Basquiat – ‘hauntingly relevant to today’s world’

Basma Alharthy visits an exhibition at the Barbican Art Gallery.

In keeping with its tradition of promoting the work of artists at the cutting edge, the Barbican has chosen to celebrate Jean-Michel Basquiat in the first major exhibition of his work in the UK – Basquiat: Boom for Real.

It’s been almost 30 years since Basquiat died of an accidental drug overdose in his Manhattan apartment. Yet in his brief life he unleashed a creative force that reverberated through his work and continues to inspire, communicating messages from the 1980s that are hauntingly relevant to today’s world. His work is also deeply evocative, providing a window into the state of mind of the artist.

The exhibition takes place over two floors. The first floor sets the social and cultural scene where Basquiat grew up, from the streets of his native Brooklyn to the NoHo studio where he lived and worked. One of these rooms is dedicated to his first group exhibition, showing his almost childlike doodles, and others depict his alter-ego SAMO – a contraction of ‘same old’. Basquiat’s presence is woven into the exhibition at every level.

His face pops up around the gallery during short clips of interviews and a the screening of the film Downtown 81, where he was the lead role ‘Jean’, a story of an artist with similar streaks to his own life. As well as setting the scene in New York in the late 70s and early 80s, the first floor also looks at the art scene of which Basquiat was an integral part. However, it was a charged dynamic from celebrities and actors to art dealers and musicians. Racial bias presented as a prominent feature for his experiences in the art community, and led to a noticeable impact on his artwork.

Basquiat embraced his influences, which included theorists like Darwin and Freud, and referenced them visually. The constant appearance of human figures, body organs and skulls – a lot of skulls – may reflect his influence by Gray’s Anatomy, a book brought to him by his mother after a car accident at the age of nine. It feels like his subconscious had been poured into these huge canvases that were more like electric magnified pages of his notebooks. Music also was an important influence, and it can be argued that the shift in his interest from punk to jazz, bebop and hip-hop is a reflection of his racially charged cultural transformation from 1978 to 1981. His musical idols included Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie; they appeared in his paintings alongside musical instruments, such as saxophone and a bird in reference to Charlie. It could be that Basquiat did find a parallel between the world he was part of, and how his heroes were regarded in their world.   

Boom for Real celebrates Basquiat. It managed to not mention his drug use or even his death by an overdose, but Basquiat revealed himself in a new-expressionist manner on his canvases and paintings. An overwhelming sense of rawness, anxiety, intuitiveness and suffering seeps through this exhibition.

- Basquiat: Boom for Real runs until 28 January 2018 at the Barbican Art Gallery, London. The illustration above is 'Untitled', 1982; Courtesy Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen, Rotterdam. © The Estate of Jean-Michel Basquiat. Licensed by Artestar, New York. Photo: Studio Tromp, Rotterdam

- Reviewed by Basma Alharthy, an addiction and arts specialist based in Saudi Arabia and also working in the UK

BPS Members can discuss this article

Already a member? Or Create an account

Not a member? Find out about becoming a member or subscriber