For the past few months, the Barbican has been host to Jean-Michel Basquiat’s first large-scale exhibition in the UK, featuring work spanning his whole working life. His premature death at the age of 27 is tragic, yet it is astounding what he managed to achieve in such a short space of time.
Upon entering the exhibition, the first room features some of his early work from the 1981 exhibition, New York/New Wave, which also included work by Andy Warhol, Nan Goldin and William Burroughs. On first impressions, those who aren’t familiar with Basquiat’s archetypal ‘naïve’ or ‘primitive’ style could be forgiven for thinking his art is something a child produce, a criticism all to often laid upon contemporary art. However, for me, art is about both aesthetics and meaning, and art in which technical ability is more obvious, isn’t necessarily more interesting. Basquiat was known to mix supposed ‘high’ and ‘low’ culture in his work, and as his career progressed, so too did its level of detail and scale.
Basquiat existed both inside and outside the art world, meaning that there is a certain humour in his work being part of a retrospective exhibition and being written about analytically. What first attracted me to Basquiat when I was younger was his use of the alter ego SAMO©, a play on the phrase ‘same old shit’. He would spray paint graffiti across SoHo and the Lower East Side, that was usually humorous, often political, and always poetic. n this respect, Basquiat was a writer and a poet, using the streets of New York as his canvas. (The Barbican also displays pages from his notebooks, which includes poems and word experiments.)
There were many fascinating aspects of Basquiat’s career, including the various scenes he was involved with: The Mudd Club; experimental rap; rock and bebop music. Although he mocked the conventions of the art world, he drew influences from mainstream western art. Although he was also influenced by African art, black culture and philosophy, as well as more eclectic source material such as books on Leonardo da Vinci and symbols.
My favourite pieces of Basquiat’s work are those that combine detailed drawings with text, in vibrant colours. Basquiat would often describe a lot of the figures depicted in his painting as self-portraits. In his painting, Hollywood Africans, he portrayed himself alongside artist-musician, Rammellzee and graffiti artist, Toxic. The title was a critique of the racism present within the film industry, exemplifying the humour and politics that are interwoven in his art. The references to sugar cane and tobacco in this painting also act as a critique of the role of the British in slavery on plantations, showing the importance of remembering this history, and how it continues to play a part in the discrimination of black people in all areas of their lives.
Although Basquiat’s background was relatively privileged. He was exposed to art at a young age, attended private school, and was gifted in art, literature and languages. But he had a troubled life in other ways. His mother was committed to a psychiatric institution when he was just thirteen years old, and he ran away from home at the age of fifteen. He later dropped out of school, and was thrown out of his home. He initially supported himself by selling t-shirts and postcards, one of which was bought by Andy Warhol, at the very start of their friendship. Basquiat struggled for several years, but was able to go from being homeless to selling paintings for $25,000 within his lifetime.
Generally, when visiting exhibitions with video exhibits, I only spend a few minutes with each feature.However, when I began watching the film Downtown 81, there was something about it that engrossed me. Directed by Edo Bertoglio, written and produced by Glenn O’Brien and Patrick Montgomery, it stars Basquiat as a character with many parallels to his own life. He was homeless at the time of filming, and the protagonist in the film wakes up in hospital, and finding himself evicted from his home, begins a mission to sell a painting for $500. The paintings in the film are amongst Basquiat’s first works on canvas, and by the end of the film he ends up selling some paintings in real life, including one sold to Debbie Harry, who also features in the film. Running at 72 minutes, I must have watched over half of the whole film, enthralled in the surreal storyline, its humour, and Basquiat’s cool presence.
As the exhibition comes to the end of its run at the Barbican, I would urge you to book your visit whilst you can – just make sure to give yourself the time to enjoy everything that it encompasses.
Basquiat: Boom for Real is at the Barbican until January 28th andl is co-curated by Dr Dieter Buchhart and Eleanor Nairne, Curator, Barbican Art Gallery, and organised in collaboration with the Schirn Kunsthalle Frankfurt
Featured images from the Barbican © The Estate of Jean-Michel Basquiat, Licensed by Artestar, New York
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