Phoebe Hoban, Basquiat: A Quick Killing in Art, Viking, 1998, 380 pp., $29.95.
A footnote to some ancient edition of Alexander Pope's The Dunciad tells us of a falling out between Pope and his publisher over money. Pope's retaliation was swift: 2He administered an emetic." Reading Phoebe Hoban's Basquiat: A Quick Killing in Art is to undergo a similarly drastic regime. Unfortunately, it lasts longer than Western standards of human decency allow. Three hundred eighty pages may be justly accorded Queen Victoria or Dean Acheson, but Jean-Michel?
Of course, the book does have a therapeutic function, especially if you're one of those people who thinks you're over the '80s. It reminds us that none of us are.
Basquiat is a slow-motion return of the repressed. With a cast of characters as copious as any novel by Dumas père, the book can be rough going for the unriveted. Reading it is surely as difficult as writing it must have been. If you're not taken with Hoban's Hollywood rendition of black culture -- "from the iterated drumbeat brought here by men sold into slavery, to the call and response of gospel, the repeated blues refrain" -- or with her scrupulous attention to juvenilia -- "the precocious essay" (of something written at age 17) -- or reminiscences of ubiquitous '80s art advisor Estelle Schwartz, you may find yourself looking for almost any form of distraction, from mowing the lawn to booting (no, not shooting) up and surfing the web.
Basquiat never quite comes alive as a story. A patient chronicler, Hoban's clinical prose is a strange blend of invidious comparisons and contempt, a sort of posthumous Starr report that tells us little that we did not already know. Her subject is finally overcome not by drugs but by a swarm of myrmidons, lovers, collectors, critics, dealers and a host of tertiary enablers whose glib testimony renders his story as lifeless as the corpse that the artist's father, Gerard Basquiat, unaccountably took two days to identify.
Was Basquiat really "the Jimmy Hendrix of the art world," as Viking's jacket copy endearingly proclaims? (Did Hendrix ever dine at Mortimer's?) Was he the "genius" he was presumed to be by Texas matrons and certain Westchester county collectors? Whether it be gushing about his "charisma," Rene Ricard mesmerized by his prodigious schlong, or Brett de Palma rambling endlessly about '"Jean" like some old-timer narrating an encounter with the Earp brothers, it must be admitted that here is an artist who has left his mark. What artist of recent times has achieved such truly democratic celebrity, from the Jockey Club to Alphabet City? Not even his idol Andy Warhol could claim that distinction. But, then, Andy was merely a connoisseur of the sordid; he had no gift for living what he so adored to watch. Basquiat did. He, more than Andy, deserves comparison with Baudelaire, that overworked figure of the standard Warhol accolade.
Hoban's book is a testament to Basquiat's stamina. Her police-blotter style sustains a balanced account of the two things that killed him: his drugs and his audience (shades of Hendrix, again). A knight with the strength of 10, Basquiat put on the armor of, well, smack. He was, of course, finally vanquished by the saprophytic frenzy of his admirers. By the time you finish Basquiat, with its inventories of drugs taken, fast food eaten, sexually transmitted diseases transmitted, the book's organizing principle -- the compulsion to repeat -- has taken its toll.
Long ago, one used to be depressed thinking of how ugly the '70s were. But, we're reminded of the awful excess of the '80s by nauseating images of perforated arms, bloody sheets, smelly bedrooms, mountains of coke and cash and by the mere names of certain collectors, advisors and critics. Reading Basquiat makes us wish we had left the country or done the graceful thing like Jean-Michel himself, and quietly OD'd.