Untitled (Football Helmet)Mugrabi Collection, © The Estate of Jean-Michel Basquiat. Licensed by Artestar, New York

‘Boom For Real’ at the Barbican is an exhibition of Jean-Michel Basquiat’s work, a retrospective of an important neo-expressionist, graffiti artist who had an intense but short art career in the late 1970s and 1980s. Basquiat created huge paintings that are part Rauschenberg, part Twombly, part graffiti, part poetry, part biology. Despite the absence of a solo show in the UK for twenty years, Basquiat hasn’t been forgotten—queues of people have turned up on a Friday morning. It is an exhibition caught between Basquiat’s brilliant work and a nostalgia for 1980s New York pop culture.

“Basquiat did not attend art school, but said he learned how to make art through ‘looking’ all his life”

It’s important to contextualise Basquiat’s work. It is sociable and outgoing and New York is a character on his canvases. Some interesting pieces include a graffitied fridge, a painted American football helmet, a bizarre film Basquiat stars in where his voice is dubbed. I love what this exhibition does with mediums - anything is a canvas and objects relate to each other in a really interesting way. The viewer gets a feel of the engulfing, manic action of Basquiat’s brush strokes. In a recent article in the Guardian, which has interviews with the people he knew, one comment really stuck out to me, his past girlfriend recalls: ‘Because he had no money for canvases, he painted on the detritus he dragged in from the street – doors, briefcases, tyres – as well as the more permanent elements in his flat: the fridge, the TV, the wall, the floor’. His work ‘escapes the frame’, moving around inanimate objects. His work refuses to be classified - it exists in public space and in national galleries.

Graffiti is where Basquiat’s earliest work began with his friend Al Diaz, in the form of his ‘SAMO©’ tag. ‘SAMO©’ is a character, a corporation, a religion, an attitude. It is a play on the phrase ‘same old shit’. One tag reads ‘ANOTHER DAY / ANOTHER DIME / HYPERCOOL / ANOTHER WAY 2 / KILL SOME TIME’. The hype generated around the character made ‘SAMO©’ renowned and it put Basquiat on the map of the art world. The tags began with anonymity and mystery, but the names behind the graffiti were revealed. Eventually Basquiat alone declared ‘SAMO© IS DEAD’. This seems to sum up the cult of Basquiat: as Basquiat exploits the sensation of the ‘I’ in artist, perhaps wanting of attention, so magazines and critics followed, declaring Basquiat iconic. As Al Diaz says in the ‘Rages to Riches’ Basquiat documentary, ‘he wanted fame’, ‘he [had] become SAMO©’.

© New York Beat Film LLC. By permission of The Estate of Jean-Michel Basquiat. Photo: Edo Bertoglio

The problem is that most large, corporate sponsored exhibitions have the issue of overcrowded space or ‘hype’ over substance. At times ‘Boom for Real’ is guilty of this. The pitfalls of the exhibition perhaps parallel the ironies that also exist in an artist who played with the idea of logos, capitalism and commercialised art, but at the same time he himself craved it, sort money and fame. Two recent Banksy pieces appeared on the walls of the Barbican, paying homage to Basquiat and marking out some of these hypocrisies. One room is called ‘The Scene’, with photographs of celebrities, such as Madonna and Klaus Nomi. Even now, almost thirty years after his death, Jay Z owns one of his paintings, has written him into lyrics and dressed up as him for halloween.

‘Basquiat’ - the pseudo-figure, the celebrity image, seems one that he will never be able to shake. However, it is clear he was not passive in this role—as one annotation reads: ‘Basquiat went to see and be seen’. ‘Boom For Real’ has some more nuanced awareness of these ironies. Basquiat painted many self-portraits, often under guises. He wears a mask, takes the form of a skull or appropriates the name ‘Aaron’. One room, which features the ‘self-portraits’, reveals the ways in which Basquiat had fun with his self-image, shaped and criticised the idea of an artist’s brand.

Other areas of the exhibition that I felt deserved attention were the ‘Beat Bop’ room, which focussed on Basquiat’s musical influences. The ‘Art History’, ‘Encyclopaedia’ and ‘Notebook’ rooms gives in depth insight into his inspirations. The extensive look into the sources of his work is interesting; shows method to his madness. ‘Encyclopedia’ points out Basquiat’s interest in positioning ‘high’ and ‘low’ culture beside one another. One painting is titled ‘Leonardo da Vinci’s Latest Hits’.

The emphasis on a variety of source and archival material, even the title ‘Art History’ itself, refutes previous criticisms of his work as unintellectual, unconsidered or unaware. It should be recognised that Basquiat was black and frequently experienced prejudice at the beginning of his career, dismissed by many art critics who thought he had no awareness of the art history that came before his work. This was clearly very dismissive and simply incorrect. In fact, his inspirations come everywhere from ‘Ripley’s Believe It Or Not!’, to Jazz, newsreels and poetry. Basquiat did not attend art school, but said he learned how to make art through ‘looking’ all his life.


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He had television screens playing and books open when he painted. The combination of poetry, paint and screens is everywhere in Basquiat’s paintings. You can view them and read them, be taken in by them. Something about them feels very present, they are grounded in the contemporary chaos of mass images, somehow in control of and influenced by over-stimulation.

In all its contradictions, ‘Boom for Real’ is both a must see exhibition and at the same time commercially exploitative. Remove the celebrity, and his work might not reach as many people. Remove the celebrity, and perhaps you lose a little bit of what Basquiat himself indulged in. But more than anything, remove the celebrity, to truly view his work, to let yourself be deceived by his identity games, by the layers of paint and culture and history.

Go and view a great, big, shouting, singing Basquiat painting - I promise it will inspire you.

Basquiat: Boom for Real is open at the Barbican Art Gallery, in London, until the 28th of January 2018.

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