Basquiat: Boom for Real, Barbican Centre ‘Yup, It’s Good’

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It’s quite something for a show to live up to expectations, especially when it’s a show that has been as anticipated as much as this Basquiat retrospective has, but Boom for Real is everything I had hoped it would be – vital, exciting, relevant, and packed with original artworks.

The Barbican art gallery is a huge space yet by successfully working with private collections, museums around the world, and the Basquiat family, we have over one hundred original works to enjoy, many of which have never been seen in the UK before, as well as film footage, music (Basquiat was a musician and a DJ too), and memorabilia such as some of Basquiat’s own book collection, his birth certificate (which he, rather wittily, autographed) and a copy of his lease agreement with Andy Warhol.

But it is his huge paintings that are the big thrill. They dominate the rooms they hang in, whether they are single works or vast triptychs. Silhouettes or huge heads – often representative of Basquiat himself – mix with vibrant colours, sketches, and text (‘We have decided the bullet must have been going very fast’; ‘FAMOUS’; ‘Hollywood Africans’; ‘Full scale war on Wall Street.’) to make big observations and political points through engaging, even electric, art works.

It is impossible, and undesirable, to divorce Basquiat from the city in which he emerged. Context is crucial here for, about the time Basquiat emerged, New York was a broken and almost bankrupt city. The illusion of the American Dream had been well and truly punctured with racial and economic hypocrisy and divisions exposed.

The Barbican has gone to great efforts to evoke the state of play in New York City in the late 1970s, with film footage of the dirty, impoverished streets running on loop, music from the time on speakers, and Polaroids of the great and the good – Keith Haring, Warhol, Grace Jones and a pre-famous Madonna – who were part of the same scene as Basquiat hanging alongside his paintings.

Basquiat would be the biggest name to emerge from the underground art scene that flourished in downtown New York at that time, and this show spans those few productive years that he had before his untimely death, from photos of his early graffiti around NYC under the pseudonym of SAMO (Same Old Shit), through his phenomenal (in quantity and quality) solo output, to his joint works with Andy Warhol, Fab 5 Freddy, and Keith Haring.

But it is his ongoing influence that is the biggest take-away from this show. Basquiat is routinely cited as a major influence by contemporary artists, and it’s extraordinary and not a little alarming that even thirty-five years on from many of the works on display here, his art feels more vital and more relevant than many paintings I see being produced today.

That seems an extraordinary achievement for an artist who was self-taught yet I can’t help feeling that reflects as much on the stale elitism of the art world as it does on Basquiat’s brilliance.

This impressive show is the first ever large-scale exhibition in the UK of the work of Jean-Michel Basquiat. Yes, he died young at only 27 years of age in 1988, and yes, he had remarkably little exposure in the UK either at that time or since – there’s no work of his in any public collection here – but why is that? Why hasn’t this recognition not come around before?

There’s no doubt that race has played a factor in this, both in terms of Basquiat himself but also with the condescension towards his artwork – his graffiti and graffiti-style works rather pompously referred to as ‘Street Art’ in art circles.

Acknowledgement and inclusion has been a long time coming. Both Basquiat and the art scene from which he emerged have been ignored by the art world for too long. Indeed, his reputation seems to have been built more from popularity in the wider public rather than support from the art world. It seems public pressure has compelled the art world to reassess Basquiat’s long exclusion.

And, so, it seems rather pertinent to also mention the Banksy graffiti that popped up recently under the bridge near to the Barbican. In this work, Banksy shows a Basquiat self-portrait figure (lifted quite perfectly from Untitled, 1982) being frisked by the Met Police – a timely reminder that if Basquiat weren’t now such a venerated artist, he’d still have trouble being welcomed with open arms by the establishment.

Barbican Centre, London, to January 28, 2018
Tickets from £16 (concessions available)

Image Credits:
1. Jean-Michel Basquiat, Hollywood Africans, 1983, Whitney Museum of American Art, ARS, New York, ADAGP, Paris
2. Jean-Michel Basquiat, Untitled 1982, Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen, Studio Tromp, Rotterdam
3. Jean-Michel Basquiat, Untitled, 1980, Whitney Museum of American Art, ARS, New York, ADAGP, Paris
4. Jean-Michel Basquiat, Glenn, 1984 Courtesy Private Collection

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