be the fairgrounds.
I look at Joan’s photograph on the cover of this paperback. I close my eyes and visualize her as a cute teenage girl of my era, with long straight hair and bell-bottom jeans, blowing smoke rings and flicking cigarette ashes down into the mud along the river shoreline. As the waters flow past us in deep green aisles in the quiet of a lingering summer evening, you can smell the valley heat and the aroma of star-thistle in the fields. A mockingbird imitates the shriek of a blue jay and a family of quail scampers across the dust laden trail.
Boys throw rocks at the lampreys. Girls draw peace signs and hearts in the sand with their toes. Like all teenagers, we had our whole lives ahead of us, yet with nothing better to do than languish in how cool we looked. I see Joan’s sad smile right alongside of us. She may have lived her Sacramento life out twenty years before me, but the two of us grew up in the same places, had the same dreams, and ultimately felt that same sense of urgency about our rapidly changing era. By then the urban sprawl had ventured north and east, and west.
But even so, the older Sacramento never completely went away. Its spirit is nestled within the smell of anise and wild blackberries growing down along the American River bike trails. You can catch early morning sounds of trains as they roll in from Roseville along the 19th street tracks. The piercing screeches of metal on metal, that click-clack of wheels, can still be heard in the suburbs as one walks across the driveway in stocking feet to fetch the morning paper.
You can still hear the sound of leaves in autumn blowing through the back alleys downtown on a late afternoon. You can still find old run-down mansions along the Sacramento River, interspersed between endless rows of orchards. The corn grows tall down there, and at night you can listen to the breezes dance across the fields and pretend you’re in Nebraska. There haven’t been hops growing inside the city limits since I was a boy, but the hops Joan loved so much still grow out along Jackson Highway, and farming is still a crucial part of Sacramento’s identity. Yes, it still has those same characteristics.
Like Joan did, I also want to tell you a Sacramento story. Mine is about a couple of first generation Americans. He was a poor Italian kid from the wrong side of the streets in Chico, and she was the daughter of a Swiss-immigrant chicken farmer in Rio Linda. They fell in love, started a life together, worked hard and saved their money. When he marched off to war, she built them a little house, with a carport, and a screened back porch where you could enjoy the simple pleasure of a Central Valley sunset without bugs.
Soon afterwards they had a beautiful daughter and life was wonderful. They saved, worked and sacrificed, and in 1950, Joan’s pivotal year for Sacramento, this couple bought a business. Their customers were the same aerospace workers and out-of-state immigrants of Joan’s lament. After a few more years this couple had a son and was able to build a new house, not a riverfront mansion, but a fine suburban home on a quarter acre lot. It became their homestead. They worked and saved and sent their daughter to Europe, and their son to college. He became a college professor. The family grew, prospered, and lived happily ever after, in Sacramento.
It is the story of an American Dream fulfilled, the idea that if you work hard and play by the rules, America gives you an honest chance to at least try to achieve your dreams. And for this couple, the time and place for achieving those dreams was Joan’s post-1950 Sacramento. My Sacramento story has no poetic irony, no sense of loss. It has no smoldering chimneys and no depressing conclusion, because this couple was my parents.
I am their Sacramento native success story, and I have lectured about aspects of Sacramento’s history to generations of newcomers and natives alike. There are lots of me’s in this town that grew up and didn’t forget our city’s past. Neither did we leave it. Our raison d ‘etre still grows here with us.
Today is July fourth, 2015 in Sacramento. Throughout the suburbs driveway awnings and Bar-B Q sets came out early this morning. Children and their parents now gather at selected street corners for neighborhood parades scheduled to start promptly at 11:00am. Red wagons, bicycles-for-two, and small pet dogs are dressed in patriotic decorum. A pumper from the corner fire station shows up at 10:55. Kids are jumping up and down as twenty foot leash lines get tangled up in a passing bicyclist’s wheels, and golf cart filled with retirees holding cocktails goes whizzing by.
It is a scene of spontaneity and innocence. Some pranksters, apparently working in the middle of the night, turned all the street signs 90 degrees to the left. A few men join in now, while still holding their beer cans, to lift one of the signs and set it back in correctly. Three pre-teen girls practice a Pop dance move in the middle of the street.
It is a scene of contrasts, like the smell of searing meat mixed in with fireworks smoke. A half block away a group of chickens cluster around some thrown corn meal while a sheriff’s helicopter roars by above. The aroma of marijuana lofts over an ivy covered wall. Defiant teenagers have decided to stream heavy metal songs out into the yard from their bedroom window, but the parents don’t seem to notice. A dad yells at his sons to stop shoving one another, and a mom forces sunscreen onto her hyperactive toddler. Finally, the parade organizer calls for everyone to begin lining up.
Modest scenes like this will play out all across Sacramento today, these scenes in their redundant everydayness, filled with future lives worth living, lives that will be more tolerant, less bigoted, and less materialistic than the Sacramento lives before them. Every generation’s memories matter, even the next ones, and they can be just as rich as Joan’s. Her mournful rendition of a beautiful but bygone and seemingly forgotten Sacramento, however eloquent, are the memories of privilege, and as she herself suggests, perhaps the losses are hers and hers alone.
The old Didion family house in Sacramento, far from the
Didion in Haight Ashbury in 1967,
taking the anxieties of the priveledged onto her
Armando and Lu Magri,
my raison d'etre.
Writer Joan Didion
Magri Manor being build while the
War in the Pacific raged on.
The State Capitol Annex being built in 1950.
There goes the neighbrhood.
The author at the American River
in 1970. Photo by Craig Lovell
Andy Warhol Remembered by Ken Magri
Originally published in March, 1987 in the Suttertown News
Writing about Andy Warhol can be tricky because his life was full of contradictions. Through his artworks the mundane could become interesting. As a celebrity he was accessible to almost everyone, yet he shunned the intimacy of personal contact.
Warhol never preached any specific art dogma, and the commentary in his works was usually vague; open to some interpretation. The images, however, did manage to mirror a cold war era America infatuated with itself, while celebrating the brand name abundance which characterized most of the country and most of Pop art in the 60s. Silk screened soup cans, Coke bottles, car crashes and movie stars had more iconic meaning under his repetitive eye.
Cal State Sacramento professor Kurt von Meier likened Andy's thinking to that of the Dadaist Marcel Duchamp and his ideas about the function of choice, which were brilliantly revived in Warhol's art. "Of all the images of Marilyn Monroe, he chose the one that went straight to the archetype," said von Meier. "Through his choice he was able to focus on the essence."
Warhol dumbfounded most art critics by striking at the so-called mystique of art and returning it to a pedestrian aesthetic. Images of race riots, Jackie Kennedy, electric chairs and Chairman Mao, gleaned straight from the front pages of newspapers, were familiar to the average American, even though Warhol put his own spin on them. While speaking of the superficiality in our lives, his flat colored, hastily rendered canvases seemed to celebrate it just the same."I sensed anger in some of his work," said Sacramento artist Darrell Forney. "There was a certain edge that kept it alive." Forney saw Warhol as an iconoclast, especially in his tradition-breaking use of film. "I was a graduate student at California College of Arts and Crafts in 1963, when all the Pop artists were making their impact. I would hit the Bay Area film festivals and inevitably see a Warhol film.”
In many ways Warhol's films posed a greater challenge than his art by setting extreme precedents for their unrelenting sexual themes and/or duration. Consider these two examples from 1964, shot with a static camera from a fixed viewpoint. "Empire" recorded eight hours of the top half of the Empire State building, and "Blow Job" focused only on a young man's face while an off camera participant performed fellatio on him.
People often dismissed Andy's films as camp put-ons and amateurish exercises in non-technique. Still others found significance in his willingness to push the boundaries of cinema beyond mere Hollywood standards. As the years progressed Warhol, with film partner Paul Morrisey, used more traditional techniques, but continued to explore explicit sexual themes that would generate protests or police confiscations. Without Andy's continual attack on artistic taboos, later films like John Schlesinger's "Midnight Cowboy" and Bernardo Bertalucci's "Last Tango in Paris" would never have achieved Academy Award consideration. Warhol broke the ice, although film soon became a temporary means of expression.
Warhol slowed down considerably after surviving a near fatal point-blank shooting in 1968 at the hands of a disturbed young woman who wanted him to produce a film script she wrote. It seems so distant now to remember what a horribly violent year that was. The Soviets rolled their tanks into Prague, the Tet Offensive began in Viet Nam, Martin Luther King was assassinated, and while Warhol recovered from surgery to save his life, the news came in about Robert Kennedy's assassination. Out of the chaos and tragedy that enveloped the world that year Warhol became just another victim. He was never the same after 1968, but neither was America.
Throughout most of the 70s and 80s a mellowed Warhol concentrated on celebrity portraits and his new "Interview" magazine, a visually hip foray into the chic, if not substantive, side of New York glitterati. He was always seen with superstars (a word he coined, by the way), many of whom became his subjects. The list of notables included Mick Jagger, Aretha Franklin, Jane Fonda, O.J. Simpson, Jimmy Carter, Maria Shriver, fellow artists Man Ray and R.C. Gorman., and boxing great Muhammad Ali.
As a celebrity, Warhol endorsed everything from ice cream to office furniture. As a collector he purchased fabulous examples of contemporary paintings, Federalist period furniture, Art Deco housewares and Navajo rugs. He penned two books, did cameos in "Tootsie," on "Saturday Night Live" and "The Love Boat," and, at some point, became famous for being famous. While still making art right up to the end in 1987, it could be argued that Warhol's final masterpiece was the successful marketing of himself as the most recognizable artist since Pablo Picasso
Often portrayed as an enfant terrible, his most endearing characteristic, ironically, was his frailty. "He was shy, with almost a boyish quality," said Lisa Stanley, who helped arrange his 1981 appearance at the Weinstocks in downtown Sacramento. I met him that night and would agree. Warhol acted at times as if he was as surprised by his fame as anyone else.
Some art critics like Robert Hughes tried to downplay Warhol's importance, saying "his ideas had a half life," and that in the end he was little more than a "perfunctory social portraitist." But Hughes changed his tune in the 1990s, once it was apparent that Andy had inspired a whole wave of younger New York artists like Keith Haring, Ronnie Cutone, Kenny Scharf, and especially Jean Michel Basquait whom Warhol befriended and collaborated with."Look," said von Meier, "New York society can be voracious, yet it never gobbled him up." In the end it will be said that Andy Warhol far outlasted the 15 minutes of fame he accurately predicted for everybody else. "My gut hunch is that he’s going to survive very well" said Forney.
Downrown Sacramento in the 1960s