'Basquiat: Boom for Real' (For Real)
Basquiat: Boom for Real – Barbican, September 2017
A curator is speaking to a gathered crowd of journalists and artsy folks and he seems to really care. He talks to us about Basquiat and his methods: 'His way of working is the way of thinking today...' In other words, here is an artist who was searching the internet, building endless criss-crossing connections and borrowing from a phenomenal range of sources, long before this concept became a deeply embedded part of our everyday internet-led lives.
As the curator talks, the crowd mills about and half-listens and half-observes. They take photos or talk into cameras, gesturing excitedly towards the artwork as they chatter. Spectators stand in front of Basquiat’s explosive paintings (as if Basquiat’s brain had been crushed into gunpowder, packed into a tiny bullet and fired at the canvas at close range); their eyes rapidly scan the canvas, absorbing information and hungry for more. Many look to their phones, perhaps googling artists, timelines, relevant works or songs. An unusual number of people are smiling. This is a very nice feeling and very rare. Mostly at art exhibitions, people tend to look away from each other rather than towards. We are becoming more open and curious. The impulse to make new connections is instinctive and profound.
The chaotic layout to this exhibition is unusual - but very Basquiat. At first this lack of order is confusing and a little intimidating: a break from the norm in a normally very normalised world. We enter the downstairs space in the Barbican gallery and it is up to us whether we turn left or right. Whichever direction we choose, we will eventually come full circle. Along the way we will encounter a kaleidoscopic spectrum of artwork: huge colourful paintings (richer than lots of art you’ve already seen, yet still with so much more left to say); videos that throb with energy and personality; a sprawling selection of postcards (contained neatly under a pane of glass that cries out to be smashed); notebooks packed full of Basquiat's poetry written in neat and evenly spaced capital letters (the only time his thoughts don’t seem to be in battle); reclaimed scraps from the street, plastered in graffiti and layers of paint. At first, we might try to impose some sort of order on this exhibition. Eventually, we will stop trying. We will learn to get a little lost, walking round in haphazard circles. We will remember to look up (a quotation has been painted onto the stairway), behind us (that painting has two sides to it) and look down again (the gallery space upstairs plays with the paintings and quotations in the space below). We will get dizzy walking in Basquiat's shoes.
As we explore this exhibition we will frequently encounter Basquiat the man (Jean-Michel to his friends) among his artwork. We will find him, naturally, in his self-portraits: there he is hiding behind a black silhouette, which recalls cave paintings, Matisse cut-outs, graphic novels or street art. Perhaps you might spot Basquiat in a huge pillar that stands alone on a platform. The cream pillar is covered in scrawled phrases and scribbles; a black winking skull has been painted on top of these scrawls, as well as the word ‘famous’, dripping and bold. You’ll definitely spy Basquiat in his double portrait alongside Andy Warhol, a painting that was conjured to life in all of two hours and took Basquiat's life hurtling off in an entirely different, dazzling and difficult direction. You can’t help but hear Basquiat in the stark poems in his notebooks, recited by a friend and piped out through loudspeakers. You'll also hear Basquiat in the music – often jazz and of course Miles – that is played throughout the gallery and weaves its way into your consciousness as you happily stumble about.
Finally you will see Basquiat in the videos that pop up in various spaces throughout this open-minded and mind-opening exhibition. You will probably be drawn to Basquiat’s eyes, which are quite something. The little notes on the side will tell you that Basquiat rarely agreed to do interviews so this interview (carried out after a heavy night in a long chain of heavy nights) is something special. Those eyes blaze and compel and suggest a combination of granite-defiance and baby-soft vulnerability, which so many great artists seem to possess. When Basquiat lets his guard down and his eyes soften, it will feel like the screen has turned honey-yellow and we have all fallen madly in love.
Sometimes this exhibition will feel too much and you might have to stop. It is the same sensation you sometimes get when you’ve been lost in the internet for far too long and emerge - hours later – head throbbing and brain exhausted. You might experience a flash of anger at the other exhibition-goers. Why is everyone hiding behind a screen: taking photos, talking to a camera, striking a pose and smiling for their followers? Why are so few people letting their own eyes do the seeing and feeling bit?
These flashes of feeling will not last long though – and the urge to return to the art will begin again. It's quite a primal urge, a feeling like thirst or hunger and is something you’ve rarely experienced in this setting. You felt something close to it at the Giacometti exhibition, when you wanted so badly to understand more about the sorrow that crept through those spindly vanishing sculptures. Perhaps you felt it at that Rothko exhibition, when you wanted only to sink, alone, into those ocean-colour paintings. But this physical urge to simply See and Absorb More is a precious thing. You genuinely believe you might like to eat some of Basquiat’s art: smash the glass, pick up one of those postcards, tear off a corner and chomp down hard.
Above all, you’ll marvel at everything that Basquiat consumed in his short life – and the deeply personal and powerful way he remodeled all that he studied and experienced. Look at ‘Leonardo da Vinci's Greatest Hits’ and how muscular and bruised Da Vinci’s work becomes in Basquiat's grip! Look at ‘Picasso, Picasso, Picasso’, or those simple framed pictures – just the name an artist and a short description of their signature style - that capture Basquiat in a fleeting moment of calm. Look how much Basquiat knows and just how much he is scared of not knowing: look at how he wears his self-knowledge like a fuck-off piece of armour, gearing up for the fight of his life. Look at how much life there was in this young talent and how quickly it was snuffed out. Let's live life at a higher voltage – even just for an hour – and feel a little of that energy burn inside us.