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Jean-Michel Basquiat, the proto-millennial

Jean-Michel Basquiat, the proto-millennial

An exhibition in London evokes the atmosphere of 1980s New York, but there is a very modern feel to Basquiat’s cut-and-paste aesthetic

An exhibition in London evokes the atmosphere of 1980s New York, but there is a very modern feel to Basquiat’s cut-and-paste aesthetic

Jane Morris | September 25th 2017

In his short, prolific life Jean-Michel Basquiat became the first black artist to achieve stardom. Within a few years, he had gone from a teenage graffiti artist to a celebrity painter whose work was collected by prominent European art dealers and who counted Madonna and Andy Warhol among his friends. This year, nearly three decades after he died of a drug overdose at the age of 27, he became the first American artist to pass the $100m mark at auction. 

“Basquiat: Boom for Real” at the Barbican in London is the first major exhibition of his work in Britain for 20 years, and a rare chance to see his most important paintings together. It is also notable for its emphasis on Basquiat’s interests in other art forms. A mezzanine level in the exhibition uses projected film, photographs, newspapers and various pieces of bric-a-brac to bring to life Basquiat’s natural habitat, downtown New York in the late 1970s and early 1980s. He loved Charlie Parker, an American jazz saxophonist, and played in a rock band called Gray. He hung out with actors and film-makers and had a part in a film, “Downtown 81”. Glenn O’Brien, a writer on whose whose TV show Basquiat appeared, said: “He ate up every image, every word, every bit of data that appeared in front of him and he processed it all into a bebop, cubist, pop art, cartoon gospel that synthesised the whole overload we lived under into something that made an astonishing new sense.” 

When you look at his paintings you are struck by the vibrating colours, the edgy composition and the child-like iconography. But delve into the words and the symbols and a more complex picture emerges. Here is an artist thinking about language and poetry, about art history, about music, representation and identity, about the lure and meaninglessness of fame. Basquiat came from a pre-internet age. But his cut-and-paste aesthetic and his blend of high art and pop culture feel positively millennial.
 

“Famous” (1982)

Basquiat was fascinated by traditional African art, as well as contemporary artists like Jean Dubuffet, Cy Twombly and Robert Rauschenberg. He went twice to see “Primitivism”, a controversial exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York in 1984 that drew parallels between African art and modern Western art. “Famous” is one of only two doubled-sided paintings he made. Basquiat glued photocopied drawings onto a canvas that had been stretched across a wooden frame. Their subjects include the Hollywood Walk of Fame, the Olympics, jet engines, cartoon dogs, processed cheese and the artist Raphael. Painted onto one side of the canvas is a black face with an eye scratched out, its mouth clamped shut and the word “famous” beneath it. On the other is another staring face with what appears to be a redacted word above it. 
 

“Hollywood Africans” (1983)

In late 1983 Basquiat travelled to California to prepare for a show with the commercial Gagosian Gallery. With him came his friends Rammellzee and Toxic, artists-cum-hip-hop musicans. Feeling displaced in Los Angeles, they jokingly referred to themselves as “Hollywood Africans”. This painting ostensibly represents that trip with portraits of the trio on the right hand side. But start tracking the other words on the painting and a host of other references emerge. The repetition of “200 YEN”, especially when it is next to Basquiat’s trademark crown, appears to be making a point about the relationship between price and value. The words “TOBACCO” and “SUGAR CANE” allude to the slave trade.

The footprints could refer to the Hollywood Walk of Fame or to the early Hollywood practice of white actors “blacking up” with shoe polish. “He’s a very political artist,” says the exhibition’s co-curator Dieter Buchhart, “but it’s not politics with a megaphone.”
 

“Arm and Hammer II” (1984)

Bruno Bischofberger, an art dealer and collector, suggested Basquiat collaborate with the artists Francesco Clemente and Andy Warhol. Clemente dropped out, but Warhol and Basquiat became friends and collaborated on a number of paintings. It was not as unequal a relationship as it may seem: by the 1980s Warhol’s star was waning while Basquiat’s was in the ascendant. “Warhol and Basquiat collaborated very well, in the sense that it was a bit like a physical fight, and they would paint one after another, and then one might paint the other’s bit out, but they got on well,” Buchhart says.

For this painting, Warhol recreated the logo of Arm and Hammer, a baking-soda brand. The muscular white arm, based on classical images of the Roman god Vulcan, symbolises industry and the dignity of labour. The logo appears twice, but the left-hand one has been painted over by Basquiat. He replaced the arm with an image of Charlie Parker, identifiable by the date of his death (1955) and his saxophone. Obscuring the brand name are two crossed-out words: “COMMEMORATIVE” and “ONE CENT”. Over Parker’s head is the word “LIBERTY”, found on a one-cent coin. It is hard not to read this as a critique of colonialism. 
 

“Five Fish Species” (1983)

When Basquiat first became famous, much was made of his career as a self-taught street artist. Less talked about was the fact that he came from a well educated, solidly middle-class family who had brought him up on a diet of poetry and museum visits. The Barbican exhibition does much to dispel the myth of the “untrained genius” by displaying books selected from Basquiat’s library. There are books about art history, black and African culture, and science and music, as well as encyclopedias.

“Five Fish Species” is a homage to the Beat poet William Burroughs. It is a diptych, a type of painting most commonly associated with altarpieces. On the right is a disturbing image – part face, part skull, part bullet hole – of Joan Vollmer, Burroughs’ wife whom he accidentally shot dead in a game in Mexico in 1951. Among the painting’s cryptic references are “13” (the number of days Burroughs spent in jail) and, on the central panel, “TIMES SQUARE”. The significance of this remains a mystery, admits Buchhart. “Basquiat’s references are, like many artists, part thought-out and partly instinctive and allusive, which makes the works richer.” This painting is classic Basquiat. It is a playful riff on Burroughs’ own cut-and-paste poetic style, which becomes increasingly troubling as the references are deciphered.

Basquiat: Boom for Real at the Barbican Art Gallery until January 28th

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