WORDS

Jean-Michel Basquiat famously died in his prime, cruising into the 27 club on the back of a speedball overdose. A speedball is a blend of cocaine and heroin, a pair of drugs which combine with unusual vigour. The cocktail’s dosage is difficult to judge – a long list of casualties is testament to this. Basquiat’s early passing, and the manner of it, has cemented a mythology that the artist himself started to build during his lifetime. It’s also, in part, the focus of a new exhibition at the Barbican Centre in London: Boom for Real.

Described as “The Radiant Child” at the offset of his career by art critic, writer and painter Rene Ricard, Basquiat experienced extraordinary success during his short life, while in death his legacy has cast a long shadow. His aesthetic influence is to be found across all disciplines, from fashion houses, designers to film makers and visual artists. Of almost equal significance is his cultural legacy; his status as an iconoclast has been acknowledged in biopics, documentaries and both the lyrics and art collections of some of the cultural titans of our age. From late adolescence, Basquiat’s rise was meteoric; since his passing it has been greater still. Earlier this year, one of his many untitled works catapulted him into the record books, becoming the most expensive American painting ever when it sold for $110.5 million.

Basquiat was born in New York in 1960 to a Haitian father and a US-born mother of Puerto Rican heritage. He had a cultured, if unsettled, upbringing; childhood trips to galleries informing his interest in visual communication early. At 18, he dropped out of school and hit the streets, where he drew attention for his graffiti writing. His tag, developed and shared with his pal, Al Diaz, was SAMO. His austere handstyle stood in stark contrast to the graffiti which was, at that time, still being pioneered. He eschewed colour and extravagant form for wry observations; pavement poetry with intellectual heft. “SAMO©…/ANOTHER DAY…/ANOTHER DIME/HYPER COOL/ANOTHER WAY 2…/ KILL SOME TIME” read one.

SAMO offered Basquiat his first public exposure, and he capitalised on it. A starring role in the film New York Beat (alongside Debbie Harry) reflected his position as an It Boy – but an It Boy with a difference. His good looks, charisma and style mirrored genuine, ferocious talent. In 1981, this became clear when he debuted a couple of dozen paintings in New York/New Wave, a seminal survey of the artists of the Downtown scene. In a dense exhibition, comprising over 1,600 works, Basquiat stood out. The city which had previously been his canvas became, according to one critic, “his script”. With paintings rooted in the New York skyline, his graffiti practice inverted. From writing poetry on buildings, he began to externalise those same structures indoors as visual poetry.

Boom for Real is split into two parts. Upstairs is largely given over to contextualising the artist’s work, setting the scene in hip 80s NYC, and paying lip service to the Basquiat mythology. Here, the Barbican has recreated Basquiat’s space at the New York/New Wave exhibition, bringing together 15 of the paintings for the first time in over 30 years. These early works offer valuable insights into the concerns and interest of a young Jean-Michel; Untitled (World Trade Towers), for example, reveals an artist directly inspired by American abstract-expressionist titan Cy Twombly. Downstairs, in Boom for Real’s second half, this narrative is dropped and the paintings are allowed the spotlight. These are more mature works. The influences, so obvious in his first paintings, had by now been internalised – and his own brilliance blazes through.

Basquiat, as curator Eleanor Nairne observes, was an artist without “formal artistic training, who drops out of school in 1978 and takes to the street, and starts making his work in any possible format that he feels suits his purpose”. This narrative has, over the years, sustained some misapprehensions about his work. Boom for Real is at its best when disabusing its audience of these. In the expressionistic nature of his scribbles, and his willingness to look anywhere for imagery to plunder – from medical books to the backs of cereal packets – Basquiat’s work has sometimes found itself misrepresented, criticism ringing with the sound of dogwhistles. Eleanor Nairne takes issue with the descriptor, “intuitive,” (for which also read ‘primitive’). “A lot of this,” she says, “was about people thinking, ‘Hey, this is an artist… who has no formal artistic training. Therefore it must be that the references that he’s making in his work… must be things that he is somehow summoning, rather than very carefully, conscientiously rendering’.”

In fact, as Boom for Real highlights, his canvases were dense with carefully processed information and thought. They find an echo, now, in tabbed browsers; the non-linear distribution of information as characterised by the internet. Basquiat’s paintings are rich with connections formed and half-formed; references that span (so-called) high- and low-culture. A spectrum of ideas, events and artefacts, which cumulatively describe the experience of a particular person – himself – and, in doing so, describe the experience of particular people: those marginalised, disenfranchised and derided by a racist state.

Basquiat blurred his references and gave them equal status, dissolving notions of high- and low-culture. But in spite of his friendship with Warhol (explored in Boom for Real), Basquiat was no pop artist. In fact, his engagement with culture finds more parallels with artists working today; using artefacts from it he drew attention to elements within it. Culture became a palette, a lexicon with which he could communicate.

Of course he didn’t just manipulate culture in paint, his identity and status made him a presence in it too. His stature has informed his legacy as much as his work has. When he’s frequently name-checked by rappers it’s as much for his success: his entrepreneurialism, wealth, and infiltration of a jealously-guarded and predominantly mono-racial industry, as for his artistic talents. Whether his death by speedball, a drug that speeds you up while it slows you down, in any way reflects the pressures of life as such an icon is unclear. But Boom for Real chooses not to dwell on his death. Instead, it celebrates his radiant life, and the radiant work he left behind.

Basquiat: Boom for Real runs at Barbican, London, until 28 January

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