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Basquiat: Boom for Real, Barbican review - the myth explored | reviews, news & interviews

Basquiat: Boom for Real, Barbican review - the myth explored

Basquiat: Boom for Real, Barbican review - the myth explored

Appraising the graffiti artist whose paintings fetch over $100 million at auction

Saint or sinner? Basquiat's 1982 self-portrait is ambiguous Courtesy Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen, Rotterdam. © The Estate of Jean-Michel Basquiat. Licensed by Artestar, New York. Photo: Studio Tromp, Rotterdam

Beautiful, shy, charming and talented, Jean-Michel Basquiat was a shining star who streaked across the New York skyline for a few brief years in the early 1980s before a heroin overdose claimed his life at the age of only 27. 

I’ve introduced him as a phenomenon rather than an artist, because that’s how the Barbican exhibition presents him. The upstairs space charts his meteoric rise to fame from the graffiti writer, SAMO © (same old shit) to the painter whose 1982 canvas of a skull fetched over $110 million at Sotheby’s last May. The highest price ever paid at auction for an American artwork, it put Basquiat in the same league as Francis Bacon and Picasso.

This fascinating trawl through the downtown scene in the late 1970s and early ‘80s takes you to SOHO where, having dropped out of high school, Basquiat began spray-painting comments like “SAMO © as a neo artform”, "SAMO © for the quasi avant garde” and “SAMO © as an alternative to blah blah, quasi blah”. Sprayed in neat capitals across gallery doors and outside walls, these savvy remarks fuelled intense curiosity about the identity of the writer. 

Along with other aspiring artists, musicians, poets and performers, Basquiat frequented the Mudd Club, where he played with his band Gray. There he met Glenn O’Brien, music critic for Interview magazine, who cast him in the film Downtown 81 as a struggling artists trying to make his way in the New York art world. In effect, Basquiat was playing himself. Having been outed as SAMO © in 1979, he had stopped tagging and begun making postcards with Jennifer Stein, which they touted outside the Museum of Modern Art for $1 a piece. They even sold a card of sunglasses to Warhol, with whom Basquiat would collaborate a few years later. 

His big break came in 1981, when he was included in New York/New Wave, a sprawling group show of over 100 artists curated for the gallery PS1 by Diego Cortez, co-founder of the Mudd Club. Cortez juxtaposed stars such as Andy Warhol, William Burroughs, Nan Goldin and Robert Mapplethorpe with graffiti artists like Keith Haring, Futura 2000 and Lee Quinones. Fifteen of the paintings shown by Basquiat are reunited here (pictured above right: Untitled 1981 © Tristan Fewings/Getty Images). It's hard to see why these naive outline drawings of cars, planes, buildings, faces and figures attracted so much attention, but this positive response prompted Basquiat to go home and announce to his father, “Papa, I’ve made it!”

Basquiat: Boom for RealHe never looked back. Later that year, his friend Rene Ricard wrote an article about him for the influential journal Artforum titled “The Radiant Child” and the New York art scene embraced as an exotic outsider the disarming young man, whose charm and diffidence belied the fierce energy fuelling his wayward pictures. 

As though to compensate for treating him primarily as a phenomenon, on the lower floor the Barbican presents Basquiat’s paintings thematically and analyses them to bits. “I never went to art school, I just looked,” he once said. His mother nurtured her young son’s talent and interest by taking him to museums and galleries and gave him a copy of Gray’s Anatomy. Anatomical drawing remained an ongoing preoccupation and in Leonardo’s Greatest Hits, 1982, (pictured above left) he translates a page of drawings from Leonardo’s sketchbooks into their fierce, cartoon-like equivalents.  

Surrounding himself with books on art, music and everything else besides, Basquiat remained a voracious consumer of images and information. In a clip from Warhol’s TV show he remarks that his paintings are about everything. “I get my facts,” he said, “from books, stuff on atomisers, the blues, ethyl alcohol, geese in Egyptian 'glyphs.” In pictures that are like stream-of-consciousness depictions of his current preoccupations, he obsessively lists things from car brands to metals, animals, the elements and the names of people he admired (pictured below right: Untitled Pablo Picasso 1984)

Basquiat: Boom for RealHis interests were eclectic, but far from random. His love of jazz and bepop (he owned 3,000 records) translates into eulogies for black musicians such as Louis Armstrong, Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie based on images sampled from his collection of books. He consistently features black achievers, from world heavyweight champion Jack Johnson to athlete Jesse Owens who challenged Hitler’s belief in white supremacy by winning a gold medal at the 1936 Olympics. The vexed issue of slavery is cited with reference to the sugar and cotton trades, while portraits of Charles Darwin and TH Huxley were inspired by their belief that homo sapiens originated in Africa. Nothing is ever spelled out; words and images riff off each other in multi-layered conversations that are a gift to art historians who can beaver away to uncover the multiple sources from which the artist drew his material.

By exploring black history, its as though Basquiat was searching for confirmation of his own identity for, despite his burgeoning success, he clearly felt like an outsider in the predominantly white art world. When, in 1983, he was invited to Los Angeles for his second show at the prestigious Larry Gagosian Gallery, he was joined by graffiti artists Rammellzee and Toxic. Hollywood Africans features the three friends looking perplexed in tinseltown, where racial stereotypes are routinely reinforced by movies featuring blacks as maids, servants, criminals and thugs. In an interview Basquiat remarked that he would like to be a film director making movies about Afro-Americans as “people of the human race and not aliens, and not all thieves and drug dealers”.

He usually portrayed himself as a mask-like black face crowned with spiky dreadlocks, while the leering skulls that frequent his paintings are a vibrant mix between African masks and cartoon monsters (pictured below: Glenn, 1984). In a self-portrait of 1982 (main picture), painted for his first solo show, he looks like a strange cross between a voodoo god, Jesus Christ crowned with thorns and a boxing champion, his raised arms suggesting both crucifixion and a victory salute. While the wild flurry of bright scribbles and patterns surrounding him suggest the intoxication of success, the underlying implication of martyrdom is sadly prescient. 

He didn’t really have a chance. Embraced as a protégé by Warhol, with whom he collaborated for over a year, and gobbled up by international acclaim, Basquiat took refuge in the drugs that brought his life to an abrupt end, but kickstarted an inexorable rise to posthumous fame. While its impossible to separate the man from the myth, this exhibition encourages the elision. This makes for a fascinating experience, but does Basquiat no favours as an artist since it directs one’s reading of the pictures too narrowly. We’ll probably have to wait several more decades for the myth to fade and the work to shine with its own light.

In a self-portrait of 1982, he looks like a strange cross between a voodoo god, Jesus Christ crowned with thorns and a boxing champion


Editor Rating: 
Average: 4 (1 vote)

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Perhaps I am missing something, but I arrived with optimism and left feeling there is a massive element of “Emperor’s new clothes”. A few early, playful, interesting, anti-establishment, New York specific, expressive examples of graffiti... But tons of utter drivel. Someone seems to have convinced him that he was an exceptional artist (or avant garde personality), a messiah with something substantial to say, but it’s actually juvenile, purile, amateurish and often trite. Dare I suggest, he must have started reading his own promotional material before he’d earned the right to become King of anything. Association with Keith H and Warhol, does not an artist make... this exhibition presents a fridge and a vase covered in scribbles which wouldn’t look out of place at a municipal dump and frankly, I was bored by the lack of genuine inventiveness and creativity; I am bored with being presented with crap posing as extraordinary (and sick of seeing it changing hands for $millions) by spurious dealers like Saatchi and those who monopolise and control the art market by manipulating ‘taste’ for their own financial ends and egos. £110.5million was recently paid for one of Basquiet’s works, because he is long dead, (therefore not producing new work) and can be associated with a specific period and lauded by the usurious as a leading light of some movement to which they will - if they haven’t already - ascribe some nonsensical, pretentious name. No wonder many ‘average citizens’ feel excluded and alienated by art. We have many fine creative talents in the U.K. but so often the merest hint of commercial success and money results in increased output of questionable integrity and quality. I was hoping to be excited and experience a revelation of subversive wit and intelligent observation, reworked into creative output which surprised and exuded energy. Whereas in fact, it's largely crap and self-indulgent, relatively poorly executed, art student-y output. SO MASSIVELY DISAPPOINTING.

I haven't seen the exhibition but your comment sums up what I also think of the Basquiat phenomenon. Praising and elevating such an artist, whose work merely displays his limitations and inabilities, doesn't really help reinforce modern art's credibility, to the eyes of the public. It only fuels the resentment and cynicism that is directed towards an art scene that has lost touch with reality. No wonder Basquiat's work is near absent from public collections, in the UK and US.

A disappointing and badly curated exhibition...but I'm grateful to the Barbican for explaining to us what hip hop and the blues are, and also what a renaissance man is. Apparently Basquiat was one because he had some books and some records. I like the work a lot but there's no development in it - and nowhere in the show is it acknowledged that he died at the age of 27.

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