This post is sponsored by WNET. However, all thoughts and opinions expressed are my own.
In a sea of superhero, comedy, and binge-worthy drama series, it’s easy to overlook the documentaries which educate and expand your knowledge of the arts and culture. I enjoy a good documentary. It gives me something to talk about over lunch or a glass of wine with friends. So, I decided to give myself a night of good conversation and wine with a dear friend and American Masters, a series on PBS highlighting the personal and career journeys of some of America’s most timeless artists across various mediums such as writing, visual arts, music, and film, to name a few.
Good Conversation with a Friend About American Masters Basquiat
I invited a friend over for a wine pairing with one of my new favorite Hello Kitty wines and appetizers. This set the perfect mood for an evening of an American Masters episode featuring Jean-Michel Basquiat, also known as SAMO. Now, neither of us had ever heard of Basquiat, despite my two years of fine arts during college, so this was an exciting evening. We were not only gathering, but we were learning about a piece of American culture that we had no knowledge of. And I’ll be the first to say, we were immediately sucked into this program.
“I had some money, I made the best paintings ever. I was completely reclusive, worked a lot, took a lot of drugs. I was awful to people.” – Basquiat
Basquiat was an artist of multiple mediums who left his footprint on 1980s American culture in New York City. Known mostly as a graffiti prodigy and an eccentric fine artist of neo-expressionism, he literally went from starving artist to riches. Today, Basquiat is in the top tier of the international art market along with Picasso, de Kooning, and Francis Bacon.
He had a painting style of obsessive scribbling, diagrams, elusive symbols and skull imagery, which he became famous for by the time he was 20. He met massive acclaim for only a few short years due to his untimely death in 1988.
During his famed years as a young artist, he lived somewhat of a fairytale, creating art and having it shown alongside the works of Julian Schnabel, David Salle, and Francesco Clemente. In 1982, he developed a close relationship with Andy Warhol, who is undoubtedly one of the most famous artists from American pop culture.
Warhol filled the role of a mentor and a friend during the five years that they knew each other. A friendship which led to collaborations that brought unfavorable criticism from the media. This led to Basquiat distancing himself from Warhol, and amplified a suffering in silence mentality. When Warhol died in 1987 Basquiat was devastated, and just 1 year later died of a drug overdose.
“I don’t think about art while I work, I think about life.” –Basquiat
American Masters — Basquiat: Rags to Riches features never-before-seen exclusive interviews with Basquiat’s sisters who have never spoken about their brother and his art for TV. It also delivers interviews from art dealers, colleagues, close friends, and lovers to culminate a multi-faceted depiction of Basquiat’s passion, work, and battle with depression.
The story of Jean-Michel Basquiat opened a conversation about the Beat generation, a literary movement made popular during the 1950s. I had a sense that Basquiat was a beatnik. He was an eccentric artist who fostered the same ideals as many of the poets of that time —self-expression through a stream of consciousness rather than a premeditated concept. Names like Kerouac, Burroughs, and Ginsberg popped into our discussion over and over again as we watched the life of Basquiat unravel before us. There was even a photo of him holding The Subterraneans by Jack Kerouac.
The documentary was an hour and a half long. By the time the credits rolled we were full of food, wine, and an insatiable desire to learn more about American culture. But, we were also saddened from the knowledge that Basquiat’s short life was enveloped with pain and suffering so deep that most couldn’t recognize or even begin to understand it. This episode tapped into my younger more passionate years of art and literature. It awakened a part of me that I had not visited for nearly 15 years. And it also reminded me that great works of art, whether in song, visual, or performance, are most passionately created via the caves of emotional being — the best way to take something negative and turn it to a positive.
I’ll be screening another episode of American Masters soon. Maybe you’ll want to join in on the conversation? If you want to see this episode and learn more about the eccentric life of Basquiat, tune into PBS on Friday, September 14th, at 9 pm. Or you can stream from the PBS app or from pbs.org/americanmasters beginning the following day.