Masterpieces of Western Art, a many-authored survey of its titular subject published by Taschen, has the following mini-bio of Jean-Michel Basquiat in its back pages:
1960 New York – 1988 New York
Basquiat was born in New York as the son of a Haitian book-keeper and a Puerto-Rican mother. After a difficult childhood he began at the age of 17, togther with Al Diaz, to paint graffiti in underground stations and on house-fronts under the assumed name of Samo. He did casual work and played the guitar and synthesizer in a band. The art market soon discovered Basquiat; by taking part in the documents at Kassel in 1982 and the Whitney Biennale in New York in 1983, he became a media star. He made friends with Warhol. They painted portraits of each other and designed a number of works together. Basquiat introduced the graffiti art form to the world without disowning his Brooklyn ghetto origins. He constructed assemblages from waste objects; materials used as surface could range from a torn bit of paper to a fridge door. He died from a drug overdose.
You will not learn a single fact more about Basquiat by watching Julian Schnabel’s biographical film; nor will you gain any insight into what drove and motivated his art. Although you will see many of his works, they remain on the outskirts of both the film and the world of the film: “We're no longer collecting art. We’re buying people,” as says one of the characters.
Keeping with that, what Basquiat becomes is the selling of one artist (Jean-Michel Basquiat) by another (Julian Schnabel). But, because Schnabel is also an artist (his art appears in the film, painted by a silver screen alter-ego played by Gary Oldman) and, especially, because Schnabel knew Basquiat, the sales pitch is more convincing than in most other artist bio-pics.
Instead of constructing a film that is an excuse to educate the viewer by way of throwing an easy-to-digest fact at him or her every five-to-ten minutes, Schnabel focuses on the details that add up to make up a person. Instead of the “he was born in New York in 1960…” approach, he gives us: “he had this funny little habit of…”