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  • Articles by Sonali

    Exhibition review: ‘Basquiat: Boom for Real' at the Barbican

    A painting of a skull by African American artist Jean Michel Basquiat sold for US $110.5 million at Sotheby’s New York in May 2017. His work is highly sought after on the contemporary art market. ‘Basquiat: Boom for Real’ at the Barbican is an opportunity for us to find out what all the fuss is about.

    This is the first major UK retrospective of his work. Spread over 2 floors the overall effect is one of organised chaos, reflecting his frenetic style. A multi talented artist his work spanned multimedia, film, artefacts, notebooks and paintings. The exhibition is a journey through his career. 

    It opens with a partial reconstruction of his first gallery show: he contributed a series of paintings to New York/ New Wave in 1981 at P.S.1 Contemporary Art Center in Long Island City making him an overnight success in the New York Art scene. He was 21 at the time. He was dead by the age of 27, which might go some way to explaining his mythic status.

    Self-taught, Basquiat was born in Brooklyn in 1960 to a Haitian-Puerto Rican family, beginning his career as a graffiti artist and selling his handmade collage postcards near the entrance to the MOMA for a $1.

    In 1978, using the pseudonym Samo while at the alternative high school, City-as-School, he began spray painting graffiti across Lower Manhattan. A series of photographs capture his cryptic tag lines signed by Samo. His works have inspired a new generation of graffiti artists, like Banksy.

    New York/ New Wave signals his move from street art to the gallery. These paintings depict urban Manhattan city, cars, and skyscrapers including the twin towers painted in bold red and black strokes. At a glance they seem childlike but there’s a confidence and raw energy here.

    Basquiat also dabbled in music, playing in a band called Gray. He frequented underground nightspots in New York. There's polaroid photographs and video footage from the Mudd Club when he would network with artists, writers and musicians including Debbie Harry and the as yet unsigned Madonna.

    His collaboration with Hip Hop musician Rammellzee and graffiti artist Toxic in the late 1970s produced a single ‘Beat Bop’. The cover art for the record sleeve designed by Basquiat is on display. His painting ‘Hollywood Africans’ is the result of a journey they took to LA. 

    Basquiat met Andy Warhol in 1982. On display is ‘Dos Cabezas’ a dual portrait of them both hurriedly painted (in a few strokes) by Basquiat within 2 hours of this meeting. There’s also some charming video footage of them together. They have a great rapport, both erudite New Yorkers. Basquiat's self portraits are a traumatized bunch with skull heads, looking like monsters. They have a 3-D quality, and seem to be moving or dancing even.

    The display downstairs feels more coherent perhaps, focusing on his paintings. These highlight his various influences. His works are a powerful mix of the primitive and the intellectual, inspired by history, literature or TV. The possibilities are endless. Basquiat said ‘I get my facts from books, stuff on atomisers, the blues, ethyl alcohol, geese in Egyptian glyphs’.

    Jazz music is a major inspiration. His working practice is based on improvisation. ‘Plastic Sax’ depicts his jazz idol Charlie Parker playing the Saxophone while floating on an aquamarine sea. The blue background denotes blues music brought over by African slaves. Basquiat skilfully uses bright colours in his paintings, adding to their vibrancy and complexity, uplifting this simple composition.

    Basquiat’s 'Untitled (Pablo Picasso) 1984' is a sketched portrait of Picasso enlivened by bold stripes of red, white and blue paint. This is an opportunity for Basquiat to show-off his drawing ability. Like Picasso, he admired non-Western Art. Basquiat was intrigued by Egyptian artefacts and African masks during visits to the Metropolitan Museum as a child with his family. His contrived primitive style was also influenced by artists Jean Dubuffet and Cy Twombly.

    The large scale paintings in Room 11 entitled Encyclopaedia reflect his staggering knowledge on subjects as diverse as American Beat writer William Burroughs (triptych Five Fish Species 1983) to Egyptian mythology (triptych Ishtar 1983).

    In truth, you might feel overwhelmed standing amongst these astonishingly detailed works. They’re very busy and intense, bursting with colour and written information. They could be mistaken for large, flat computer screens, humming with data. Basquiat supposedly predicts the arrival of the Internet age in these information saturated works.

    His more political works carry the clearest message. In Untitled ‘the Origins of Cotton’ he poignantly explores the connection between cotton production and the growth of capitalism. A display of his hand scribbled poetry books reveals his more whimsical side, and his distinctive handwriting.

    Basquiat himself capitalized on the excesses of the 1980s when he became a millionaire. He might also be seen as a victim of that vacuous era. He died aged 27, from a drug overdose. The exhibition reveals he left behind a thoughtful and prolific legacy despite his hedonistic lifestyle.

    We see that his 'primitive' style doesn’t really evolve during his career. His technical ability as a painter is questionable. But that didn’t put him off. His works are eye-catching, an exhilarating aggregation of colour, text, symbols and collage. They have a resounding energy and appeal. As such this exhibition has attracted a wide ranging audience of people from different age groups and ethnicities, and celebrities such as Salman Rushdie.


    'Basquiat: Boom for Real' at the Barbican until 28 January 2018


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