Award-winning journalist and best-selling author Patrick Range McDonald has written a powerful essay about the life and art of Jean-Michel Basquiat. Titled “A Visit with Jean-Michel Basquiat on His Birthday,” it can be read at Letters From Over Here at Medium.
The essay was nearly two years in the making. For his research, McDonald traveled around the United States, attended panel discussions involving Basquiat’s friends and advisors, read numerous books and articles, and, among other things, visited the “Jean-Michel Basquiat: King Pleasure” exhibit, in New York and Los Angeles, a dozen times.
“‘King Pleasure’ was crucial for my research,” says McDonald. “It was like a kind of public archive, where I could spend hours and hours learning about Jean-Michel and his art.”
For his essay, McDonald takes the reader with him for one of his hours-long visits to “King Pleasure,” which just happened to take place on Basquiat’s birthday.
“I mention in the first sentence of the essay that I forgot it was Jean-Michel’s birthday,” McDonald says, “which, unfortunately, is true. That’s not some cutesy line. I bought a ticket for a different day, but I rescheduled for December 22. Then once I arrived at the exhibit, I heard a woman say it was Jean-Michel’s birthday, and I couldn’t believe my luck — it was the perfect place to be. It was weird how it played out, like something mystical was going on. It stopped me in my tracks for a moment when I started thinking about it. It was just so weird.”
McDonald adds, “So using the tour of the exhibit as a kind of narrative device for the essay was a way to do something different. But, to be honest, even that wasn’t planned at the beginning. It just sort of happened, and I rolled with it, and I realized it was a good thing to do. It worked.
“And while I wrote about the visit, I also expanded upon it and gave my take on various issues, such as why certain critics treated Jean-Michel so poorly in the 1980s and my own assessments of my favorite artworks at ‘King Pleasure,’ among other things, including Jean-Michel’s time in Los Angeles, which isn’t written about much.”
Like Basquiat’s world-famous paintings, McDonald’s writing is dynamic and thought-provoking.
“There’s nothing worse than writing something boring and dry about an incredibly dynamic artist like Jean-Michel,” says McDonald. “A writer, in my opinion, should try to be as dynamic as the subject matter. It’s a kind of duty.”
McDonald adds, “I wrote the essay as if I was writing a letter to a smart, good friend. I could have more fun writing it, I could take more chances, I could essentially reveal my truest self to the reader — the same way you use a letter to confide in a trusted friend. It’s why I came up with the name Letters From Over Here for my Medium publication. More than anything, I’m writing personal letters to anyone who reads my stuff.”
The motivation to start the Basquiat project was to right some wrongs.
“In March of 2022, I watched a Netflix docuseries called The Andy Warhol Diaries. Jean-Michel was one of the people featured in the series — he collaborated with Warhol for a few years. And the way certain powerful critics treated Jean-Michel was criminal. They were, without question, racists and bullies. So I was sick of the bullies of the world winning, and decided to start up a book project that would set the record straight on Jean-Michel and would confront the bullies and racists. We can’t let them get away with stuff anymore, and I’m planning to turn the essay into a book to reach more people for decades to come.”
McDonald notes, “At the same time, the essay-letter definitely celebrates the genius of Jean-Michel — as an artist, he was truly terrific in so many different ways. He’s inspiring, actually. I smile just thinking about some of the things he did with his art. So damn clever and beautiful and even idealistic. So there’s a good balance in the piece, and it’s a fun read. I know I laughed when writing certain parts of it.”
Read “A Visit with Jean-Michel Basquiat on His Birthday” at Letters From Over Here.