Jean-Michel Basquiat (1960-88) is the archetype of the doomed young artist, dead at 27 of a heroin overdose. A film in Boom for Real shows him walking through Manhattan, a hot young star with a sax and a beautiful face, his fame as the secretive graffiti artist Samo (Same Old Shit) already behind him. He is not yet 20.
This retrospective – his first here, surprisingly – is heavily tipped towards the life and times, and so stuffed with blown-up photos and footage of Basquiat dancing, musing, clubbing and hanging out with Warhol that it’s hard to see the art at first. But eventually it comes, fully formed, almost, from the start – the caricatural drawings, the names and epigrammatic phrases in block capitals, the darting cars, scudding planes, lists of heroes and historic faces, all sampled against glowing high-chrome backdrops with a DJ’s nonchalant energy.
They don’t aspire to the condition of graffiti, it turns out, so much as the idioms of American art in the 1980s: Rauschenberg’s collages and Cy Twombly’s elegant whispers, Warhol’s silk screens and Keith Haring’s hip-hop hieroglyphics. From Egyptian art to Gray’s Anatomy, Basquiat had pictorial sources lying all around him in the studio and that’s how his images appear, in scattered thoughts and glances, the connections between them sometimes mordant, sometimes comic.
One of the many daft captions in this show speaks of his “finely executed portraits” of Charles Darwin and TH Huxley (he was interested in their theories of racial evolution). This is nonsense. Basquiat made pictograms rather than likenesses. When he first met Warhol, Basquiat ran home and made a double portrait in two hours: Warhol is all drawing, the strands of his fright wig extending into wrinkles, whereas Basquiat is a big sweep of ochre paint rising into wild black dreadlocks.
Painted fast, swiftly viewed: his works are ideal for the restless brain. They have terrific graphic register. Here’s the name of a black hero declaimed against a white background: the politics neatly encapsulated. Here’s his own self-portrait as a skull, beneath the word Famous! Celebrated, but prophetically dead. At the Barbican, nobody mentions the drugs that eventually killed him but they’re there in the later works, with their intensive cross-hatchings and buzzing repetitions, and in their atmosphere of nocturnal solitude.
Ultimately, the art feels indivisible from Basquiat’s famous charm and attractiveness, for there is a lot of both in this show, most particularly in the self-portraits, especially the antic black silhouettes with their cut-out eyes and flaring hair. But this is in no way a normal exhibition. It’s not just the preponderance of ephemera, from club tickets to postcards and party polaroids, but the growing foreboding in the gas masks, skulls and death’s heads. There is the pervasive feeling that everything here was made live and direct, in response to something going on in another time and place far away – that it has all been retrieved, only just, from oblivion.
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