Ishmael Reed on the Myths and Realities of Jean-Michel Basquiat

The author and playwright joins Ben Davis on the podcast this week.

Michael Halsband's photograph Andy Warhol and Jean-Michel Basquiat with Boxing Gloves (1985), is featured in Artnet's 'An Eye for Icons' sale live now.

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The author Ishmael Reed is known as a major force in literature and has been called one of the key thinkers of multiculturalism. Born in 1938, Reed arrived with a bang in 1972 with Mumbo Jumbo, a vibrant, hard-to-describe novel that blends real historical events with outrageous fantasy, about a plague of dancing that breaks out, spread by Black artists and musicians, and a shadowy international conspiracy to contain its disruptive power.

Reed’s storied career has included novels, essays, and polemics, as well as plays. And he has recently come out with a work for the stage that looks at how we tell the story of another giant of the late 20th century: Jean-Michel Basquiat.

Basquiat is today among the most widely known painters, and his life story is almost as famous as his art itself. He burst into the spotlight in the early ‘80s, first as a savvy street artist and then with his vibrant style of painting. By 1985, he was on the cover of the New York Times Magazine, the symbol of the 1980s art boom. By the end of the decade, he was dead of an overdose of heroin, at the age of 27.

Reed’s play, titled The Slave Who Loved Caviar, is sharply critical of how Basquiat’s story gets told as one of self-destruction instead of exploitation. It homes in on Basquiat’s famous relationship with the edler Andy Warhol, which has been told and retold, in the painter Julian Schnabel’s famous 1996 film Basquiat, as well as more recently Anthony McCarten’s Broadway play, The Collaboration, soon to be a film, and in many other places.

Like Mumbo Jumbo, The Slave Who Loved Caviar tackles the serious subject of how Black culture is treated in society, in a fantastic way. It features police investigators literarily reviewing the evidence that the white art world failed Basquiat. But it also has a Vampire aristocrat character, depicted as a present-day, Andy Warhol-like figure out to collaborate with a young Black artist, who goes by the name Young Blood.

The play was performed in 2021 and 2022 at the Theater for the New City. It has just been published in a text by Archway Editions, with a forward and afterward where Reed responds to some of the criticism his take on Basquiat’s story stirred up then. This week on the podcast, Reed joins Artnet’s chief art critic Ben Davis to discuss his work.

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