Review: ‘Basquiat: Boom For Real’

Jean-Michel Basquiat rose to fame in the 1980s, having first gained attention from the press in 1978 as half of the graffiti duo SAMO© (a contraction of ‘same old, same old shit’). He died in 1988 of a heroin overdose, aged 27. Boom for Real at the Barbican is, surprisingly, the first solo retrospective show of his work in Britain.

He is one of the most significant artists of his generation and arguably the most successful African-American artist ever, with one of his paintings selling for $110.5 million earlier this year, the most money ever paid for an American artwork. (I didn’t dare think of the sum total of the artworks in this show.)

The breadth of this show is astonishing, if slightly overwhelming. Rather than explore his art chronologically, the rooms are divided by themes, aspects of the New York scene at the time, and influences, many of which spanned his career. SAMO© gets a room, as does Warhol and self-portraiture; art history, bebop, and jazz, the rather ambiguous “encyclopaedia” are all rigorously unpacked. Two of his notebooks, in which Basquiat would note down poems, word experiments and enigmatic thoughts in perfectly neat capitals, are on display in full; it’s hard not to be captivated by his words.

His canvases draw you in: words are scrawled on the surface, hieroglyphs and pictograms and screen-printed imagery swarm. Many are thankfully unraveled by captions, which are particularly helpful with untitled works that give no hint as to where to start.

Jean-Michel Basquiat’s Untitled (1982). Photograph: Jean-Michel Basquiat/Barbican

The variety of media he worked in is also fascinating: graffiti, defaced fridges, original rap vinyls, Xeroxed postcards, monumental canvases. Polaroids and video footage document the underground scene that revolved around the Mudd Club, including artist Keith Haring (with whom Basquiat made several collaborative pieces, on display) and an unsigned Madonna (whom Basquiat briefly dated).

His influences are fascinating: Leonardo via Duchamp, Cy Twombly and Robert Rauschenberg, Gray’s Anatomy, the Punic Wars. This exhibition seeks to refute the idea that Basquiat was little more than a graffiti artist and heroin addict; he was intelligent, educated and relentlessly cynical and more than deserving of the title of Great American Painter.

But Boom For Real, unfortunately, becomes an exhibition about the man, rather than his art. Are his own copies of books really more relevant than any other edition? Some of the paraphernalia – a letter from Anna Wintour, for example – is fascinating, but these worthwhile examples are swamped in nonsense. And in a show so focused on biography, it seems strange that there is no mention of his death. In the final years of his life, following the death of Warhol, Basquiat produced a large number of paintings but became a recluse; his heroin use increased. He needn’t be remembered solely via his death, but the presence of grief and the role of excess in his work shouldn’t be overlooked either.

Also overlooked is his sexuality: the New York art scene at the time was emphatically queer and it’s no coincidence that two of Basquiat’s friends and collaborators – Warhol and Haring – were also queer. It’s said that one of the reasons he ran away from home at 17 was his sexuality. As Jennifer Clement writes in the memoir Widow Basquiat (based on the stories of his girlfriend and muse, Suzanne Mallouk): “It was a very rich multichromatic sexuality. He was attracted to people for all different reasons. They could be boys, girls, thin, fat, pretty, ugly.”

Photograph: Jean-Michel Basquiat/Barbican

Basquiat is an artist for our time: swamped by imagery, visual styles, information, stories, lies. He would often sit in front of the TV when he worked: “I’m usually in front of the television. I have to have some source material around me to work off.” Had he not died so prematurely, he would still be only 56 today. What would he make of Instagram, Netflix, of the saturated image culture we live in, of the post-truth era of Trump? This exhibition doesn’t have the answer – how could it? – but it gets you thinking about this fascinating and often-overlooked artist.

Basquiat: Boom for Real is co-curated by Dr Dieter Buchhart and Eleanor Nairne, Curator, Barbican Art Gallery, and organised in collaboration with the Schirn Kunsthalle Frankfurt.

It is on at the Barbican Art Gallery until 28th January 2018 – advanced booking essential.

Header image: 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)