Basquiat: Boom For Real at Barbican

‘Boom For Real’ at the Barbican is an absolutely incredible exhibition showcasing the works and life of the neo-expressionist art legend, Jean-Michel Basquiat.

Basquiat was an American artist who first acquired fame as part of SAMO, a graffiti duo who wrote enigmatic messages and epigrams in the Lower East Side of Manhattan during the late 1970’s, where the hip-hop, punk, and street art movements coalesced.

During the early 1980’s Basquiat was exhibiting his neo-expressionist paintings in galleries and museums all over the globe.

Basquiat was born in Brooklyn, New York and from a very early age his mother, Matilde, nurtured a love of art in him. She would take him to art museums in Manhattan and enrolled him as a junior member at the Brooklyn Museum of Art. Basquiat was an incredibly gifted child who learned to read and write by the young age of four. Communication came naturally and he was fully fluent in French, Spanish and English by the age of eleven. Basquiat’s incredible artistic talent was noticed at a young age, especially by his teacher, artist Jose Machado, and his mother, who highly encouraged her son’s artistic talent.

At the age of seven, Basquiat was hit by a car while playing in the street. His arm was broken and he suffered severe internal injuries and eventually he underwent a splenectomy. While he was recovering from his injuries, his mother bought him the Gray’s Anatomy book to keep him occupied. The book would become a huge inspiration to Basquiat’s future artistic outlook.

However, that year, Basquiat’s parents separated and Basquiat went to live with his father. When he was thirteen, his mother was committed to a mental institution and spent much time in and out of psychiatric facilities for some time after. This stress spurred Basquiat’s decision to run away from home at fifteen. He slept on park benches and was eventually arrested and returned to his father within a week. He later dropped out of high school and his father banished him from the house for this.  Basquiat then stayed with friends in Brooklyn and began selling t-shirts and homemade postcards to support himself.

It was during his time selling his homemade post cards that Basquiat met Andy Warhol. Warhol was a huge idol of Basquiat’s and he approached him outside a café to sell him a postcard. Warhol’s friend whom he was with dismissed Basquiat’s work, claiming he was ‘too young’. However, Warhol immediately took an interest in Basquiat and bought a postcard from him for a dollar. He then invited him to visit him one day at his studio, with the view to planning a collaboration and view more work from this promising young artist. The next time they met, Warhol invited Basquiat to his studio, requesting a painting from him, Basquiat painted a self portrait of himself and Warhol side by side. He delivered it to Warhol with the paint still dripping on the canvas, and he loved it. This marked the beginning of their strong friendship.

Basquiat went from being homeless and unemployed, to selling a single painting for up to $25,000 in a matter of a few years. In 1976, Basquiat and his friend, Al Diaz began spray painting graffiti on buildings in Lower Manhattan, working under the pseudonym SAMO. SAMO stood for, ‘Same Old S***’ and the pair would scribe enigmatic messages such as, “Plush safe he think… SAMO” and, “SAMO…For Those Of Us, Who Merely Tolerate Civilization…”

Unique’s founder Harvey Russack discovered Basquiat painting a building one night and they became friends and he offered him a job. Eventually Basquiat and Diaz ended their friendship, the SAMO project ended with the epitaph “SAMO IS DEAD”, inscribed on the walls of SoHo buildings in 1979.

The exhibition takes viewers around different sections of Basquiat’s life and works. This includes a cinematic area playing ‘Downtown 81(New York Beat)’. A film written by Glenn O’Brien, a friend of Basquiat’s, who was well known for his music column for Andy Warhol’s Interview magazine, as well as his show TV Party. O’Brien was writing a script for a feature film about the New York downtown scene and decided Basquiat should play the lead role. The one hour and thirteen minute long film shows a day in the life of a down-and-out artist, enriched by a musical soundtrack from Mudd Club favourites, with a few whimsical touches, including a spectacular cameo from Blondie’s Debbie Harry as a fairytale princess. The film was released after some financial struggles in 2000.  However, because the original dialogue audio was lost, actor Saul Williams dubbed Basquiat’s voice. The film immediately captivates viewers with its intense soundtrack, its simplicity and unique back-alley charm. It serves as a remarkable document of the run-down city that gave rise to the vibrancy and diversity of downtown culture.

In the middle of the exhibition hall stands a gigantic pillar with quotes from Basquiat printed onto it. On one side, viewers can see the quote, “I never went to art school… I just looked… that’s where I think I learned about art, by looking at it”. On another side of the pillar, a video is projected of Basquiat dancing in his studio in 1985. This video is incredibly powerful as it shows Basquiat as he was, a normal fun-loving person who enjoyed music and in his natural element, it shows him as more than just a name.

The ‘Beat Bop’ section of the exhibition shows viewers the musical side of Basquiat. Hip-hop was an influential new cultural force in the 1980s that pushed boundaries in pop culture and music. Basquiat was introduced to the movement in the late 1970s when “Fab 5 Freddy” played Basquiat cassette recordings of live rap performances from parties in the South Bronx and Harlem. He also introduced him to emerging figures from the scene, including experimental artist-musician Rammellzee and graffiti artist Toxic. In November 1982, Basquiat made a trip to Los Angeles and he was joined on the West Coast by Rammellzee and Toxic who jokingly referred to themselves as the ‘Hollywood Africans’ in reference to the inescapable racism in the film industry. Basquiat then made this the satirical title of his painting, which was a powerful portrait of the trio. The painting featured references and the words, ‘Beat Bop’ ‘Sugar Cane’ and ‘Satire’. It also includes the phrase “Hollywood Africans From The Nineteen Forties” in reference to the famous American actress, Hattie McDaniel. McDaniel is best known for her role as “Mammy” in Gone with the Wind (1939), for which she received the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress which was the first Academy Award to be won by an African American entertainer. McDaniel was also the first black woman to sing on radio in the United States. The entertainer has two stars on the Hollywood walk of Fame in her name: one for her contribution to radio and one for her acting in motion pictures. In 1975, she was introduced into the Black Filmmakers Hall of Famed in 2006 and she became the first black Oscar-winner to be honoured with a US postage stamp. McDaniel’s lifetime achievements make her an incredible icon in African-American history, who Basquiat could not ignore featuring her in his work.

Featured here is the record ‘Beat Bop’ (1983) which was a single produced by Basquiat and Rammellzee. Basquiat also produced the album cover art for the sleeve, featuring anatomical drawings and his iconic crown. The music is an experimental and abstract sound, perfect for a time that was all about breaking down barriers.

Viewers are welcomed to see the fantastic and surreal self-portraits of Basquiat at this exhibition. Basquiat was inspired by the creative possibilities of identity. The name Aaron is written on a number of early works, which could possibly relate to the black baseball player Hank Aaron (who beat Babe Ruth’s home run record in 1974). However, Basquiat may also have been referencing the black antihero of Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus and the brother of Moses in the Old Testament, who frees the Israelites from slavery.

Basquiat has been very clear about his painting that ‘a lot of them are self-portraits’, though in a number of different guises. Basquiat’s self-portraits are full of life and colour, but they also feature many heavy, dark lines and mysterious quotes, symbols, and dates, relating to his life and different sources of inspiration. Basquiat often mocked the art world and its tendency to reduce artists to their biography but he was also self-conscious of his youth and the stereotyping of black artists.

Featured in the ‘Self Portrait’ section is “Untitled (Football Helmet)” (1981-1984). It is a customised football helmet by Basquiat, which he painted over with blue and white paint. Human hair is also involved in the personalization of it, which could very possibly be Basquiat’s own. Black sporting heroes were an important theme for Basquiat and he celebrated their achievements in many of his works.

One of Basquiat’s most stunning paintings on show is ‘King Zulu’ (1986), which features a saxophone player  against a bright blue backdrop. The colours used are very clean and bright colours, such as blue and gold. The painting is in reference to jazz musicians and features a portrait of Louis Armstrong, who was crowned ‘King Zulu’ at the Mardi Gras parade in 1949, Armstrong was one of the most influential figures in jazz.

In the middle of the painting there is a white face, but it has been painted black, stopping around the eyes and mouth. This face is a satirical reference to the racism African-American entertainers received, where rather than hire black entertainers they would have people coat their faces in black paint, known as ‘black-facing’.

‘Plastic Sax’ (1984) is also heavily centered on blue and gold colours, highlighting many faces and musical references. The expansive use of blue paint could be in reference to the musical genre, Blues. In Basquiat’s self-portrait of himself and Andy Warhol, he has even painted himself on a blue background, which again is possibly a reference to Blues music, whereas Warhol is on a pale off-white background. We already know that Basquiat was a huge music lover and was heavily inspired by music - often he would listen to music or have the TV on while he worked, so it is most probable that his consistent use and apparent love of blue paint could be a connection to Blues. The painting also features Japanese script and symbols relating to Basquiat’s trip to Japan.

One of Basquiat’s self-portraits visitors should be sure to take note of is ‘Self Portrait’ (1981), which features the two sides of Basquiat, both seen through his own eyes. One side of Basquiat seems to be a calmer, friendlier version of himself, whereas the other version of features a malicious grin with the eyes and mouth lines in red, while the bust rests on top of a red smear that almost resembles blood. The portraits are alongside the names Ben Webster and Theolonious Monk, which are repeated over the work. This shows Basquiat placing himself between and alongside two heroes - representing the achievements and obstacles overcome by back artists.

Basquiat is quoted saying, “I get my facts from books, stuff on atomizers, the blues, ethyl alcohol, geese in Egyptian glyphs […] I don’t take credit for my facts. The facts exist without me.”

The exhibition contains a collection of books that were owned by Basquiat, including Basquiat’s original copies of, ‘Leonardo da Vinci, 1452–1519, 1966’, ‘Ross Russell, Bird Lives! The High Life and Hard Times of Charlie ‘Yardbird’ Parker, 1973’, ‘Frank Driggs and Harris Lewine, Black Beauty White Heat: A Pictorial History of Classic Jazz, 1920–1950, 1982’. The incredible collection of  books on show inspired Basquiat’s work and offer further insight into what drove the artist. Basquiat took inspiration from a dizzying array of source material. In his studio books were often spread open all over the floor, records were playing and the television always on. Stimulation was everywhere and came from many sources simultaneously.

‘Untitled (Alice in Wonderland)’ (1983) features familiar characters from Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland, including the Mad Hatter, complete with his signature teacups from his famous tea party and his ’10/6’ note in his well-known top hat. Also visible are Tweedle Dum and Tweedle Dee, the Caterpillar, and of course the Cheshire Cat makes an appearance in one corner, beaming from ear to ear. The cartoonish style Basquiat has applied shows that the Disney film adaption from 1951 was the inspiration for this piece. The collage of characters is held together by masking tape, which further creates a complex and unique design. Basquiat used this as the basis for ‘Wine of Babylon’ (1984) in which he gave the Mad Hatter a black face. This transformation challenged the overwhelming dominance of white characters within popular culture.

Cartoons were a significant inspiration behind Basquiat’s work, often seen are references to Alfred Hitchcock’s works, Disney, cartoons such as Popeye, Felix the Cat, and Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea. This love and enjoyment of cartoons and insistence on using them in his work comes from his early aspirations to be a cartoonist.

‘A Panel of Experts’ (1982), again shows Basquiat’s huge interest in cartoons as it features popular Looney Toons characters, alongside the words, ‘Beep Beep’, in reference to the Roadrunner.

The painting also contains the word ‘sugar’ over and over; ’Sugar’ and ‘Sugar Canes’ are seen a significant amount in Basquiat’s works. ‘Untitled’ (1984), shows the words ‘sugar’ and ‘sugar cane’ alongside breadfruit, which was a cheap source of food for slaves, while delivering the message about Britain’s past involving slavery. In the backgrounds of many of his paintings, Basquiat consistently makes sure the treatment and lives of people of African origin is never forgotten, in a potently beautiful style.

‘Jawbone of an ass’ (1982) is covered in Basquiat’s scrawlings of Biblical quotes and heroes and characters of myth and legend. The title comes from the Bible quote, ‘Then Samson said, “With a donkey’s jawbone I have made donkey’s of them. With a donkey’s jawbone I have killed a thousand men.”’ Names featured include Alexander and Cleopatra. As well as Alexander the Great, one of the most pivotal figures in history, one of the greatest generals and military strategists of all time, Scipio also has his name featured. Although regarded as one of the greatest Roman generals of all time, Scipio was reviled by other patricians of his day and was tried for bribery and treason, charges that were meant to discredit him before the public. Disillusioned by the ingratitude of his peers, Scipio left Rome and withdrew from public life, but he is still known today as an incredible general and leader. He is best known for his defeat of Hannibal at the final battle of Zama in 202 BC.

Hannibal is also featured, with connections to both Hannibal whom Scipio defeated, but mostly in connection to the rhyme ‘Hannibal Lector — Hector’, from the Trojan War. Hector was a Trojan prince and the greatest fighter for Troy in the Trojan War. Hector was known for his courage and nobility. Homer describes Hector as being peace-loving, thoughtful as well as bold and a good son, husband and father, without darker motives. Basquiat’s frequent use of religious references and mythological and philosophical figures in his paintings offers insight into the meaning behind his work, which makes the pieces all the more riveting.

The final room of the exhibition is playing a short 21-minute video interview with Basquiat, entitled, ‘A Conversation with Basquiat’ (1985). Interviewers Becky Johnston and Tamara Davis were incredibly lucky to interview basquiat in June 1985 as he rarely did interviews and felt uncomfortable doing so. It so happened that the three were friends and had gone clubbing the night before and discussed the possibility of doing an interview as part of a film Davis was shooting on Basquiat. Davis and Basquiat first met in the early 1980s at an opening at Ulrike Kantor Gallery, where Davis worked. Basquiat said to her, “Hey, let’s put some music on” and he transformed the back room into an exclusive dance space. As he did so few in his lifetime, this interview is a rare and beautiful opportunity to enjoy an intimate conversation with the artist in the shoes of his friend.

Despite being one of the most successful artists of his time Basquiat struggled with a heroin addiction, which began to interfere with his personal relationships. Horrifically, Basquiat died at an upsettingly young age of 27 from a heroin overdose. However, only Basquiat’s physical form died that day. He was such an inspiration in the art world that his soul lived on through not only his own art, but through others in film, literature, and mostly through music. Basquiat is referenced in Jay Z and Frank Ocean’s song “Oceans”: “I Hope my black skin don’t dirt this white tuxedo before the Basquiat show” in the 2013 album Magna Carta Holy Grail. Jay Z and Kanye West also made references to Basquiat on their 2011 collaborative album Watch the Throne, with the lyric, “Basquiats, Warhols serving as my muses”

‘Boom for Real’ is a breathtaking and beyond incredible show. It is an incredibly beautiful tribute to the life and art of Jean-Michel Basquiat. He was an extraordinary soul and had an even more extraordinary mind to match. He was part of a large artistic family, with members including Andy Warhol, Madonna, and David Bowie. Basquiat was an astonishingly colourful and intelligent being, with a simple attitude towards life, which he displayed in his paintings and in the empathic way he interacted with people less fortunate than himself, having previously been in their shoes. Basquiat’s paintings and the messages that he construed through painting positions him as something of an oracle, with his perceptions of the world that he stripped down to their bare essence, then spun and turned out in his original creative way.