Basquiat at the Barbican: A portrait of the artist as a young man

‘Boom for Real’, the first major UK retrospective of the work of Jean-Michel Basquiat, reveals how thrilling and relevant his art remains, almost 30 years after his death.

Jean-Michel Basquiat was just 17 when he first caught the attention of the New York media. As graffiti artist SAMO© (meaning ‘same old, same old shit’), he and his friend and classmate Al Diaz daubed witty, enigmatic statements across the streets of New York. Despite the city being covered in graffiti in the late 70s, SAMO©’s musings – which included ‘It’s a gonzo’s world, ain’t it sad?’ and ‘As an alternative to boosh-wah-zee fantasies, think’ – stood out, enough for publications such as the SoHo Weekly News and The Village Voice to beg the mysterious scribe to get in touch.

This early flutter with fame set the tone for Basquiat’s career going forward, with interest in the artist himself being almost equal to his output. Famously self-taught, Basquiat nonetheless had prolific art historical knowledge but was unafraid to mix this with supposedly ‘low’ art forms, such as references to TV or hip-hop. To some extent we’re used to this kind of cross-pollination now, but Basquiat’s ability to make his work fit as comfortably in a high-end New York gallery as it did on the walls of a nightclub (he created murals and installations for the Mudd Club, Area and Palladium) remains extremely rare.

Jean-Michel Basquiat
Top: Jean-Michel Basquiat dancing at the Mudd Club, 1979. Photo: © Nicholas Taylor; Above: Installation view, Basquiat: Boom for Real at the Barbican Art Gallery. All installation images: © Tristan Fewings/Getty Images; artworks: © The Estate of Jean-Michel Basquiat. Licensed by Artestar, New York

It is fascinating to see a recreation of Basquiat’s first ever exhibition display at the Barbican, from his appearance in Diego Cortez’s infamous group show ‘New York/New Wave’ which was held at P.S.1 in 1981. Basquiat was the only artist given a prominent space for paintings in this show, and these early works – which were shown alongside pieces from over 100 artists, from Robert Mapplethorpe to David Byrne, Nan Goldin to William Burroughs – already contain the buzzy energy that would become distinctive to his work (as well as showing the influence that Cy Twombly’s art had on the young Basquiat).

Many of the concepts and ideas that govern our creative thinking today converge in both Basquiat and his art, as the Barbican show makes clear. Celebrity, the artist as brand, the use of multiple media (the show features paintings, of course, but also films, postcards and even Grayson Perry-esque ceramics), a desire to collaborate with others and remix ideas, are all notions that remain extremely pertinent today. In fact, many in the creative industries will regularly tout these concepts as if they are brand new.

Of course Andy Warhol, whom Basquiat admired as a young artist and later befriended and collaborated with, had already established many of these traits as being essential for the modern artist. But Basquiat’s raw, intense style – he describes himself as “naive” in a rare filmed interviewed featured in the show – sets him apart from Warhol’s controlled, more cynical output.

The show contains plenty of interesting ephemera documenting Basquiat’s fame, from the early magazine articles preoccupied with SAMO© to Polaroid snaps from the underground club scene showing Basquiat alongside a youthful Madonna, Debbie Harry and Sade. His later friendship with Warhol was of course widely covered in the media, and there are fascinating personal documents and letters related to the duo on display. One of these, from Vogue’s Anna Wintour, gently explains how some of Basquiat’s iconography isn’t quite right for the magazine. “Alex Lieberman felt some of its subject matter (dentures and skulls) was a little depressing as a thought of what to look forward to in 1985,” she writes, before suggesting the imagery be used at a later date.

Despite the strong biographical element to ‘Boom for Real’, the Barbican shies away from detailing the more complex aspects of Basquiat’s life and career, including his untimely death at 27 from a drug overdose. There is no mention of the racism he experienced as part of everyday life in the city, where he would leave glitzy art world opening parties and be unable to get a cab. Instead the image suggested by much of the footage and photographs here is a fairly simplistic one of a permanently beautiful and cheerful young man.

We are left to piece together the more troubled aspect of his character through the paintings and notebooks on show, which reveal possible clues. “I know one day I’ll turn the corner and I won’t be ready for it,” he writes in one notebook from 1980-1. “I was cursed from birth.” A series of self-portraits also offer darker musings on identity and fame.

Basquiat’s fame was both a blessing and a curse. His paintings fetch impossibly high prices again now, but for a period after his death, his youthful success was written off as art world hype. Looking at the Barbican show, this opinion is hard to justify, with Basquiat’s works continuing to fizz with energy and life today and his influence now evident across many aspects of culture, from art to music to design.

This December, Basquiat would have turned 57, still a surprisingly young age for such an iconic artist. It’s impossible not to speculate on what he might have gone on to achieve had he not died so young, to ponder the impact he might continued to have as his work deepened and matured. Yet, in just ten years of work, he created a distinctive legacy, that will undoubtedly live on for decades to come.

Basquiat: Boom for Real is at the Barbican Art Gallery in London until January 28; barbican.org.uk

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