The Radiant Child: Basquiat

Boom for Real*, Barbican’s Basquiat retrospective, has some seriously heavy hitting art. The central lower ground floor area of Gallery 3 is full of it – large, high energy, intense, raw, often chaotic, colourful compositions that hit you full on like a hurricane. There are some incredible works, real showstoppers that reference his voracious appetite for anything and everything from history, politics, society, street life, traditions, poetry, music, fashion, sport and film. The one thing that his work doesn’t cover is sex and relationships, but more on that later.

Basquiat was something of a rock star artist. With his short-lived career (just 6 years during his 20s), he lived life full and fast, mingling with some of the coolest musicians, artists, filmmakers and celebrities. He died from a heroin overdose, aged 27, having achieved stardom as a street artist turned neo-expressionist and being forever cemented in our memories as a handsome young prodigy.

Boom for Real is an insightful exhibition – the upper floors of the gallery take you on a journey from the success of his first show through to his friendship with Warhol, giving a fascinating insight into his rise to stardom and the NYC scene in the 80s. Each room provides at least one key artwork plus a lot of background info and documentation.

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Photograph of SAMO street art
SAMO meaning Same Old Shit was the graffiti duo that Basquiat formed with Al Diaz, writing satirical epigrams on the streets of downtown Manhattan between 1977-80
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The young artist

Seeing Basquiat’s film interviews was fascinating, more so the one made with two of his friends, Tamra Davis and Beck Johnston, described as an ‘intimate conversation with friends’. Basquiat is more relaxed and open in this than the other shown (with Glenn O’Brian where the artist appears less cooperative and slightly bemused). It’s at this point that I began to want to know more about Jean Michel the man. His rise to fame was steep, he went from homeless street artist (albeit from a fairly well to do family despite his father’s violence and his mother’s mental illness) to drug addicted superstar in such a short space of time, seeing him talking with his friends in this interview showed his vulnerability and his character in a way I hadn’t seen before. He is highly observant and curious, his work full of satire.

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$1 postcards

These postcoards were made with a friend Jennifer Stein, and sold for $1 outside art galleries.

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Polaroids from the avant garde Canal Zone
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The Encyclopedia section contains various symbolic reference books to help decode some of the symbols used

There are glimpses of the main room from the upper levels, giving a taste of whats to come.

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‘Hollywood Africans’ relates to the stereotypes of African Americans in the entertainment industry and the limited opportunities for black actors.
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Graffiti covered fridge from FUN Gallery

Basquiat introduced himself to Warhol in a restaurant and they went on to become friends, even collaborating on works. Andy tried to talk to him about his drug use, but within weeks of Warhol’s death, Basquiat died.

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Dos Cabezas, a 1982 self-portrait of Jean-Michel Basquiat alongside Andy Warhol

The Self Portrait room containing a series of works in different guises; Basquiat was inspired by the creative possibilities when it came to identity and the stereotyping of black artists.

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A Panel of Experts

Basquiat’s trademark canvas, stretched over wooden supports and bound with twine. ‘Venus’ refers to Suzanne, his girlfriend, and ‘Madonna’ to the singer with whom he had an affair.

I loved the notebook section, where the pages of two of his notebooks are presented (replica notebooks are actually available to buy in the shop) showing scribbles and ideas.

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Leonardo da Vinci’s Greatest Hits, 1982
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Ishtar, 1983
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Five Fish Species, 1983 – devoted to author William Burroughs

Having finished enjoying the exhibition, I wandered into the shop to see whether any of Basquiat’s films were for sale. All the expected merchandise – postcards, books, tote bags, even skate boards, but my eye was drawn to a little black and white paperback entitled ‘Widow Basquiat – a memoir’ by Jennifer Clement. Described on the reverse as ‘a love story like no other’, and with a stunningly beautiful woman – Suzanne Mallouk – featured alongisde Basquiat on the front cover, I was intrigued. There had been no mention of relationships throughout the exhibition. As I purchased the book at the till, the cashier leant forward and whispered that the woman at the back of the shop was in fact Suzanne and I should go and say hello. Suzanne, it turned out, had lived with Jean Michel Basquiat for much of his life as an artist.

Suzanne was charming and still as beautiful. She is now a psychiatrist, specialising in treating artists. She dedicated and signed my book before I rushed off to read it on my journey home.

Her book gives the most fascinating insights into the pair, portraying an often irrational Basquiat who cannot live without drugs, but is at times gentle and vulnerable to the commercial art world he found himself part of.

Some of the key points that stuck with me from the book are:

  • Everything was symbolic to Basquiat, from the way he dressed to how he spoke – he was watching himself all the time and controlling how he was perceived.
  • He fell out with anyone he got close to, often suffering from drug induced paranoia and control issues.
  • He once paid a $3,000 restaurant bill for a group of white businessmen who assumed he was a black pimp – he liked to shock people.
  • Basquiat spent most of his life on drugs; he was rarely off them. As he became more successful, he bought higher potency chemicals.
  • He was promiscuous, often disappearing for days with a girl or boy he’d met in a club.
  • He valued food as a sign of success, spending much of his money on health food and pastries.
  • He was scared to eat pork as his mother had told him it would make his heart grow.
  • He would often request that gifts were returned after an argument – he insisted Madonna return all the works he had given her during their relationship.

Boom for Real is a thoughtful, well planned exhibition with some incredible works. And whilst you are there, I thoroughly recommend buying the book, ‘Widow Basquiat’ – for just £8.99 it gives a unique insight into the man behind the art.

Boom For Real opens tomorrow 21 Sept and runs unil 28 Jan 2018

https://www.barbican.org.uk/whats-on/2017/event/basquiat-boom-for-real

*Boom for Real was an expression Basquiat used meaning he would reinterpret all the things that inspired him, big or small, and explode them on a canvas in his own vision

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