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Jean-Michel Basquiat, Glenn, 1984 Courtesy Private Collection.

Basquiat: Boom for Real

26 September 2017 Will Rathbone

Jean-Michel Basquiat was an exhilarating, exciting, raw talent who exploded onto the New York art scene in the late 1970s, and didn’t let up until his untimely death at age 27. The Barbican are staging the first ever major UK show of his work, and the exhibition – sourced from private collections and international museums – goes beyond the artworks to delve into the man himself. It’s inspiring, exhilarating and one of the finest shows of the year.

The Barbican Centre’s Basquiat retrospective divides itself into two distinct areas. The upper level looks at the various mediums Basquiat used, and the range of material he produced, from the initial SAMO© (Same Old Shit) graffiti which drew the attention of the New York art scene to his work in film and music. Downstairs, the wealth of influences that Basquiat drew upon – from jazz and art history to literature and religion – is examined. The result is more than the sum of its parts: Boom for Real leaves a genuine impression of the man himself.   


Jean dancing at the Mudd Club with painted t-shirt, 1979 Courtesy Nicholas Taylor
 
The exhibition begins with a recreation of Basquiat’s first gallery appearance, in the 1981 New York / New Wave art show. Here his childlike scrawls (a definite affectation, as evidenced by the impeccable handwriting seen in his journals) take in New York’s grey, grimy streets while incorporating text and his trademark tribal faces. The energy and urgency is overwhelming – it is the work of a young, hungry artist.
 
The sarcastic SAMO© graffiti he emblazoned across SoHo with school friend Al Diaz is remarkable for that same reason. His voice was crystal clear at 17, his mind razor sharp. An excerpt from a text written in school reads: “He laid a pearly white on me and put down the pipe he was smoking. ‘Name’s Jones, son. Quasimodo Jones’.” Basquiat goes on to reference Fred MacMurray – a Hollywood legend yes, but by no means a household name - demonstrating his encyclopaedic knowledge of culture even at that early age.


‘THESE INSTITUTIONS HAS THE MOST POLITICAL INFLUENCE A.TELEVISION B. THE CHURCH C. SAMO D. MC DONALDS’, Jean-Michel Basquiat on the set of Downtown 81. © New York Beat Film LLC. By permission of The Estate of Jean-Michel Basquiat. Photo: Edo Bertoglio
 
In a room dedicated to his relationship with Andy Warhol, an excerpt from Andy Warhol’s TV plays, showing the two – Warhol’s arm resting on Basquiat’s shoulder – trading lines and talking about New York life. The admiration is clear and equal on both sides – these are two magnetic individuals enjoying each other’s company. Warhol’s photographs of Basquiat show him variously laughing and riding a bike, working or sitting out somewhere, his tie half over/half under his collar – putting an irreverent, unique take on a ubiquitous look and re-claiming it as entirely his own. Basquiat’s Dos Cabezas (1982) shows the two together, and encapsulates his vibrant, surreal style of painting.
 
Jazz, in particular bebop and Charlie Parker, played a key part in Basquiat’s process. It’s evident not just in the heavy referencing of Untitled (Charlie Parker) (1983), but also in his seemingly chaotic style. There is a fearless bravery to both bebop and Basquiat – behind the jumble of content there lies a deep knowledge, an absolute conviction and assuredness, and a simultaneous nod to the past and reach into the unknown. It’s astonishing.


 Jean Michel-Basquiat, King Zulu, 1986_©The Estate of Jean-Michel Basquiat. Photo-Gasull Fotografia
 
The enormous works that featured in his Fun Gallery exhibition in 1982 are a maelstrom of references applied with force. Egyptian glyphs, Duchamp, comic-strip cartoons, black American sporting heroes, Beat poetry, Da Vinci, religious icons – all this and more combine in these paintings. Glenn (1984) sees multiple sheets of sketches, writings and paint pieced together underneath an enormous self-portrait with a tribal feel, bellowing across the scene. It’s an evocation of the tumble of thoughts in Basquiat’s head, and the struggle of Black America to be heard, recognised and understood. His art is almost a precursor to the age of the internet. We have the history of everything accessible at the touch of a button, but find ourselves screaming to be heard over the incessant white noise that comes with it.


Jean-Michel Basquiat, Glenn, 1984 Courtesy Private Collection.
 
As the exhibition progresses, a picture of a captivating, smart and beautiful young man emerges. Through interviews, films, personal testimonies and, above all, his art we get a glimpse of a man who had the world at his feet for an all-too-brief time. One can’t help but wonder what he would have made of the world, and particularly America, today. Basquiat would have been 57. He may be gone, but Boom for Real proves his voice, vision and legacy will live on for generations to come.
 
Basquiat: Boom for Real runs at the Barbican Centre till 28 January. Tickets cost £16.
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