Splattered and scrawled, cartoonish but eloquent, mysterious yet engaging, Jean-Michel Basquiat’s art blazes across autumnal London like a comet. So persuasively does the Barbican’s Basquiat: Boom for Real restage the African-American painter’s dramatic emergence, instant recognition, dazzling career and heroin overdose death at the age of 27, that the show feels like a time-travel capsule to 1980s New York: raw, loud, frenetic, excessive, jagged, nostalgic, fragile.
In a season of generally gloomy openings — Tate’s sombre Rachel Whiteread, the Royal Academy’s depressive Jasper Johns, the National Gallery’s repressed Pre-Raphaelites — Basquiat is a breath of fresh air now as he was then.
Everything collides in a Basquiat painting: word and image, painted surfaces and pasted bits of paper, history and the present, autobiography and myth, graffiti and erudition. “Leonardo da Vinci’s Greatest Hits” is a two-metre collage of trickling white paint scattered with annotated anatomical diagrams, mostly legs and feet (“heel”, “bad foot”) distorted from Leonardo’s drawings and from Gray’s Anatomy — a life-long influence and a gift from Basquiat’s mother when he was seven.
A wobbly train track criss-crosses the picture; a muscular figure labours at its end, but its stations are Latin inscriptions and Greek myths — latissimus dorsi, Prometheus Bound — implying broken bodies, fragmentation and enslavement. Reiterated, the words carry the pleasure of musicality, playful and half-rhyme.
Music pervades and lifts this first UK Basquiat retrospective. A huge, introductory screen shows the artist, young, black and beautiful, dancing to a Duke Ellington soundtrack that fills the Barbican’s echoing double-height galleries. There are films of Basquiat DJ-ing at the Mudd Club, performing with his band Gray, hanging out on a trip to California with rapper-musician Rammellzee, whose portrait is outlined in the all-over yellow canvas “Hollywood Africans”.
In “Plastic Sax”, a swath of light blue — blues music — coats a canvas that is peeling in places to reveal patches of yellow imprinted with portraits, symbols and scraps of text retelling the life of jazz virtuoso Charlie Parker. The assured “King Zulu” features jazz elements, drawn with whiplash grace, floating on a blue ground: black trombonist, trumpeter, saxophonist and one bleached-out white dandified figure. The effect is serene but thrilling, like improvisation.
At the centre of “Glenn” is Basquiat’s distinctive image of a monstrous black head, skull-like and with open mouth. Here the teeth are a black-and-white chequerboard, the gaping jaw contains an accordion keyboard and the forehead is a piano, spiralling notes up into spiked dreadlocks forming a sort of crown. This totemic hero radiates rhythm and energy, as if expressing an inner vitality. Around him, every surface is covered with collaged photocopies of Basquiat’s own drawings, some experiments for the head, others diagrams of human organs: Gray’s Anatomy again.
Theme, form and image coalesce in this edgy celebration of hybridity. You hear the influence of the impromptu rhythms and sampling of hip-hop, developing in the Bronx when Basquiat was growing up in the 1970s, as well as the push-pull between street and gallery. Basquiat, a teenage runaway from a Haitian/Puerto Rican family, began as a graffiti artist with the signature “SAMO” (same old shit). In the studio, he continued to treat the canvas as a block of wall to doodle and experiment, though a strong natural line anchors every composition.
As does a concern with history. In the earliest major works here, an untitled 1980 enamel-and-spray paint on metal panel (typical of the street-salvaged materials of Basquiat’s graffiti days and still bearing SAMO’s urban graffiti symbols of aeroplane and little car) and a 1981 collage depicting uneven skyscrapers, the repeated letters A and O rain down like bombs: alpha and omega, beginning and end. The overriding influence — the scattergun approach, rough but elegant surfaces and historical impulse — is Cy Twombly.
A sense of events as circular, a doomed cycle of violence and oppression — same old — dominates Basquiat’s take on history painting. “Untitled (Black)” is a loosely painted map of the US dotted with black masks and the words “Sugar” and “Tobacco” scrawled across the southern states. In “Jawbone of an Ass” (the title refers to the weapon Samson used to kill the Philistines) aggressive cartoon figures with oversize teeth scowl and bite, and a black boxer punches a white one, among lists of history’s violent leaders, black and white. The names of Ramses, Darius, Hector, Achilles, Alexander the Great, Scipio and Hannibal all appear, alongside references to the Punic Wars and the words “emancipation” and “slave”.
But if history repeats itself, so does Basquiat. How original was he? His career was so brief that his work did not really change and develop, and perhaps he himself, descending into addiction, felt the frustration of many precocious artists who hit a high note young, and are pigeonholed into one sort of success. Certainly, anointed the radiant child of SoHo bohemia, he played the part: self-portraits as a gorgeous inky black silhouette on wood, or as a black boxer, fist aloft, skull head recalling a Voodoo spirit god; “Dos Cabezas”, the black-and- white double portrait, economical, loose brushstrokes underpinned by graphic concision, executed in two hours after a first meeting with Andy Warhol. As his friend Rene Ricard put it, “One must become the iconic representation of oneself in this town”.
The Barbican’s life-and-times emphasis contrasts with that of Paris’s landmark 2010 retrospective, which had a better range of paintings and traced more clearly Basquiat’s European lineage, particularly to Picasso’s mask heads, rounding western-African circles of appropriation. In Paris, Basquiat looked a late modernist; in London he is a genre-crossing pioneer, integrating black history into painting, and presciently heralding today’s information glut.
“He ate up every image, every word, every bit of data,” wrote his friend Glenn O’Brien, “and he processed it all into a bebop cubist pop-art cartoon gospel that synthesised the whole overload we lived under into something that made an astonishing new sense”.
Basquiat’s energy, vibrancy and poignancy are wonderfully evoked in the Barbican’s installation, with scribbled notebooks, handmade postcards, his books, records and films building a picture of a young man of desperate curiosity and restless sense of self. “I get my facts from books, stuff on atomisers, the blues, ethyl alcohol, geese in Egyptian glyphs,” he said. And “I don’t know how to describe my work. It’s like asking Miles, how does your horn sound?” The mystique remains irresistible.
To January 28, barbican.org.uk
Listen to the Everything Else podcast as the hosts talk to Ekow Eshun about Jean-Michel Basquiat
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