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LONDON — Jean-Michel Basquiat’s mind-boggling pulling power at auction can seem bigger than the artworks themselves — it’s nearly impossible to consider his work independently of its market value. A typical “Untitled” painting from 1982 sold this year at Sotheby’s for a US auction record of $110.5 million, its Japanese buyer commenting, “When I saw this painting, I was struck with so much excitement and gratitude for my love of art.” The painting is now the sole subject of an exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum.
With Basquiat’s work transformed into an overhyped commodity, it can seem difficult to assess it for ourselves. At the Barbican, Boom for Real — billed as the first large-scale survey of Basquiat in the UK — offers us this chance, with a collection of more than 100 exhibits ranging from paintings and notes, to owned objects and postcards.
Basquiat’s persona has become almost mythical: impossibly cool, the darling of the avant-garde ’80s scene in New York, dead from a heroin overdose at the rock-star age of 27. The insurance bills and logistics covering obscenely valuable works, sold-out queues, and security involved in mounting this show (no bags whatsoever; no pens, only pencils, lest work gets damaged) add to the legendary aura. But once we get past the lines, the Barbican show sets out to untangle an individual whose art was enmeshed within an intensely messy New York City scene comprising music, graffiti, parties, and painting.
On the one hand, the untamable, cool New York city scene in the ’80s feels incongruous when categorized, as it is here, into segments like “The Scene,” “Beat Pop,” and “Beebop.” Yet this sprawling ultra-hip mess of parties populated by movers and shakers is key to understanding how this Brooklyn-born kid of a Haitian father and Puerto Rican mother who left school at 17 soared into Icarus territory so quickly.
Fashioning himself as SAMO©, standing for “Same old shit,” with friend Al Diaz, Basquiat gained attention for spray-painted slogans around the city; tags like “SAMO© 4 THE SO-CALLED AVANT-GARDE” make you question his canniness towards the scene he was simultaneously mocking and courting. Exhibitions and club parties (most notably at famous Mudd Club) allowed him to mingle and collaborate, enjoying meteoric exposure. It was only a matter of time before Basquiat would encounter Andy Warhol.
The show is fascinating here partly for the backstory of the young, handsome Basquiat looking up to the older, more established Warhol in pieces like the adoring double portrait “Dos Cabezas” (1982), painted in two hours and delivered still wet to his new mentor. And then there’s the famous double photo portrait of them as boxers, the Barbican caption countering the New York Times’s dismissal at the time of Basquiat as merely Warhol’s “mascot,” remarking that Basquiat convinced Warhol to return to painting by hand and that he himself took up Warhol’s silkscreen technique.
The overarching sense that emerges throughout the exhibition is of a terribly young artist utterly and totally swallowed up by the glamorous, edgy avant-garde, enjoying near-instant recognition, and thus encountering no form of or requirement for discipline. He was a talent unfiltered, which perhaps goes a little way to explaining its enduring appeal. When the large Basquiat paintings we recognize appear — scrawled, snarling skulls, figures, stick men, and doodled slogans and tags and bold sloshes of color — they are arguably less about trying to decipher a meaning and message, and more about the raw energy guiding his hand, somewhere between automatic and naïve, yet clearly planned and constructed with an aesthetic aim. It makes sense, then, that he worked from television, video, music, or any immediate stimuli, drawing simultaneously and seemingly without over-contemplating it.
It is clear from the sheer vivacity (and volume) of works that Basquiat was in possession of a raw talent, that elusive ‘something,’ forever frozen in time by the severance of life at 27, and untrammeled by the self-doubt, failure, and all the other pitfalls that artists encounter as they age. Yet the inevitable surrounding hype which has snowballed with every auction record will always threaten a dispassionate survey of his work.
An early film, “Downtown 81,” filmed in 1980 when Basquiat had only exhibited a single work, follows him around town, a boy brimming with hubris ready to conquer the world; a moment strolling in front of the Guggenheim feels prescient of the greatness due to come. One wonders how it all would have looked if fame had not so quickly been handed to him.
Jean-Michel Basquiat: Boom for Real continues at the Barbican Centre (Silk St, London) through January 28.