Last Sunday was quite an eventful day in London as two brand-new Banksy artworks had suddenly appeared in the city overnight. Since then these pieces have attracted dozens of street art lovers and they certainly caused a stir on social media. Both artworks are tributes to the American artist Jean-Michel Basquiat, coincidentally – or is it? – just a few days before the opening of a huge retrospective of Basquiat’s works, and only a few metres away from the Barbican Centre where the exhibition will be held from 21 September 2017 till 28 January 2018. Banksy’s tribute couldn’t be any more fitting as Basquiat didn’t only start his career as a graffiti artist, but his colourful and ‘freestyle’ drawings have clearly influenced so many graffiti writers and street artists ever since.
The first time I saw a Basquiat artwork in real life was at a very special private soirée a few years ago. All the walls of the family living room of my hosts’ beautiful Notting Hill home were covered with huge artworks by Anselm Kiefer, Damian Hirst and Julian Schnabel. When we left the party, we spotted a more modest artwork in the foyer. Hubby immediately recognised it as a Basquiat, but noticed some unusual elements to the drawing. Ah yes, our hostess told us, that’s because it was a collaboration between her at 6 years old and Basquiat in her family home garage in New York. Her father was a New York gallery owner and Basquiat used to come ’round their house…
Welcome to New York’s underground scene of the 1980s
The exhibition at the Barbican offers visitors an illuminating context of Basquiat’s life and work, i.e. the underground scene of 1970s-1980s New York. Back then, the American city was far from today’s glamorous metropolitan. There was great poverty, life was hard, and the streets were gritty – graffiti first appeared in the New York streets early 70s – yet, for the art and music scene this was an extraordinary time. You get a good sense of what the vibrant artistic scene in New York must have been like whilst walking through the exhibition, looking at the photos and reading all the wall texts.
Besides these more local developments, it’s also important to bear in mind the significant social and political developments on a national level. It wasn’t till during Basquiat’s childhood that racial segregation was officially abolished in the US, followed by Malcolm X’s assassination and race riots in America in subsequent years. It’s no wonder that Basquiat, as a young black man growing up during such turbulent times, often celebrated his black heroes in his works, adorned with a crown which became an iconic symbol in his works.
Although Basquiat never went to art school, he was well-educated about the arts; he used to frequent museums as a child with his mother and was self-taught in art history. As a child he wanted to become a cartoonist and he used to make cartoons of Hitchcock films. His career path took a slightly different way when he teamed up with his school friend Al Diaz in 1979 and covered the Lower East Side doors and walls with enigmatic phrases and slogans as the graffiti artist duo SAMO© (short for ‘same old shit’). This particular area in New York was just going through a huge transformation at that time; it was turning from a drug-riddled wasteland into the city’s new high art scene. People thought the graffiti tags were the works of an established contemporary artist and the overwhelming amount of media attention following the SAMO© tags instantly propelled Basquiat’s career to stellar heights.
Part of New York’s art elite
Although it wasn’t all glitter and glamour right from the start – Basquiat was very poor and even homeless at the start of his career – he soon entered New York’s elite club scene and surrounded himself with people such as his soon to be girlfriend Madonna (who was still unsigned at the moment!) and Keith Haring, whom he befriended and often collaborated with. One of his other famous collaborators was Andy Warhol, whom Basquiat greatly admired. He equally impressed Warhol by painting their famous dual portrait Dos Cabezas (1982) within two hours after his first visit to The Factory.
The exhibition at the Barbican shows a wide variety of works such as his notebooks, sketches, screenprints and paintings, but I was especially intrigued by his enormous and very detailed collage works. To some these collage works might seem like a random collection of words and illustrations, but once you start to study them you’ll recognise all the intricate references to both high and low culture. I kind of relate to Basquiat in the sense that, lacking a formal artistic training, he embraced all different types of art and tried to find his own voice. The exhibition provides visitors a clear understanding of all the sources he drew inspiration from. To me it seemed that Basquiat was very eager to take in all different sorts of information and absorbed it all like a big sponge. Besides influences from artists such as Cy Twombly and Picasso, Basquiat’s works show his fascination with symbols, codes, hieroglyphics, folklore, mythology, music (his works often portray black jazz musicians), film, black athletes, and the human anatomy – when he was eight years old he was hospitalised for a month after a car accident and his mother gave him a copy of Gray’s Anatomy which became his reference book for many of his works. If you study the details of his huge canvasses in the exhibition, you will indeed suddenly see medical illustrations of a heart, various nerve and muscle systems etc.
The other side of glamour
An interesting detail is how the exhibition fails to give the full picture of Basquiat’s tragic life and death. There are no allusions whatsoever to his parent’s divorce, the fact he ran away from home and, most significantly, his drug addiction which led to his death at only 27 years old. Thankfully, his body of work lives on and offers the viewer a glimpse into the life of an extraordinary artist. If you have the chance to go see it, I urge you to do so – you have until January! For more information about the exhibition Basquiat: Boom for Real, click here.