Basquiat played along, making scrupulously constructed paintings that alluded heavy-handedly to Western intellectual pillars like Charles Darwin and to the span of Western art history. Yet the more he presented himself as unexpectedly refined, the more he strained to shock viewers with discordant colors, stick figures and unsettling juxtapositions. Intellectual and aloof on the one hand, impassioned and emotional on the other. But never too impassioned or emotional to seem “too black.”
Basquiat seemed to be striving to satisfy two calculatedly contradictory expectations on the part of the powerful white people who were making his career. No wonder that Peter Schjeldahl wrote in The Village Voice at the time: “I would have anticipated a well-schooled white hipster behind the tantalizing pictures.” For his part, Basquiat responded to the pressure on him to play the two different roles of stereotypical black wild child and stereotypical self-taught black intellectual-Jack Johnson and Frederick Douglass-with paintings like Obnoxious Liberals with Eyes and Eggs. The picture’s black figure is a short-order cook, and you are perhaps meant to wonder whether he is the artist himself, forced to respond ignominiously to his white dealers’ requests for ever more explicit displays of visceral emotion on the one hand and rational detachment on the other.
According to the documentary, Basquiat took criticism badly, becoming furious and falling into a funk before needily coming around and catering to the critic, as he seemed to do time and again with Andy Warhol, who became his unlikely mentor and friend even as he hitched his falling star to Basquiat’s rising one and in the process pulled Basquiat down. The Radiant Child is emphatic in its insistence that Basquiat was his own man who always went his own way, even as it inadvertently presents evidence to the contrary.
Yet the most striking refutation of Basquiat’s autonomy is his face, utterly open and sweet, or nervous and uncertain yet beaming with joy around Warhol, or hard and exhausted toward the end of his young life. He had a hunger to please, and he turned with honest rage on himself because he had done so much to please so many people of vastly different stripes that nearly all of them, in the end, treated him as an exploitable object. His most powerful works are those late canvases that are not so much painted as covered with words and phrases written in a meticulous hand-almost a kind of anti-graffiti. Some of these phrases have a stinging epigrammatic power. One that occurs frequently is this: “Cowards will give to get rid of you.” They will heap money and praise on you and remake you along the lines of their own desire, and work against you behind your back when you disappoint their impossible expectations-until you are defeated, gone and forgotten.
America elected its first black president in a convulsion of outraged disgust with his predecessor, and in the sudden throes of fear, panic and confusion. Mr. Obama will not be excused for his blackness the second time around. We should think now and again of Jean-Michel Basquiat, so that when we are next reminded that Mr. Obama’s blackness is, despite our finest hopes, the most significant political fact about him, we will not be surprised.