Lived fast, died young – but his influence lives on: the life & art of Jean-Michel Basquiat

Jean-Michel Basquiat

I didn’t know what to expect from the ‘Basquiat: Boom for Real’ exhibition. Didn’t, truth be told, know all that much about the man the Barbican’s marketing blurb describes as “one of the most significant artists of the 20th century” – who died, aged just 27, in 1988.

Still, always willing to be educated, I turned up at the Barbican in keenly-anticipatory mode – only to be confronted by one of the largest queues I have ever seen. Turns out that coats, bags and even pens are banned from entering the exhibition; much of Basquiat’s work is privately-owned and a condition of the exhibition’s insurance is that no items be carried anywhere near the artwork. This, according to the lovely curator who lent me a pencil so that I could take notes, is one of the reasons why it has taken so long since Basquiat’s death to organise an exhibition dedicated to his work.

It also means that, by the time you do, somewhat grumpily, make it inside the exhibition you are expecting to be bowled over. And I was – eventually. Let’s start at the very beginning, however…

Born in Brooklyn in 1960, to a Haitian father and a Puerto Rican mother, Jean-Michel Basquiat grew up amid the post-punk scene in lower Manhattan. After leaving school at the age of 17, he invented the character ‘SAMO©’, writing poetic graffiti that captured the attention of his fellow New Yorkers – and this is the starting point of the exhibition which is divided, cleverly, into rooms representing different elements of Basquiat’s life and work.

To understand what drove SAMO© you need to understand the history of the time. New York was on the brink of financial ruin: violent crime had doubled and areas such as the Bronx were nightly lit up by flames, as landlords disposed of buildings they could no longer let or maintain. Basquiat and his collaborator, Al Diaz, teamed up as SAMO© (a play on “same old shit”) using surreal, witty statements designed to capture the art world’s attention. And their tactic worked – although their anonymity did not last.

SAMOC

Hmm. Exhibited in the SAMO© room are photos of a number of the graffiti statements, together with several originals – but I have to say, so far I was underwhelmed, just as I’d been in the first room, ‘New York/New Wave’, named in tribute to the landmark exhibition held in 1981 and featuring works by the likes of Andy Warhol, David Byrne and William Burroughs. Basquiat was the only artist in the show to be given a prominent space for painting and, reunited for the first time, are 15 of the works he exhibited. I found them childlike, which may well have been Basquiat’s intention but meant that, with the exception of ‘Untitled’, they failed to capture my imagination.

Moving into ‘Canal Zone’ (named after the NY apartment where Basquiat spray-painted live on camera for the first time as SAMO© and met many future collaborators), I began to learn more about the way in which Basquiat worked, in particular with Jennifer Stein. A number of the postcards they co-created are here, together with amusing anecdotes of how the duo used to sell them outside The Museum of Modern Art, until they were chased away by museum guards. I also fell in love with ‘Untitled (Black)’: such a clever use of colour.

I was gradually being lured into this Basquiat / Barbican world – and the next room, ‘The Scene’, had me hooked. Here I started to gain a real insight into Basquiat, his life and how the New York club scene inspired him. The Mudd Club was where Basquiat spent most of his nights, along with the likes of Grace Jones, Madonna, Andy Warhol, Debbie Harry…there are some great Maripol photos of them on display. When Mudd Club closed, in 1983, Area became the place to be seen; Basquiat often DJd there and it’s where he held a joint 25th birthday party with the club’s founder, Eric Goode.

Now that I better understood Basquiat’s personality, the other rooms began to make more sense. I loved ‘Beat Bop’, the room named after the old name for hip hop, a vital force in 1980s New York. Basquiat got to know many emerging figures from the scene and, with Rammellzee, produced a single, ‘Beat Bop’, in 1983, also creating the cover art for the sleeve. Basquiat, Rammellzee and their friend the graffiti artist Toxic called themselves the ‘Hollywood Africans’, in reference to the inescapable racism in the film and music industries.

There isn’t enough space in this post to cover all the rooms, but I was particularly moved by ‘Warhol’. Unlikely though it may seem, Basquiat and the pop artist were close friends and collaborators, their friendship beginning after Basquiat painted a dual portrait of himself and Andy Warhol, entitled ‘Dos Cabezas’, which he delivered, still dripping with paint, to Warhol. The pair would go on to collaborate together many times and each influenced the other’s work, with Basquiat convincing Warhol to return to painting by hand, while he started to use the silkscreen technique for which Warhol was famous.

Dos Cabezas

What an intelligent exhibition this is. It’s plain that much thought and planning has gone into it: I love the “room” concept and could easily have spent hours more in them, getting to know Basquiat, his work and his contemporaries. As it is, I came away knowing that I had learned a great deal about a talented and fascinating individual who may have been taken away too soon, but whose legacy will live on long after the rest of us.

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