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Basquiat: A Quick Killing in Art.

By Phoebe Hoban. New York: Viking. 400 pp. $28.

Glenn O'Brien

Biographies are a bitch. It's hard to tell the truth about a real person except in a work of fiction. When it comes to film I have the Alexander Nevsky theory: a person should be dead for seven hundred years before you do the life story. Still, people want their history these days, and, like produce, the fresher the better. When it comes to artists' biographies, the best seem to be works of love. James Boswell loves Samuel Johnson. Victor Bockris loves Andy Warhol. Brad Gooch loves Frank O'Hara. Miles Davis loves Miles Davis. The new biography Basquiat, with the cold, macabre subtitle "a quick killing in art," is certainly not a work of love. It's a work of hype, muckraking, overambitious amateur psychology and tyro art criticism.

Twenty-five years after blaxploitation film, here it is, the blaxploitation art book. Researched up the wazoo and heavily footnoted, Basquiat represents about as much work as one can humanly do and still the miss the point entirely. Phoebe Hoban never knew her subject, and her book, while painstakingly detailed, shows no feel whatsoever for her subject's artistic power and achievement. This is a book-length magazine article concentrating on financial details and lurid gossip, as if it had been simultaneously serialized in the National Enquirer and the Wall Street Journal. Jean-Michel Basquiat's importance seems to be coldly derived from an equation of Bischofberger + Boone x Warhol - Hughes + Kramer. Hoban seems to have no aesthetic sensibility, yet she feels free to to make such declarations as "one thing was immediately obvious: Basquiat's early work was by far his best." So writes the author, a frequent contributor to Premiere, Vogue, and GQ.

I can't pretend to be an objective reader, as Basquiat was a close friend and I was interviewed for this book; but friendship aside, I was always astonished by his work. I was also continually moved by his liveliness, expansiveness, optimism, joy, and grace. He was not an idiot savant. He was not a primitive genius. He was divinely gifted, enormously self-educated, primally visionary, and exquisitely sophisticated. That's not here. The man's not here. Neither are his friends, except quoted out of God knows what context. One of the many failings of the book is the lack of milieu. Basquiat's influences, circle, and interactions are reduced to drug deals, sexual encounters, and sales figures.

This is the Jimi Hendrix and Charlie Parker treatment all over again: young black man gets rich, can't handle it, makes it with white girls, gets strung out, blows money, dies. Except that Parker got better with Bird Lives!, the brilliant biography by his friend and manager, Ross Russell. And Hendrix got far better in Electric Gypsy, by Harry Shapiro and Caesar Glebbeek, where the facts are presented without being "colored" and genius is given its "props." I'm not saying that Jean-Michel didn't idolize Charlie Parker or that there wasn't a dark side to his life. But when I listen to Bill Evans, that white guy from Miles Davis' best band, I don't think about Bill's nods, and when I listen to Glenn Gould play Mozart I don't think about his Valium problem, and when I listen to Coltrane leaving earth orbit I don't think about cirrhosis. It's not an easy job, allowing the gods to manifest themselves through you.

No one ever seems to consider that Basquiat, Hendrix, and Parker gave us more in their short lives than most great white artists who live the full term and die of emphysema, Alzheimer's, or car hitting tree. Basquiat had more fun, made more friends, and did more important work in twenty-seven years than most of the best do in seventy-two. And how many deaths are happy? How many of us go out in a blaze of glory with a song on our lips? At least I can hope that Basquiat didn't suffer when he passed over, that he nodded off to heaven to the rhythm of "Kind of Blue." Charlie Parker died laughing at a clown on TV.

This is not a lovely book. There's a very unflattering picture on the jacket of a very handsome man. There's a lot of eyewitness testimony about business deals, dope deals, and fucking. The body is here, but the spirit's gone. The real evidence is the handwriting on the wall and the immortal spirit that lives in everyone who loved this beautiful man and that lives in everything made by his hand. The real evidence is in the work, not here. The paintings spill heaven's guts. This book is compost.

Samo[C] lives!

Glenn O'Brien is a writer who lives in New York.
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Author:O'Brien, Glenn
Publication:Artforum International
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jun 22, 1998
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