Alissa Lara Quart reviews 'Basquiat' by Phoebe Hoban.

By Alissa Lara Quart
Published July 23, 1998 7:00PM (EDT)

In "Basquiat: A Quick Killing In Art," the paintings of the 1980s art star are mere set dressing for his overripe life. The book casts him as an unbearably charismatic coke-headed flbneur. Although he was defined by celebrity in his lifetime, Basquiat was clearly more than the sum of his own glitz. He was the first black American artist to achieve international art stardom. His large body of work skillfully conjoined expressionism and graffiti art -- found poems with erased words and quotes, icons of boxers and fathers and policemen, scatty anatomies, delicate if occasionally loosey-goosey markmaking. In this biography, however, writer Phoebe Hoban seems to forget that it was Basquiat's painting and not the hole that cocaine made through his nose that drew an audience to him.

An accountant's son from Brooklyn, he got his start tagging SAMO ("Same old shit") on the Brooklyn Bridge. By age 20 his painting and his identity were embedded in a "natural genius" narrative, his handlers the likes of Henry Geldzahler, Annina Nosei, Larry Gagosian and Andy Warhol. The biography cites the condescension and subtle racism that imbued some of Basquiat's relationships with the gallerists; he simply wasn't one of them. Hoban quotes Larry Gagosian's memory of meeting Basquiat: "I was surprised to see a black artist and particularly one that was -- you know -- with the hair. I was taken aback by it, and kind of put off."

Hoban doesn't follow up on this crucial matter, however, contenting herself with ladling out La Dolce Vita anecdotes. There's Jean-Michel's sex life. As critic Rene Ricard says, "His life was sex. He was into everything. He was a whore. He had turned tricks." Basquiat had many neglected lovers and as many cases of gonorrhea. There's "big plush blonde" Tina Lhotsky, who remembers their ur-East Village courtship ritual. They were two strangers, Basquiat offering one of his bagful of hamburgers to the girl in operatic makeup and a spiky bouffant. Another lover, Madonna, was perhaps more fascinated with him than he was with her. She played the vixen despite her sentimental attachment. Even 1998's fop Vincent Gallo chimes in with his admiring memories of Basquiat's signature paint-splattered Armani suits.

Basquiat was painting in Armani while his paintings sold extraordinarily well. A chunk of these sales were spent on heroin, however. By the time he overdosed at age 27, he and his painting had become self-parodies. The book continues its gossipy, breathy tone as Basquiat decays. We read the unexpurgated story of his nightmarish $300-a-day habit, including the junk mirages and the scabs on his face. By this time, some readers might find that this biography's talking heads -- gabby big-ticket art dealers, Jim Jarmusch actors and self-lacerating ex-girlfriends -- have become annoying.

While these voices lard the page, Hoban avoids formulating some essential questions: What was Basquiat's project? What is his cultural position today? Was he a genius or a fraud, a natural or a cagey confector of the authentic? Instead, Hoban and the artist's former gang render Basquiat as a brilliant savage, transforming the artist from human to totem. By the end of the book, you can't help but feel that Basquiat has been talked away into a second death.

Alissa Lara Quart

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