Having recently visited the current Jean Michael Basquiat exhibition at the Barbican, London, I have written up a number of observations and reflections I had during my visit. The following piece expands upon many of these observations and reflections.
Basquiat: Boom for Real
Barbican, London – 21/09/17 – 28/01/18
‘I don’t know how to describe my work. It’s like asking Miles how does your horn sound?’ A fitting nod towards his arts embodiment of contemporary culture, and its inherent ambiguity and elusiveness. If the yard stick for truly good art is in its ability to embody the key concerns and themes of its time, indeed to act as a product of its time, then Jean Michael Basquiat was a truly great artist. And as the Barbican communicates through its current exhibition; Basquiat: Boom for Real, his work more than exceeds this descriptor.
There a few artists throughout history who could boast a greater range of influences and inspiration than Basquiat. His list of references and credits span from Titan to de Kooning, Bach to Be-Bop, Encyclopaedia to Burroughs. The success against which any major exhibition of his work must be measured then, is in its ability to showcase his work within its rich tapestry of contexts and meanings. Through its focus on key inspirations and major factors, Boom for Real weaves his work within the very fabric of 1980’s culture, selecting pivotal pieces from his oeuvre to highlight and examine these themes.
Beginning in New York’s Bronx district and with the graffiti culture which would later define his signature aesthetic, Boom for Real examines his work firmly within the contexts of its origins. Through Henry Flynt’s photographs capturing his early pieces as the character SAMO©, we see the development of his distinct language against a backdrop of race, class and political tensions. Pollock said of his time learning from the artist Thomas Hart Benton as; ‘something against which to react very strongly.’ An equally apt statement in describing both the backdrop against which Basquiat learnt his trade, and the level of feeling it generated within him. A backdrop of themes and tensions which would shape and define his approach throughout the next decade.
Despite his ‘City-As-School’ education, Basquiat amassed a vast understanding and knowledge of Art history, and the debt to which he owed other artists is ever present within his work. In the piece Young Picasso 1984, Basquiat sketched a portrait of a young Picasso alongside a crossed-out face of an ‘old Picasso’ depicted through one of his signature African masks. A tribute fitting for the father of modern art and an artist against whom Basquiat’s own mastery of mark and fluidity of line is comparable. The pieces; Untitled Rauschenberg, Pollock, Duchamp and Lichtenstein 1986-7, act as succinct ‘post-it’ like reminders and eloquent homages to the defining art historical figures of our time, providing another nod to the importance of art history within his work, and his gratitude toward it.
Combined with his experiments and success in the realms of music, most notably with his band Gray, Basquiat also held great interest in Poetry and the written word. His notebooks filled with poems, demonstrate a deep interest and understanding of the performative nature and musicality of text. Through the placing of the text on the page and the spacing between words, his verses begin to resemble the concrete and Mesostic poetry of John cage, or the text and word experiments of the Beats. These notebooks embody the breadth of knowledge and interest Basquiat held for all areas of creative expression, and his refusal to be pigeon-holed or type cast in any one area or field makes him an ‘artist’ in the truest sense of the word.
The success of Boom for Real lies is in its examination and presentation of Basquiat’s work alongside the context in which it was created. Basquiat’s work is like a kaleidoscope of references, commentaries, statements and tributes, and any genuine understanding of his work cannot be acquired without an insight into the culture of the time.
Taking the theme of television, the exhibition references a video shot by a film crew capturing Basquiat at work in front of a TV. The footage shows Basquiat translating the imagery he sees on the television and responding to it through drawing: the artist reflecting; ‘I’m usually in front of the television. I have to have some source material around me to work off.’ The resulting pieces offer a directness and immediacy, and communicate a deep understanding and responsiveness to contemporary culture.
It’s a rare feat when one can look upon particular work of art and consider it to encompass and define a time in history – the work of Basquiat does just that however. His work speaks with a directness, and possesses an intuitiveness and sensibility that embodies the spirit and feeling of its surroundings and time in history. His raw, unrefined graffiti like mark speaks with a clarity depicting the hardships and ill of the time, whilst his bright direct application of pigment point towards a hopefulness of expression. This ‘meshing-together’ of high and low cultures within his work produce an art that is accessible and communicative to all, and combined with his unorthodox artistic education results in an art and artist, that is relatable and relevant, and above all, stands as a product of its time.
To reference Basquiat’s beginnings through his character SAMO©, regardless of whether his authentic, unrefined, graffiti aesthetic is to one’s own personal taste, anything but the phrase ‘same old shit’ can be used to describe the exciting, challenging, and innovative work of Jean Michael Basquiat.