The art of Jean-Michel Basquiat, who enjoyed a brief but blazing career in 1980s New York, is enjoying something of a moment. Earlier this year one of his paintings sold for £85 million and now he’s the subject of a first major British retrospective.
Basquiat was a graffiti artist, untrained in any of the disciplines of fine art, who was taken under the wing of Andy Warhol in 1981. In the years that followed he created a dazzling array of work, from small sketches in felt-tip to much larger paintings, which channelled a dizzying array of influences: ancient history, the struggle of black Americans, cinema, the history of Western art, cartoons, the Situationists, African folk art, sport, jazz, semiotics and more besides. Then, in 1988, it was suddenly all over. Basquiat died from a heroin overdose aged just 27.
His abundance of inspirations made for pictures that were full of wild strokes of colour, crude portraits and cryptic slogans. It’s an undeniably provocative aesthetic which, coupled with the easy stereotyping of Basquiat as a wild-child punk, has meant that as much he is adored in some quarters, he is dismissed in others. A piece on his death by the great critic Robert Hughes labelled him “a featherweight”. I’m sure there are those who will be put off attending Boom for Real because they agree with this scathing assessment.
It would be pointless to deny that Basquiat’s artworks are far from conventionally beautiful. They are not expertly painted and they don’t make for easy viewing. It’s also true that some of the stuff on display here, particularly the smaller pictures, come across as little more than cackhanded doodles. Yet those prepared to look past these shortcomings will discover an exhibition teeming with stunning moments.
Sensibly, the new exhibition doesn’t try to dragoon Basquiat’s manic art or restless life into a chronological story. Instead, the work is split over two levels and flits around his life and career, taking his love of collage as a guiding principle. The welter of supporting material – the books, the poems and, yes, even the terrible little sketches – is vital in helping us understand the man and the idiosyncratic art he produced.
On the ground level there is a selection of large-scale paintings, while the upstairs galleries create a snapshot of the hedonistic New York circuit he grew up in, featuring examples of the work, such as Dos Cabezas (which he created for Warhol in a couple of hours), which launched him into the public consciousness. The big paintings, such as his captivating homage to William S Burroughs, provoke an instant visceral reaction but demand a considered and patient unpicking.
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