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Barbican Art Gallery, London UK Sam Burcher and Jane Wallace review.

October 2017

Basquiat UntitledThis is the first large-scale exhibition in the UK of the work of American artist Jean-Michel Basquiat (1960-1988). Clearly, something is amiss that not a single work by such a prolific 20th Century artist is held in a public collection here. Interest in Basquiat has piqued since his Air Power (1984) sold as part of the late David Bowie’s art collection for £7.1 million at Sothebys in London, November 201

There are over a hundred startling paintings on three floors plus film of the artist speaking to camera. A strikingly prodigious young talent, it is fitting that his work has been gathered from a variety of sources for an international audience. His vibrant, raw imagery, abounding with fragments of bold capitalised text offer insights into his encyclopaedic interests ranging from anatomy to symbolism, skilfully integrated into paintings and collages. Leonardo da Vinci's Greatest Hits (1982) is a good example.

Coming of age in the late 1970’s in the post-punk underground art scene in downtown New York led to a meeting with Andy Warhol and collaborating on murals and installations for the Mudd Club, Area and Palladium nightclubs, which typifies his role as metteur en scene of this particular era in modern art. Famous (1982) conveys the Warhol connection, whilst Untitled (1980) conveys the mood.  

King of the Zulus (1984-1985) is a noteworthy collage portrait of Louis Armstrong and his song of the same name in bright yellow, red, green and black. Ishtar (1983) is a triptych depicting the Mesopotamian goddess of love and fertility.  King Zulu (1986) refers to Jazz legend Miles Davies and a golden trumpet screams in a calm sea of blue. I don’t know how to describe my work, it’s like asking Miles how does your horn sound? “ Basquiat said. 

King Zulu

Basquiat lived homeless in a park as a teenager, exposing himself to primary experiences and coming to the media’s attention in 1978, when he teamed up with schoolmate Al Diaz to graffiti enigmatic statements across the city under the collective pseudonym SAMO© a short form for ‘same old, same old shit’.  Musical collaborations with Debbie Harry and the burgeoning Hip Hop scene reveal unparalleled artistic freedom in a time of fear and poverty.

Much has been made of the fact that this young black artist had no formal training. But video footage  is both touching and revealing. His obvious discomfort and silence when the interviewer tries to get to the root of why he makes art is not a sign that he is inarticulate. Rather, it communicates that an artist of Basquiat’s calibre should not have to justify himself, his reticence perhaps demonstrating he knows that.  

Additional film footage shows Jean-Michel incessantly painting and drawing and not taking himself so seriously, whilst written and audio examples of his powerful trochaic poetry offer further insight into what was indisputably the life, albeit a short one, of a master.   

Basquiat Young and Glenn

Jean-Michel Basquiat dancing at the Mudd Club, 1979. © Nicholas Taylor 


Boom For Real Barbican Art Gallery, London UK 21 September 2017 – 28 January 2018

All pictures © The Estate of Jean-Michel Basquiat, Licensed by Artestar, New York