Prior to the Barbican’s latest exhibition, Boom for Real, I knew very little about Jean-Michel Basquiat beyond the fact that he was black, hung out with Andy Warhol and died at the age of 27. Like most casual observers then, I was astonished when one of his untitled portraits sold for $110.5 million (£85 million) at Sotheby’s earlier this year.
Setting aside such art market madness, Basquiat was undeniably a talented and thought provoking artist. The BBC’s arts editor Will Gompertz rightly suggests that, “There is a line that can be drawn from Leonardo Da Vinci, Rembrandt, Van Gogh and Picasso which arrives at Basquiat’s graffiti-inspired expressionist paintings.”
Boom for Real is the first major exhibition of his work and demonstrates that Basquiat was by no means simply Warhol’s “mascot”, as a dismissive New York Times review of one of their shows once suggested.
Born in Brooklyn to a Puerto Rican mother and Haitian father in 1960, Basquiat became obsessed with a copy of Gray’s Anatomy bought for him by his mother as he recuperated from an accident. He left school at the age of 17 without any formal training but with a fascination for anatomy and exploration.
He made his first artistic mark as a teenager who, along with old schoolmate Al Diaz, scrawled enigmatic slogans and his signature “SAMO” across downtown buildings. This tag stood for “Same Old Shit”.
Those same SoHo and Tribeca streets were the location for a vibrant countercultural scene that gradually drew Basquiat into the company of, among others, David Bowie, Blondie and Madonna.
The late 1970s were also of course the era when hip hop, a mix of rapping, turntable wizardry, breakdancing and graffiti, erupted onto the scene in the Bronx, New York’s northernmost and poorest borough. It soon found its way down into Manhattan and, in particular, the Mudd Club where one of hip hop’s key figures, Fred “Fab Five Freddy” Braithwaite, curated a show featuring some of Basquiat’s work.
Basquiat’s growing reputation on the New York scene was cemented in 1981. One of the paintings displayed in the first room in this exhibition depicts the World Trade Centre. It is a reminder that those ill-fated towers erected in the previous decade were gleaming citadels to capitalism.
Elsewhere, as this and a number of other paintings depicting grey buildings and clouds, aeroplanes and cars illustrate, this literally bankrupt city was a grim, gritty and polluted place. Basquiat’s contribution to this New York/New Wave show was singled out for praise and would go on to achieve international acclaim.
One room focuses on his collaboration with Warhol. It includes a beautiful double portrait, Dos Cabezas, crafted immediately after their first meeting and presented to Warhol with the paint still dripping. Basquiat makes it clear in an interview screened in the final room that theirs was a partnership of equals.
Basquiat avidly explored different art forms, immersing himself in film, literature and poetry while he painted. He loved music, forming a band himself, and regularly hosted club nights where he spun records from his collection of 3,000 discs.
His favourite genre was bebop and he was acutely aware of the racism suffered by his heroes such as the legendary saxophonist Charlie Parker. These artists were widely celebrated on stage but humiliated and excluded once the curtains closed.
The exhibition includes portraits of key black figures, Parker — naturally — but also a peculiar canvas of the Jim Crow era boxing champion Jack Johnson. It is a seemingly simple sketch but one which captures the proud and defiant gesture of a man who was vilified for defeating white men and marrying white women.
There are direct references to racism as in the 1983 work Hollywood Africans and cryptic references to Malcolm X and Sugar Ray Robinson. As for his self-portraits, there is a haunting quality to many of them, which perhaps prefaces his own tragic demise of a heroin overdose in 1988.
This is an excellent exhibition which showcases a talent that Gompertz correctly characterises as “poetic and political”. It is accompanied by a series of complementary events that provide further insights into the vibrant scene in which Basquiat was immersed.