This year the Barbican plays host to the first large-scale exhibition in the UK of the work of Jean-Michel Basquiat. One of the most significant painters of the 20th century, Basquiat emerged in the late 1970s in the post-punk underground art scene in downtown New York. Starting his career as half of the graffiti group SAMO©, the renowned autodidact’s vibrant and raw imagery offers in insight into his experience as a young black artist challenging socio-political issues and traditional artistic form.
As a child he had drawn voraciously, his accountant father bringing home paper for him to draw on. This creative energy was later channelled into his paintings, a raw approach that would come to define neo-expressionism but also the rise of Art Brut and what would come to be considered Outsider Art. Influenced by the collaging of Robert Rauschenberg his works blended together sources in a chaotic cohesion that seemed to define the fragmented state of his identity and surroundings. This approach, splicing and dicing multiple languages and perspectives has become definitive of the condition of contemporary art today – rethinking and complicating established ideas of history and identity. His remarkable sense of language and sensitivity in handling these elements is still fundamental.
Since his tragic death in 1988, Basquiat has had remarkably little exposure in the UK; not a single work of his is held in a public collection. This new exhibition, Basquiat: Boom for Real, dives into the influences of music and film over his work alongside the impact that his involvement with the downtown scene had; allowing visitors to place the artist within a wider cultural context.
Here, the exhibition’s curator Lotte Johnson, talks us through Basquiat’s enduring influence and how his creative energy stretched mediums and genres.
Thalia Chin: Very little of Basquiat’s work has been exhibited in London before now, can you tell me a bit about what influenced the decision to produce this exhibition and why now?
Lotte Johnson: It is really remarkable that the last major show of Basquiat’s work was at the Serpentine in 1996, so it feels like a really wonderful moment to be able to bring his work here. Also, there aren’t any works by Basquiat in public collections, which means that there is whole generation – or hoards of people – who haven’t been able to see his work in the flesh, which is really interesting considering he is such a cult figure and a reference point for so many people in not only popular culture, but also for so many artists working today. So it feels like a really right moment to be able to share his work with London and European audiences, because the show is also going to Germany after this. It is very exciting to be able to give people access to his work in the flesh. I think it feels really resonant to show his work now because he is such an interdisciplinary artist, he was working across so many different medium.
Thalia: Was there always a clear idea as to how the exhibition should be laid out, by theme or in a linear form? What did you think was the best way to be able to show the diversity of his work?
Lotte: It is very difficult to know what to focus on because he is such a far-reaching and prolific artist who made so many works within his lifetime. But the show really does have two main focuses: one is situating him within the downtown scene and really exploring his early work in the late 1970s and the early 1980s; the second is just celebrating his diversity of source materials, whether that be from Beat Bop jazz, silent cinema, historical artists or ancient history. So the first section of the show opens with New York/New Wave, which is the recreation of an exhibition he showed in 1981 and was the first show that really gave him a prominent platform. He was given a really large wall space to hang his paintings and he hung them in this incredibly dynamic, almost salon-style unusual hang. It was that exhibition that really brought him to the attention of critics in New York and he got his first solo show off the back of that, and a dealer and representation followed.
Thalia: That was what kickstarted his career.
Lotte: Exactly, so we wanted to start the show with this explosion of his work. Then we slightly backtrack and explain how he got to that point so we explore his experiments as SAMO©, this collaborative graffiti project on the streets of New York where he was spray painting these incredibly poetic, quite political statements, then we explore the downtown scene and the crew that he was hanging out with in the late 1970s and 80s in the Canal Zone, which was this loft that was rented by the British artist Stan Peskett, Basquiat would often hang out there. Then we explore the downtown scene, like the Mudd Club and Area, these places that would provide meeting points for a lot of artists like Keith Haring, Maripol and Grace Jones, just an amazingly eclectic group of people who were all sharing their ideas and energies – we actually have some of his collaborations with Keith Haring in the show, which is very exciting. Then there’s Downtown 81 which is the film that he starred in as a very young artist, he almost played himself, he played this down-and-out artist in New York who is struggling to find his identity, which is exactly who Basquiat was at the time, there is this kind of life mirroring art moment. After that we move into the Beat Bop section which explores his music and also includes a real highlight of the exhibition, Hollywood Africans, which is a painting he made after a road trip on the West Coast. He, another artist and a musician he was hanging out with at that time jokingly referred to themselves as the Hollywood Africans as they felt there was such a lack of black representation, so it’s this kind of biting critique on racial politics. Lastly we have a section about Warhol and his really reciprocal friendship.
Thalia: I’m assuming the recreation of that 1981 exhibition is the first time a lot of the work has been reunited?
Lotte: Yeah it is, we were really excited by the idea of being able to almost reconstruct that first moment where he was brought to the attention of a lot of the New York public and it felt like this really opportune moment as we were doing a lot of research into the works that were first shown there. So we started to piece together where the paintings actually were and what position he placed them in. Original photographs of the show and also some video footage helped us create this homage to the original moment, the moment where he was first propelled on to the New York scene and bringing that back to life.
Thalia: He was so incredibly young at that time.
Lotte: Yeah exactly, he was twenty years old when that show opened so it was really remarkable, he was being shown alongside people like David Byrne and Andy Warhol.
Thalia: How formative do you think this relationship he had with the downtown 80s scene was to the work he was producing?
Lotte: Incredibly, he was basically to be found in a club every night in the late 1970s and early 80s, he was very much embedded in the downtown scene and that was where he met a lot of people who were to become his friends and collaborators, such as Keith Haring. So I think it was incredibly central to his practice at an early point in his career.
Thalia: You mentioned earlier about the identifiable symbols that appear throughout his work. Can you tell us a bit about the interpretations behind this iconography?
Lotte: Well it’s really interesting because we have a few books in this show that we know Basquiat referred to constantly and pulled from directly. One book was Symbol Source by Henry Dreyfuss, which explores signs which are commonly used in different cultures but also in contemporary society and on the street. There’s this whole system of hobo symbols where people who are living on the streets would leave each other signs to indicate whether it was safe to stay somewhere. Basquiat was really interested in those particular symbols and they reoccur a lot in his work. He was also really interested in Afro-centricist thinking and we know he owned a book by Robert Farris Thompson so he had this kind of ferocious appetite for how we read signs and symbols in everyday society and how there can be multiple meanings or allusions that can be taken from those symbols.
Thalia: Do you have a personal favourite painting in this exhibition?
Lotte: I think one of my favourite pieces is Ishtar, which is in the Encyclopedia section and is on loan from the Ludwig collection in Aachen. It is very rarely shown outside their collection so we are really lucky to have it here. Ishtar was this Egyptian fertility goddess so it’s really a celebration of the symbolism of Ishtar, but it is includes many other references, there is a small pig drawn in the right hand corner with various words under it which are different meanings for the word pig, like different roots and origins. It’s one of those works that really explored the breadth and the range of his references. My other favourite work is Hollywood Africans, just the vibrant colours in that work are incredible, but also the content and the subject matter, the way that he is documenting this lovely road trip, this really collaborative moment between three friends, but it is also this searing critique and shows how versatile and agile he was as an artist.
Basquiat: Boom for Real runs at the Barbican until 28th January 2018.