He may've died at just 27 years of age but Jean-Michel Basquiat crammed more into his life than many who live three times as long. There are moments in the Barbican's excellent Basquiat:Boom for Real retrospective where it feels like the New York's artist's head is literally unspooling, as if it's so full of thoughts and ideas that he simply has to unload some to make some space.
In some ways he's reminiscent of David Bowie in that he was influenced by everything and went on to influence everything. If you're looking for someone in his own primary field, that of the visual arts, to compare him to how about Pablo Picasso? Huge praise of course but it seems that what the Spaniard did for the Paris art scene when that city was the world's art capital, Basquiat did for New York when that city took over that role.
New York City in the seventies and eighties was, surely without doubt, the cultural centre of the world. Cheap rents, thriving punk and hip-hop scenes, mass immigration, and copious amounts of drugs all fed in to the edgy, experimental, twenty four hour feel of the city - and Basquiat lived, loved, drew, wrote, fucked, drugged, and eventually died there - right in the heart of it. In many ways his story is that of those glory days of New York - and, like his art, it's often a messy one.
Born in 1960, in Brooklyn to a Haitian father and a Puerto Rican mother, Matilda Andrades, who took the young Jean-Michel on regular trips to the museums of Manhattan and Brooklyn where he not only developed an interest in, and appreciation of, a wide range of art but also started to show a talent for creating his own work. A precocious child, Basquiat could write by the age of four, he could speak English, French, and Spanish, and was a decent athlete to boot. If they'd had The Krypton Factor in the US he'd have been a contender.
Leaving school aged 17 he developed an alter ego, SAMO, and began to write cryptic, or often plain baffling, graffiti around the city. Slogans like "Plush safe he think' and 'SAMO as escape clause' didn't necessarily mean much but their ubiquity, and how they stood in counterpoint to most other graffiti, piqued people's interest and soon, like Banksy after him, there was a hunt on to find out just who this SAMO person was.
Jimmy Best (1981)
Hollywood Africans (1983)
In his late teens and early twenties Basquiat could often be found collaborating (SAMO, originally, was a collaboration between Basquiat and childhood friend Al Diaz) and crossing media borders with abandon. He wrote poetry, acted out performance art, decorated fridges with the face of Fred Flintstone, and even released an early electro record - Beat Bop - with Rammellzee and K-Rob. He even made a guest appearance in the video to Blondie's Rapture.
When The Village Voice exposed Basquiat and Diaz as the men behind SAMO it was time to move on to something new. Keith Haring delivered a eulogy at Club 57 and Basquiat wrote 'SAMO IS DEAD' in various familiar haunts before resurrecting SAMO almost immediately for live cameras on the invitation of British artist Stan Peskett and Michael Holman (of glam rockers The Tubes). There Basquiat met, and befriended, Fab 5 Freddy as well as Jennifer Stein, Peskett;'s apprentice, with whom Basquiat would go on to produce a series of postcards that they'd sell outside The Museum of Modern Art for a dollar a pop.
Fun Fridge (1982)
Evenings would find Basquiat hanging out at The Mudd Club listening to Brian Eno play an eclectic mix of funk and punk to a mix of hipsters, outsiders, and the plain curious. Live music would come courtesy of Kid Creole and the Coconuts and The Lounge Lizards and other regulars included the baroque Bavarian disco don Klaus Nomi and an up and coming unsigned young singer who'd rolled in from Bay City, Michigan. Madonna Louise Ciccone and Basquiat would soon end up lovers.
Fab 5 Freddy and Deborah Harry got Basquiat immersed in the hip-hop scene and on a trip to California in 1983 Basquiat and his friends, the experimental rapper Rammellzee and the graffiti artist Toxic, took to calling themselves the Hollywood Africans. You can see his portrait of the trio, in strikingly bold blues and yellows, above.
Another friendship that Basquiat cultivated was with Andy Warhol. Warhol reciprocated. It seems like this was a mutually beneficial relationship in which Basquiat got an 'in' with the art establishment and Warhol proved he wasn't some stuffy old guy from the past, but a vibrant observer, and participant, in New York's street life. Besides this their friendship seemed pretty genuine even if some snippy commentators spoke of Basquiat as if he was Warhol's puppet, or even his 'mascot'.
Dos Cabezas (1982)
Andy Warhol & Jean-Michel Basquiat - Arm and Hammer II (1984)
They created work together, they appeared in portraits together, and they had their photographs taken for joint exhibitions as if they were promoting a boxing match. Their initial encounter dates back to 1979 when Basquiat spotted Warhol having lunch in a SoHo restaurant and boldly marched in to show him one of his postcards. While Warhol's lunch date, curator Henry Geldzahler, dismissed Basquiat as 'too young', Warhol happily bought that postcard for a dollar.
Three years later Basquiat finally visited Warhol's Factory and so enthused was he by his visit he immediately painted the iconic double portrait Dos Cabezas. By 1983 Warhol was leasing Basquiat an apartment and the Italian artist Francisco Clemente had joined them in a collaborative triumvirate.
Untitled (Football Helmet) (1981-1984)
Basquiat became more interested in the creative possibilities of identity. References to the black experience ran through his works of the time ranging from Shakespeare's Titus Andronicus and the brother of Moses in the Old Testament to the baseball player Hank Aaron who, in 1974, beat Babe Ruth's home run record.
Though many of his paintings were clearly self-portraits they show Basquiat in a number of different guises. As if to play different roles, it's almost as if in making a portrait of himself he's also making a painting about something else entirely. This duality became one of the key strengths of his art as his career developed. He mocked the art world's tendency to reduce artists to a series of dates and statistics (birth, death, race, schooling, influences) yet at the same time his own paintings are absolutely peppered with such self-referential details. He was a contrary fucker, that's for sure.
As well as paying homage to Picasso, Matisse, Leonardo da Vinci, and many other of the major art-historical names of all time Basquiat liked to give props to his musical heroes. He may've hung round with punks and rappers but he reserved his highest regard for jazz players and most specifically Charlie 'Bird' Parker who'd died of a heart attack, probably brought on by his gargantuan drug intake, aged 34 in Manhattan five years before Basquiat was born.
Basquiat rarely worked without music blaring away. Cultural historian Robert Farris Thompson recalls Basquiat creating a single collage while listening to 'four styles of jazz - free, mambo, inflected, and hard bop' and although the bebop sound of Parker remained his favourite music he was happy to branch out into anything from Donna Summer to Bach to Talking Heads.
He'd somehow managed to accumulate over 3,000 LPs as well as a library of books (many displayed in the Barbican) devoted to jazz and if, considering his short life, that's impressive we need to remember that alongside that he'd manage to immerse himself in huge swathes of art history too. From obvious influences like Cy Twombly and Robert Rauschenberg right back to Leonardo, Manet, Titian, and Caravaggio, Basquiat had sucked it all in and now it was all coming out.
Young Picasso - Old Picasso (1984)
Alongside these more mainstream concerns was an abiding interest in African-American art and other marginalised styles that had yet to be fully accepted in to the 'canon'. This manifested itself in huge, sprawling, works covered in lists, intentional spelling mistakes, crossings out, and weird faux-naive cartoonish daubs. Some of these could stand in for Fall or Fela Kuti album covers.
Sometimes the lists, the writing, makes sense. On other occasions it's utterly bewildering but it's never less than fascinating. They're sphinx-like puzzles from an era not so long ago that remain almost impossible to decipher. Their near impenetrability only adds to their mystique. I could stare at them for hours on end as if they're some kind of Rosetta Stone and fail to ever unlock their secrets.
Untitled (Titian) (1982)
Matisse Matisse Matisse (1983)
Untitled (Pablo Picasso) (1984)
It wouldn't really matter. Lists of Greek philosophers rub shoulders with defaced Renaissance icons, body parts, cuttings from newspapers, clouds, and tributes to black jazz musicians and iconic black sports starts like boxer Jack Johnson and sprinter Jesse Owens. All of this is presented simultaneously matter-of-factly and in ways that give optimum aesthetic pleasure. It's hard to take it all in so you end up just letting the general vibe of the work wash over you. In that sense you can see how all those years listening to jazz went on to inform Basquiat's work.
Basquiat himself said "I get my facts from books, stuff on atomizers, the blues, ethyl alcohol, geese in Egyptian glyphs" and went on to explain how he delighted in mixing supposedly high and supposedly low arts together. A passion so intense and a fiery desire to consume all knowledge available often suggests an addictive personality and, sure enough, Basquiat was soon, like his hero Charlie Parker, to develop a heroin addiction so severe that it would end with him dying before his 30th birthday, yet another member of the depressingly well subscribed to 27 club.
Plastic Sax (1984)
King of the Zulus (1984-1985)
Jawbone of an Ass (1982)
Jack Johnson (1982)
Semiotics, symbols, and signs saturated the work Basquiat made in the eighties. A work like 1982's Jack Johnson stands out because of its starkness yet still contains Basquiat's trademark crown, something that acted both as his tag and his signature - a small, but typical, way in which he continued to blur the lines between the art hanging on the walls of the gallery and the graffiti sprayed on the walls outside the gallery.
Towards the end of the exhibition there's a room full of pages ripped from Basquiat's notebook which contains such gnomic inscriptions as:-
AN EVIL CAT WITH A TOP HAT COMING OUT OF A SEWER WITH AN M-80
A MICKEY FINN WITH FUZZ ON IT IN A TURKISH BATH
followed by the legend ROACH EGGS written seven times in full
written once alone in the middle of the page.
What can all this mean? Does it even mean anything? It reminded me of Captain Beefheart's introductory line to Trout Mask Replica's Pachuco Cadaver, "a squid eating dough in a polyethylene bag is fast and bulbous, got me?" or something from Vic Reeves and Bob Mortimer as much as it did the coneptual art of Duchamp and the Cabaret Voltaire. It was as if Basquiat was in love with words. In love with the way they sounded, in love with the way they looked on the page even. It explains some of his more outre spelling. He's trying to make you think about a certain word in a certain way, make you say it in your mind the way he wants you to say it. For an artist who on the surface appears so messy, so cluttered, there seems to be an overriding need for clarification underpinning his work.
Piscine Versus the Best Hotels (1982)
Leonardo Da Vinci's Greatest Hits (1982)
Basquiat sometimes appears like The Man Who Fell to Earth, jazz records and television blaring, watching Apocalypse Now ten times in a week, soaking up anything from Popeye and Felix the Cat to Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea and Alfred Hitchcock, and developing an obsession with the 1927 film The Jazz Singer which featured Al Jolson in 'blackface'.
It seems remarkable that, with all this going on, he even found time to work - and it's even more remarkable that he was able to create such mind-bogglingly complex yet immediate works as Moses and the Egyptians, Ishtar, and Piscine versus the Best Hotels that, even now - more than three decades down the line, still look like the epitome of modernity.
Moses and the Egyptians (1982)
Untitled (Charles Darwin) (1983)
If Jean-Michel Basquiat was alive today he would be 56 years old. That's a time when many visual artists are just starting to make their best work. It's impossible to know how Basquiat's art would've developed or what direction he'd have gone in but on the evidence of this show it seems unlikely that an artist so creative, a force so compelling, would have simply slowed down or fizzled out. Basquiat's tragic early death was a huge loss but he put so much of himself in his art that in some small way it feels like he's still with us.
Thanks to Sanda. Both for sorting tickets and for being such great company.
A Panel of Experts (1982)