“I don’t listen to what art critics say. I don’t know anybody who needs a critic to find out what art is” Jean-Michel Basquiat (1960-1988)
Basquiat @ The Barbican, Nov 2017 by Andy Harper
Having made a pilgrimage to the Barbican last Saturday, I thought I’d head down for a second look at the Basquiat “Boom for reel” exhibition. It’s been described his largest collection of work in the UK to date, so to see one of my favourite artists of all time was a pretty big deal for me.
Jean-Michel Basquiat’s mother used to frequently take him to art exhibitions to see all the greats works of art. In his own words:
“I never went to an art school. I failed the art courses that I did take in school. I just looked at a lot of things & that’s how I learned about art, by looking at it”
There’s a touching moment in the opening scene’s of the 1996 Indy film “Basquiat” where, stood in front of a huge piece, his mother crying, when she imagines an imaginary gold crown appear on her sons head. Her tears suddenly turn to a tears of joy, as Basquiat's demeanour shifts to determinism or enlightenment - and in this moment, he becomes “The radiant child” . It was no secret that his mother suffered from a mental illness & was even sectioned in later life. I’m not a huge fan of Hollywood films, but the opening message was simple & powerful - his mother had clearly been hugely influential in showing him all the great works of art & realised the possibility of the artistic genius in him at an early age. The possibility of her son's future success drove her whist making his mother happy was equally important for Jean-Michel. Without this exposure to art or desire to impress his mother, would we have any of the works of Jean-Michel Basquiat?
I remember seeing Miichelangelo’s work close up in the late 80’s it had a similar profound effect on me. I didn’t see a huge amount of art when I was younger but I’ll never forget seeing a Monet for the first time -there’s something awe inspiring about seeing a great work of art full size that a book, magazine or website will never give you. There is something about scale with art that is relative to impact. I took my daughter so that she could maybe have a similar experience, to be totally in awe of his work, totally blown away with the scale, the vibrant monochromatic colours, the childlike simplicity & playfulness of his work. “This is a boring. I could do that” were the first words that she uttered. On face value, she had a point, how were these seemingly child like & naive doodles allowed any space on a wall, let allow an art gallery? Interestingly an American art critic overheard her comment & we all entered an interesting dialogue about what art is & why Jean-Michel’s work is considered great. If you could do better, why not try yourself came a suggestion from the critic? A young boy was already busy attempting to copy one of Basquiat’s skull’s with a pen and pencil & doing a pretty good interpretation. Before long the kids were having a crack at drawing Basquiat’s signature naive work & starting to realise the hidden complexities in his work.
That one act made me realise: this is why I admire his work so much. Because at first glance, you truly believe that you could do it. And you can do it, if you really want it, if there is a purpose to what you want to achieve. This is exactly what the Punk ethic is all about. Basquiat embodies all that is punk in art. In the same way that Morrisey, Curtis, Sumner, Hooky et all saw the Pistols at the Less Free Trade Hall in ’76 ( The Gig that changed the world? ) and though “ I could do that”, countless other #artsoul's have seem Basquiat’s work over the decades & been inspired with his punk ethic to art. In fact, the list of our modern contemporaries that have been inspired by his is enormous. Banksy is one of those & cites Basquiat & Keith Haring as a major influence, his most recent pieces of work on the wall of the Barbican are testimony to that, whist nodding to his own cheeky brand of anti-establishment humour.
Boom for Real was noticeably lacking in a number of his large pieces & if I am going to grumble about anything, it is that most of his large pieces are all missing from the show, and now reside with wealthy collectors. That aside, I really liked the way that it told a story, starting with his early work in the New Wave band GRAY, as well as tracking his work as graffiti poet SAMO ( A collab with Al Diaz ) through a series of 64 photographs from NYC streets. The Early 1981 exhibition curated by Diego Cortez “New York / New Wave”. This exhibition pitched mega stars in the art scene like Warhol, Burroughs and Mabblethorpe & threw them in the ring with the new breed of punk / New Wave artists. This gave a Basquiat & co the platform he needed to get off the streets & into the NYC art world .
Boom for Real does a great job of threading all the myth, the legends, the culture, the music, the fashion together, into a succinct story that even a child could understand. The “Downtown 500” were immortalised in a series of intimate polaroids from where you could spot a young & fresh faced Grace Jones along side Madonna & it really set the scene, so that a child as young as mine could start to understand what it must have been like to have been alive at such an important and transformational time in history. Along with showing of other films “Downtown 81”, clips from the rare documentary, The Radiant Child it also featured music from his short-lived record label - Beat Bop ( where Jean-Michel collaborated with Rammellzee + K-Rob) it sparked similarities with classic's like Style Wars & you could start to really feel what Downtown Manhattan in the late 70's / early 80’ must have felt like.
One of the definite highlights for me was seeing some of his early postcard work, a proj with Jennifer Stein. They would take an A4 piece of card, divide it into four, and collaborate together to create four pieces, which they would colour Zerox, to sell them as postcards. I remember the the story in the 96’ Film of the same name where a charismatic David Bowie plays Andy Warhol and grumbles at paying $5 for some of Basquiat’s “Naive Art”. The postcards were amazing to see in the flesh, embodied the New wave / DIY ethic & immediately made me think of punk fanzine’s of their time, like "Sniffin Glue" or later acid house institutions like The Boy's Own fanzine/ Hacienda's "Freaky Dancing".
I personally really admire his work the most because it’s free, loose, experimental. When I was at art college back in the 90’s, some of the feedback I remember the most was that I needed to “loosen up”. As I couldn’t seem to do it naturally, the pub at lunch became my tool for achieving this! Basquiat was also a big lover of the sauce, and I love the stories about him going our in his Armani suit, all night & coming back & painting in his suit & in doing so, trashing the suit, and often his art too. He stuck his finger up at the serious art world & the status quo & as a result paved the way for the next wave of modern artists to come through and shine.
Either wasted or sober, critically he knew how to play the game & critically understood the rules. Only when you know these two things, can you break the rules. Just like Dizzy, Coltane, Miles, The Bird & all the Jazz greats that paved the way for modern music as we know it now, they too could only break the rules & create experimental genre’s like Beebop -through understanding how to play traditionally to the highest of standards.
For me, like any great work of art, studying a piece of Basquiat's work captives you, forces you to focus effortlessly on the present moment & removes you from any past and future thoughts. Like any great piece of art, it makes you think, whilst simultaneously empties all thoughts from your head. Perhaps it's the juxtaposition of raw, child like, primitive marks that touch on important subjects like slavery, capitalism, urbanisation & the human form create the perfect paradox to stimulate the intellectual mind? Maybe his work just looks the absolute bollocks close up. Either way, Jean-Michel is never short of advice for future starts. Once asked how he creates his works of art, he offered some wise guidance:
"I start a picture and I finish it."
Jean Michel Basquiat Documentary The Radiant Child
Gray, "Shades of"- Basquiat was the front man of Grey -the name of the band came from Grey's anatomy, the book that arguably inspired most of his work.
Beat Bop - Jean-Michel collaborated with Rammellzee + K-Rob