Boom for Real


Jean-Michel Basquiat is not one of the most talked about figures of modern art; when I expressed interest in visiting the retrospective running at the Barbican, only a minority knew who I was talking about. Having said that, most who had heard of him, loved him. That would be a strong description for my admiration for his work.
Photo of the exhibition poster
I learned about him in college through a classmate mentioning Julian Schnabel’s biopic (Basquiat, starring Jeffrey Wright in the lead role and David Bowie as Andy Warhol) and finally watching it years later. The film is all kinds of wonderful and tracks the artist’s story from runaway teen to Warhol collaborator and untimely death.

His art fascinated me but I didn’t necessarily feel a connection with it. It is very difficult though, to absorb intent and emotion off a page or from a screen. An opportunity to see his actual works for myself was very exciting.

Planning my route to the gallery that morning, I noticed a ‘point of interest’ on Google maps. A Banksy work had appeared near the exhibition on the corner of Beech Street and Golden Lane titled: “Portrait of Basquiat being welcomed by the Metropolitan Police – an (unofficial) collaboration with the new Basquiat show”. Finding it on my way to the Barbican, I saw it had been covered in a protective Perspex-like shield which is good to see. A second artwork had appeared across the road too which was also claimed by Banksy.

Banksy work
More Banksy
The collection itself was arranged chronologically – starting with his first known collaborative work with Al Diaz. They created a graffiti tag identity, Samo ©, an acronym for ‘same old shit’, and spray painted thought-provoking messages in public spaces in New York. Phrases like “Samo © as an end to the neon fantasy called life” and “Samo © as an escape clause”. Once they had been identified as the artists behind the name, Basquiat started tagging walls with “Samo © is dead” and the graffiti ceased.

Given the chance to include his work in the New York/New Wave exhibition curated by Diego Cortez in 1981, his work received some attention. This was followed by further collaborations with musicians, graffiti artists, film makers and a postcard project with friend Jennifer Stein. Creating their own postcard designs, they would colour photocopy them (new technology at the time) and sell them on the street and outside modern art shows (which often lead to them being chased away by security).


Basquait, his album cover and famous untitled portrait decorating my fridge

It was these postcards that changed Basquiat’s trajectory. A chance encounter with Andy Warhol; Basquiat saw him on the street and approached him to buy one of his postcards, leading to one of the art world’s most wonderful friendships (and odd couples). Collaborating on many works the pair genuinely bonded which was made very evident in a video clip of the two talking which was playing on a loop opposite a huge photograph of the pair – a famous image of them both facing the camera in boxing gloves and trunks.

Warhol’s infatuation with the seemingly shy Basquiat was highlighted at one point in the video when he declared: “I like your work better than my work”. Warhol’s death in 1987 hit Basquiat hard and his drug use intensified, leading to his own death in 1988 at the age of 27.

I entered this exhibition knowing just half of this story. Experiencing his work first hand was transformative. From a video loop projected on a wall as you entered which featured his warm and innocent smile, through images of his work as Samo ©, his postcards, the album he helped produce and design the cover sleeve for (below), polaroids of him at the Mudd Club with Debbie Harry and Madonna, the fridge tagged by known graffiti artists at the time which he signed as Samo ©, a film Downtown 81 in which he features, various other formal and informal video appearances, his work with Warhol and his incredible self-portraits. There was so much more, including an interview exposing his naivety and sensitivity next to framed excerpts from his notebooks in a space which was playing an audio recording of him dramatically reading from the Old Testament like it was poetry.

Album cover as a magnet
I never knew what a multi-media superstar he was. His commentary on race and inequality is still frighteningly relevant 30 years later. Drawing inspiration from jazz  (music and musicians) and repeatedly referencing under-celebrated black athletes, his work was not particularly well received by critics and there is an element of hype surrounding him which makes some question whether he deserves the cult figure status his fans award him. I think he is deserving of such praise.

There is something infinitely relatable about his art. Many of his works are untitled, expressing a real vulnerability and indicative of strong emotional tides swelling beneath a quiet and calm exterior. I’d not comprehended the importance and relevance of his work but this retrospective has challenged my flippancy. I left with  an affirmation in my mind that it is art that will change the world, one soul at a time.

Untitled (Crown) print – a reminder to myself to always ‘wear my invisible crown’
There was a wonderful quote of his emblazoned on one of the central walls of the exhibition: “I don’t know how to describe my work, it’s like asking Miles how does your horn sound”. It’s best you experience it for yourself.

The exhibition runs until the 28th of January, get tickets here.

“Another day another dime another cool way to kill some time” – Samo ©

2 thoughts on “Boom for Real

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