Jean-Michel Basquiat / Boom for Real is an exhilarating glimpse behind the myth
Detail of Self-Portrait by Jean-Michel Basquiat (1984)
Jean-Michel Basquiat’s short life reads like a kind of Rakes Progress of Eighties New York: from teenage graffiti artist to art world superstar to heroin-induced death aged 27, all in under a decade. But Basquiat has become much more than an icon of monetarist-era excess. Thirty years on from his tragic demise, his status as one of the key artists of our age appears to be actually rising – particularly among the young – a position reflected in extraordinary prices; the $110.5 million (£85 million) achieved earlier this year for Untitled 1982 is the highest price ever paid for an American artist at auction.
But how much of Basquiat’s appeal lies in his paintings and how much in his image: the dreadlocked young Brooklynite rubbing shoulders with the likes of Madonna and Andy Warhol. This show – incredibly Basquiat’s first major British survey – begins from the preposterous premise that he was “one of the most significant artists of the 20th century”. And while it aims to look behind the myth, it hits us with so much of that myth it’s hard, at first, to actually see the work.
Hollywood Africans (1983) CREDIT: WHITNEY MUSEUM OF AMERICAN ART, ARS, NEW YORK, AD
Huge projections of Basquiat are everywhere as we enter: dancing to Duke Ellington in his studio, shyly smiling in interview, grooving at the legendary Mudd Club in a vast blow-up still. The first half of the show, indeed, feels like a handsomely staged portrait of late-Seventies-early-Eighties New York in which Basquiat plays the starring role.
Never a full-blown graffiti artist in the train-tagging sense, Basquiat made his name with cryptic poetic statements sprayed around the city. From the age of 19 he was continually filmed and photographed. We see Basquiat in fading newspapers, wobbly underground videos and in portraits with his hero Andy Warhol, with whom he made a number of works.
The paintings, drawings and collaborative bits and pieces used to illustrate this part of the show are an intriguing jumble of juvenile bric-a-brac: a graffiti-covered fridge, large pieces of quite interesting graffiti and a not very good joint portrait with Warhol. But the only work in this section to give a real sense of Basquiat’s value is a painter – which is, lest we forget, his principle claim to fame – is Untitled 1982 (sorry, many works here have that title): a marvellously vigorous image of a boxer with a gas mask for a head (or is it a skull with a halo?) that looks scrawled, but positively bursts with tension and energy.
On the lower floor we get to look at a critical mass of Basquiat’s paintings, focusing on his obsessions with music and art history, and revealing him as an inveterate maker of lists. Self-Portrait, 1981, comprising his dreadlocked silhouette plus the scribbled track listing from a Thelonious Monk album, has a rough-hewn, but effortless cool that immediately explains Basquiat’s appeal to the young.
As he began cannibalising the art books littered around his studio, from Gray’s Anatomy to Leonardo, his paintings became surrogate pin boards: photocopies of his own drawings merge with lists of whatever was running through his head. Apparently random classical references intercut with Afro-American history and cartoon monsters in Jawbone of an Ass. Glenn is overlain with a huge Afro-graffiti head which suggests anger and frustration, but doesn’t quite transcend the crude adolescent gesture.
There’s a breathless energy to the way Basquiat synthesizes disparate elements, as though everything’s hitting the canvas at the precise moment it flows into his head, a quality that parallels the DJ re-mixing then being pioneered on New York’s dance floors and which presages the random connections of the internet. At the same time the wilfully cack-handed primitivism of his brush strokes is weirdly reminiscent, not of classic New York abstract expression as you might expect, but of deeply unfashionable European art brut – raw art – of the Fifties, by the likes of Jean Dubuffet and Karel Appel.
The paintings in the final room come together in an exhilarating flow of ideas that makes all the contextual myth-making – intriguing though it is – feel superfluous. But if the man certainly had it, this feels like the beginning of a career rather than the climax. Poor old Basquiat never proceeded beyond the prodigy stage. But a prodigy, in the fullest sense, he certainly was.