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Portrait of 80s New York: Basquiat Boom for Real

New York of the late 1970s and early 80s. The city of grit and grime, of obscene crime. The Bronx in war, burning buildings, street graffiti, bepop, breakdance. Cinematic chaos. Downtown Manhattan’s countercultural scene. A sanctuary for musicians and artists, writers and performers, outsiders, bohemians, intellectuals, freaks. A time and a place where ideas melded and movements made. It was but a mere flash with a lingering cultural impact for generations that followed.

 

Jean-Michel Basquiat dancing at the Mudd Club with painted t-shirt, 1979 © Nicholas Taylor
Jean-Michel Basquiat dancing at the Mudd Club with painted t-shirt, 1979 © Nicholas Taylor

 

Jean-Michele Basquiat was one of its main protagonists and ‘Basquiat: Boom for Real’ captures this moment in time. The exhibition, which opened at the Barbican Gallery in London a couple of weeks ago and remains sold out, is the life-line of the American artist in the context of New York’s countercultural scene. It is also the first large-scale exhibition in the UK of one of the most significant painters of the 20th century.

 

Jean-Michel Basquiat, Untitled 1982, Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen, Studio Tromp, Rotterdam
Jean-Michel Basquiat, Untitled 1982, Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen, Studio Tromp, Rotterdam

 

In his short life (Basquiat died of an overdose at the age of 28) he drew, painted, filmed, wrote. Exhibited together they reveal a vibrant, radical, exciting, colourful and powerful artist. Basquiat had no formal education, yet read avidly and absorbed everything from art history to philosophy, science and literature. ‘I get my facts from books, stuff on atomisers, the blues, ethyl alcohol, geese in Egyptian glyphs,’ he wrote. ‘I don’t know how to describe my work,’ he said later. ‘It’s like asking Miles, how does your horn sound?’

 

'LIKE AN IGNORANT EASTER SUIT’, Jean-Michel Basquiat on the set of Downtown 81. Photo: Edo Bertoglio ©New York Beat Film LLC. By permission of the Estate of Jean-Michel Basquiat.
‘LIKE AN IGNORANT EASTER SUIT’, Basquiat on the set of Downtown 81. Photo: Edo Bertoglio © New York Beat Film LLC. By permission of the Estate of Jean-Michel Basquiat

 

He took energy from the clash of high and low culture; his work formed through growing up in the chaos of the Bronx, street life, black-American life. He was fond of Beat literature and poetry and an admirer of the abstract expressionist Cy Twombly – an overriding influence in his free-style, liberated, colourful paintings.

Jean-Michel Basquiat, A Panel of Experts, 1982. Courtesy The Montreal Museum of Fine Arts. © Estate of Jean-Michel Basquiat. Licensed by Artestar, NY. Photo: MFA, Douglas M. Parker
Jean-Michel Basquiat, A Panel of Experts, 1982. Courtesy The Montreal Museum of Fine Arts. © Estate of Jean-Michel Basquiat. Licensed by Artestar, NY. Photo: MFA, Douglas M. Parker

 

Within the double-height concrete gallery space and with the echoing sounds of Duke Ellington, we are transported to Basquiat’s world. Music was a powerful source – free jazz, early bepop, Bach even – and he rarely worked without something playing in his studio. Basquiat had a library of some 3000 records and his obsession was so much that he traded paintings for rare blues and bepop LPs. His hero Charlie Parker is referenced in the title of Basquiat’s 1983 record Beat Pop.

 

ean-Michel Basquiat, Hollywood Africans, 1983. Courtesy Whitney Museum of American Art, New York © Estate of Jean-Michel Basquiat/ Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/ ADAGP, Paris. Licensed by Artestar, NY
Jean-Michel Basquiat, Hollywood Africans, 1983. Courtesy Whitney Museum of American Art, New York © Estate of Jean-Michel Basquiat/ Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/ ADAGP, Paris. Licensed by Artestar, NY

 

Basquiat’s raw energy feels as fresh today as when he began creating art, first on the streets and subways of New York with his classmate Al Diaz under the pseudonym SAMO© (same old, same old shit), then on canvas in the late 1970s and early 80s. He remained part of the underground art scene even when he gained recognition following New York/New Wave, the landmark 1981 exhibition by Diego Cortez of the Mudd Club, which portrayed the city’s vibrant downtown countercultural scene. Here the work of the young Basquiat was shown alongside the more established Andy Warhol, Robert Mapplethorpe, David Byrne and William Burroughs.

 

Jean-Michel Basquiat, Untitled, 1980, Courtesy Whitney Museum of American Art © Estate of Jean-Michel Basquiat/ Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/ ADAGP, Paris. Licensed by Artestar, NY
Jean-Michel Basquiat, Untitled, 1980, Courtesy Whitney Museum of American Art © Estate of Jean-Michel Basquiat/ Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/ ADAGP, Paris. Licensed by Artestar, NY

 

In the Barbican through image, text and sound Basquiat comes alive as he comments on the injustices in society making clear statements against racism, colonialism, class war, slavery. On exhibit are his notepads. He scribbled lines, poems, lyrics in neat capital letters as if he knew they would one day be on show. In one he writes: ‘I feel like a citizen. It’s time to go back and return as a drifter.’ Elsewhere, ‘Nicotine walks on eggshells medicated, the earth was formless void, darkness face of the deep, spirit moved across the water and there was light. It was good. Breathing into the lungs, 2000 years of asbestos.’

Basquiat: Boom for Real is at the Barbican until 28 January

Nargess Banks

Jean-Michel Basquiat painting, 1983 ©Roland Hagenberg
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