Boom For Real Jean-Michel Basquiat at the Barbican Jan 2018
There is nothing like instant success to polarise opinion about you – Jean-Michel Basquiat arrived at the pinnacle of the New York Art Pantheon almost overnight in 1983 and he has as many detractors as admirers. I was excited to see this show to judge for myself, as I had seen so few of his paintings for real. Wandering around the Barbican Art Gallery how does the work feel – vital and raw or superficial and fake? It’s really not easy to say. There is rawness, but also a very deliberate and grating false naivete that casts a long shadow over it.
Here I wanted to take a more measured view of the work, and try to disentangle it from the fame, the tragic early death, the myth and the identity politics. But I was not able to. There are questions we need to ask ourselves about Jean Michel Basquiat: about the man, his work, and our reaction to it.
‘Boom for Real’ was his catchphrase we are told. It implies that the real and the authentic in art were of primary importance to the young Basquiat. SAMO© – his (shared) graffiti persona that brought him attention of the downtown NY artworld was an invention, and the suspicion remains that his later work was also the product of an invented or assumed persona.
1981 New York was boiling over, bankrupt and chaotic but creatively having some of its best times. Punk, New Wave, the twilight of Disco and the birth of Hip Hop were all happening at once. The streets were full of energy and graffiti was a big part of that of the aesthetic – dystopian – appeal of the city.
You can almost, even at forty years remove, hear sharp New York entrepreneurs thinking about bringing all that energy into the polite world of the gallery. There must be one artist, (they surely thought), one at least in this city, to lionise, to fete, to shock the bourgeois with. To build up like a pop star, and to exploit, you might also think.
Indeed it seems that Basquiat was initially discovered by the Impresario of the Mudd club – (in)famous downtown hangout of the time. He was the graffiti artist brought in from the street. Here we engage with the myth, the worst myth of all, but maybe there is no avoiding it. The Starving Artist myth: out there somewhere is a genius – unappreciated, and of course ludicrously undervalued. Americans in particular seem susceptible to this – just think how they love Van Gogh. Basquiat offered them the chance to get in on the ground floor of their own piece of a fine art history legend right there in New York. We – the audience for art – wanted him to be a genius, because it meant we had the sense and taste to appreciate genius in the raw.
Although that is obviously illogical and based on nothing, we basked in a kind of liberal reflected glory.
Basquiat’s story is a Cinderella Romance, but unless we decide the meaning of art is indeed about celebrity, about individuals ‘making it’, the story alone is not enough. What is the work? There are some photographs of early graffitti and some panels carried in wholesale straight off the street. There are some paintings, not overlarge in scale, which vary in energy and premeditation. And an awful lot of background material – photos of people from ‘the scene’, books and records owned by Basquiat, films of people talking about him etc. Not all of this is bad – the graffiti covered fridge is awesome, but it takes the focus away from the paintings themselves. They have to stand alone or not at all.
Black identity expressed in music, we are used to. Black identity expressed in painting, not so much. I suspect Basquiat exploited this rarity somewhat knowingly at the beginning of his – brief – career, only to find himself trapped by it. Patronised and imprisoned in a caricature he had rapidly outgrown, he was tantalised by the prospect of what he might become – achieve – with his new status. But like all enfants terribles who suddenly find themselves pushing against nothing, there is nowhere to go after a while and they risk vitiating the impact that the original work had by repeating it to a tame audience. Basquiat was confronting this, but had not come out the other side.
Bewildered by fame, and no doubt riding the wave of the hedonistic NY scene, his paintings vividly capture a raw cultural mix. They are a picture of a mind in flight, but without anywhere to land.
Music – in the form of Jazz and early Hip Hop provides the touchstone for the paintings that worked for me- they feel quite animated and lively and their elements do have contrasting timbres: a jagged red shape against a smooth outline or spray painted element against a scrawled pencil word. It feels spontaneous, expressive, free. When other references to literature, philosophy and the history or art creep in it is not so convincing. Often literature is reduced in Basquiat’s painting to a lot of names written in that faux naif script (although his own handwriting was perfect). They are signifiers of ‘high’ culture; invocations of a magician speaking the words of a spell that he doesn’t quite understand, or the tags of a graffiti artist claiming a new territory for his own. Clearly he was stung by being represented as a crude caricature. This was one response. Another was to try to outdo the caricature, by portraying himself in his paintings as a ludicrously over-Africanised totem.
Basquiat did not live long enough for us to know how these strategies of self representation would have played out. It is clear though that his struggle for his identity through painting was genuine and personal, Although in death it has been hijacked by those who put identity politics ahead of self-expression and those with nostalgia for that New York scene, if we keep looking hard we can glimpse the real Basquiat fleetingly.
I will leave the last word to Deep Purple…
“Nobody knows who’s real and who’s faking
Everybody’s shouting out loud
It’s only the glittering shine that gets through…
Where’s my Robin Hood outfit?” (Ian Gillan – No One Came 1971)
Photo credit: Basquiat_Boom for Real_Barbican_Photo Tristan Fewings_Getty Images_The Estate of Jean Michel Basquiat_Artestar