Jean-Michel Basquiat (Dec 22, 1960 – August 12, 1988) was a black artist who managed to make a serious impact into the largely white world of art in New York in the late 1970s and 1980s. 30 years on after his untimely death at the age of 27 there still seems to be a distinct lack of visible black artists in the modern Western pantheon.
And so Boom for Real feels like a documentation of an anomaly of sorts, the story and work of a rarity… a young, gifted, black artist in America. Basquiat was very much a product of the times, breaking out from a decaying and seemingly semi-lawless New York where boundaries and freedoms were being pushed. For Basquiat it provided the perfect playground to be creative. A time of affordability for artists in a run down and broke Manhattan.
But much of the upstairs exhibition space seems devoted to the concept of the ‘boy wonder’ an insight into the young prodigy and his inspiration. It plays on the charismatic aspects of the young super hip artist. If ever there was an art school chic to aspire to Basquiat had it in a big way.
Along with his paintings, we find out that Basquiat made a decent hip hop record and also starred in a movie that premiered at the Cannes festival to favourable reviews. His ability to design anything from ceramics to album covers and trace his influence on future creative generations had a touch of the flair of Matisse about him.
But at times the exhibition felt like a little too much like an in-depth MTV personal profile piece rather than a serious art exhibition with videos and footage galore of the artist being interviewed. The biographical aspect also seemed to omit his drug taking, the racism he would have experienced and even his death.
With so much moving images and media and a hell of a lot of wall text to read at the start of the exhibition, it made the practice of stillness and observation of the actual paintings in the downstairs part of the exhibition a little more difficult. The result was to leave one a little weary by the time you get to the self-portrait room which really warrants attention.
His painting of Warhol and him together was another highlight and the backstory behind the painting added to its appeal (Basquiat had met Warhol for the first time and raced back to draw them together before delivering to Warhol a few hours later while it was still wet.) Basquiat would collaborate with Warhol which you can see in full at the exhibition.
But did we really need to see a load of books that Basquiat had read and used for inspiration behind glass like a crusty old history exhibition? A lot of the curation just felt too basic to be true. Like the explanation that Basquiat wrote neatly in his notebooks like he wanted to be read at a later date, really?
Boom for Real is an expansive exhibition and well worth the entry fee as there is a huge amount to take in but could possibly have benefited from a less is more approach. Netherless hats off to the Barbican for a well overdue introduction of Basquiat to UK audiences. Why did it take so long and why was the artist not better known of are questions that you seem to ask after experiencing his exciting work? Basquiat first got into art when his mother used to take him around the MoMa in New York as a boy. It would be neat to think that young budding creatives will be inspired and influenced and see endless avenues for creating art seeing his work today.
You can catch Basquiat: Boom for Real exhibition till 28 Jan 2018 at the Barbican. www.barbican.org.uk
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