CAMH Director Bill Arning Talks Basquiat, '80s NYC

Jean-Michel Basquiat
Jean-Michel Basquiat
Lee Jaffe/Arthouse Films

Tomorrow, the new Tamra Davis-directed documentary Jean-Michel Basquiat: The Radiant Child opens downtown at the Angelika.

Based around a never-before-seen 1985 interview of Basquiat by Davis, the film features recollections of the artist by friends Glenn O'Brien, Julian Schnabel and Fab 5 Freddy, among others. Bill Arning, the former chief curator of the List Visual Arts Center at M.I.T., and currently director of the Contemporary Arts Museum Houston, lived in New York during Basquiat's rapid ascendancy in the art world and witnessed that electrifying scene first-hand.

Art Attack asked Arning about his own recollections.

"I was there for the [1985] Warhol/Basquiat collaboration opening at Shafrazi [Gallery]. I remember seeing Jean-Michel around. But I never actually had any discussions with him. I also remember going to the party for the opening of the [Palladium's] Michael Todd Room, when he did that humongous 65-foot mural. He's really, to me, the embodiment of a time when there was no breakdown in the disciplines of creativity, when bands and filmmakers and poets and people whose biggest artwork was themselves and their public persona--we would all meet together, and there's just a wild percolation of creativity that happens when you put that many talented people from different fields together, the collaboration and the mental stimulation that happens."

"The art of that period was so music-driven. I just saw the big Jean-Michel survey at the Beyeler when I was over [in Switzerland] for the Basel Art Fair, and it felt really dead to me. It's like, those paintings are really not meant to be looked at without Junior Vasquez playing in your headphones, or any of the jazz figures like Charlie Parker that show up in the paintings. You need to have music playing with those paintings. And it's funny what happens to them when you see them in a rarified museum setting--they look kind of extra dead, because they've been removed forcibly from their natural environment. One thing that's really interesting historically is when you look at young art historians who are taught that the neo-geo crowd, the conceptualists, the Jeff Koontzes, the feminists, the neo-expressionists (like Jean-Michel) were in different camps--they were all there in the same nightclubs in the same night. That East Village period was all about these supposedly mutually antagonistic strategies mixing together. In my mind, one of the great cultural places in the landscape was the Mudd Club.

One of the most influential bands of the time was the Lydia Lunch-fronted Teenage Jesus and the Jerks. Arning took photos for the Teenage Jesus release "Orphans." The video above was shot at a one-off NYC reunion show (which featured Sonic Youth's Thurston Moore) in 2008.

"The first thing I ever got paid for was to be Lydia's roadie for Teenage Jesus gigs. I keep thinking if I listen to it loud enough, I'll suddenly be 24 again."

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Contemporary Arts Museum Houston

5216 Montrose Blvd.
Houston, TX 77006

713-284-8250

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