I’m not an art critic, or attempting to be one – let’s get this straight from the start. I believe art is a very personal experience, something that either resonates within you or not. One man’s Banksy is another man’s Botticelli, and so this account of the Jean Michel Basquiat ‘Boom For Real’ exhibition at the Barbican Centre in London can only really recall my own experience and express how it made me feel.
A few of the problems with art that I still struggle with to this day dates back to the way the history of art was taught to me at school. Even though I was a budding artist desperate to absorb the inspiration of the greats that had gone before me, the way art history was taught left me devoid of anything except perhaps a notebook full of silly doodles sketched aimlessly during lectures to pass the boredom.
I also encountered an intellectual snobbery when dealing with my lecturers and tutors regarding my fascination with street art and especially for those urban artists who in most circumstances hadn’t had the fortune to attend art college and receive a formal education. These artists such as Richard Hambleton, Keith Haring and indeed Jean Michel Basquiat were frowned upon by the ‘establishment’, and I was made to feel stupid for suggesting that these artists were worthy of consideration.
With true adolescent stubbornness and rebellion, this then fueled my love for this type of artist even more and that sense of defiance created a deep and lasting personal affiliation within me. So it was with a sense of awe and anticipation that I booked tickets for the Basquiat exhibition, never having had the privilege of seeing any of his work actually in person.
Over the years Basquiat’s iconic rock star artist status had only been further perpetuated by the sadly burgeoning club of icons that had also died aged 27, and I worried that he couldn’t possibly live up to the pedestal I had unknowingly placed him on.
I need not have worried.
Walking into the exhibition I was met by a twenty foot projection of Basquiat dancing carelessly around his New York studio filmed by a friend of his. Just seeing his smile and the way he moved instantly confirmed one very important thing to me – Jean Michel Basquiat himself is just as important as the work he created. You can’t separate the two. I know that might sound obvious but it isn’t the case with every or even many artists. Although the paintings stand out in their own right, the story behind the work adds a depth and a mystery that totally solidifies and justifies the myth and magic that surrounds him.
The exhibition is divided into six sections, breaking down Basquiat’s creative life from his early beginnings as the provocative graffiti artist Samo right up until his final works done whilst fighting his demons and the drug addictions that would eventually claim his life. Actually seeing the progression of his work in this chronological way really brought home to me the sincerity he had as an artist.
Many people still misunderstand Basquiat’s work, and this hasn’t been helped by the recent sale of a piece of his work for $110m. Many critics have claimed his work to be no better than the scrawlings of a toddler, others consider his work as the maniacal scribbles of a drug addict. The truth of both these comments is that they are both right to some degree, and Basquiat worked in this way by his own design. He was actually a very talented artist with a natural ability to draw with great accuracy, his paintings though aren’t meant to be ‘lifelike’ – his work is purposely provocative, amateurish, childlike, angry, beautiful, sad. It’s all in there and when you stand before his work, you feel it too. You can feel all the pain, all the frustration, the desire, the hunger, the anger and also all the love, awe and beauty he felt. While he knew his art history and he had studied and respected the greats, he was also angered by the fact that black artists had not been properly accepted yet into this pantheon. He resented the art ‘establishment’ and purposely aimed much of his work at breaking the mould, changing the game, altering the status quo.
It was truly an emotional experience for me and I left feeling both exhilarated and yet sad. Exhilarated by the majesty of his body of work. Sad because of his loss, and our loss and the possibilities of what his future work would have been had he lived, navigating the nineties, the millennium and the digital technologies that he most certainly would have embraced wholeheartedly.
I was contemplating this on the train back to Manchester whilst looking through Instagram and specifically the heavy flow of art images from new artists that regularly appear in my feed, and it became immediately clear to me that Basquiat’s influence is so profound and so ubiquitous that it’s wonderfully evident he has never really left us after all.