Jean-Michel Basquiat is a classic example of ‘live fast, die young’; dead at the age of 27 from a heroin overdose but throughout his short life he quickly rose to become one of the most celebrated American painters through his style of Neo-Expressionism. The recent exhibition at the Barbican Centre in London covered various aspects of the artist’s life from his early days of tagging, clubbing and socialising in New York City. Gaining attention as an artist with his friends and through his large scale pieces, paintings, sculptures, poetry and writings. The exhibition, in some sense, covers the socio-political messages Basquiat used in his work and references he used. The collection of work on show was an impressive retrospective of the artist’s life, work and views which are still relevant today.
The exhibition begins by showing Basquiat’s first taste of art success. Emerging from the New York punk scene as a graffiti artist in 1972 with his friend, Al Diaz, the pair began spray-painting and tagging buildings in the city under the name ‘SAMO’ (pronounced ‘same-oh’, derived from same old shit). The messages which the pair were spraying were either about SAMO or by SAMO – on the surface they may seem simple but they expressed a substantial cultural message with deep anti-establishment, anti-religion and anti-political statements.
“Areas in which the graffiti appeared included SoHo, the new art quarter of New York, and the Lower East Side, an ethnic neighborhood which was also the site of New York’s bohemian ferment. Inhabitants of these neighborhoods automatically became the graffiti’s viewers. In the Seventies, the drugged-out rebels of the Sixties found themselves blocked from changing society in any substantial way. They turned inward, announcing that “the revolution” had to be preceded by a spiritual rebirth. The Seventies became the decade of gurus, seminars, and identity-shopping. The afterhours life turned to punk rock — surly dissipation and grotesquerie. Punk clubs became the rage.
The Lower East Side completed its transformation into a commercial bohemia. SoHo completed its transformation from ethnic neighborhood and factory district to elite art center. The so-called avant-garde had become a formidable, lucrative, orthodox institution — in which supercilious barrenness was the reigning fashion. By the end of the Seventies, Punk broadened into a crossover culture called New Wave. The Seventies narcissists began to metamorphose into Yuppies. The SAMO graffiti addressed these developments, treating them as grist for a broad cultural message. Gleaning the meaning from context, one found that SAMO was a brand-name drug which provided spiritual salvation to the person who ingested it. At times, the graffiti took on the guise of an ad campaign for the drug. Simultaneously, a number of the graffiti spoke of the art world.
Inhabitants of downtown Manhattan were intrigued by these graffiti. Who is SAMO? The mystery grew.”
This piece of text is from the avant-garde artist Henry Flynt who documented the SAMO work and took 57 photographs of the tags without any knowledge of the graffiti artists . All 57, an art piece in its own right, were displayed in the exhibition space.
Phrases across the photographs read:
SAMO AS AN END TO CONFINING ART TERMS
SAMO AS AN ALTERNATIVE TO BULLSHIT FAKE HAPPY WHACK CHEERS
SAMO? DO I HAVE 2 SPELL IT OUT!!
SAMO A PIN DROPS LIKE A PUNGENT ODOR
SAMO AS A MEANS OF DRAWING ATTENTION TO INSIGNIFICANCE
SAMO AS AN END, 2 NINE-2-FIVE NONSENSE, WASTIN' YOUR LIFE 2 MAKE ENDS MEET, TO GO HOME AT NIGHT TO YOUR COLOR T.V.
SAMO AS AN END 2 THE NEON FANTASY CALLED “LIFE”
The art critic Jeffrey Deitch called this “disjointed street poetry” and remembered that “back in the late seventies, you couldn’t go anywhere interesting in Lower Manhattan without noticing that someone named SAMO had been there first.”
This example of work by SAMO/Basquiat shows how early American punk/graffiti-based art and general counter-culture could become properly recognised in society. It could be critically embraced and celebrated, similar in the way that Hip-Hop began to emerge from the New York South Bronx and gain notoriety in the same era.
The SAMO pair saw their tagging in different ways; Basquiat saw it as “sophomoric” and it was an excuse to drink and write stuff – covering the city like a logo. Diaz saw it as more intelligent than that, he admired the messages and statements they they were saying as opposed to the other “ego graffiti” in the city. Diaz wanted to remain anonymous whereas Basquiat craved the publicity. With these contradicting thoughts the pair eventually split with Basquiat taking the claim as the artist SAMO – appearing on chat shows and interviews as ‘The Artist Behind SAMO’, even signing his early works with the SAMO name and regularly using similar ambiguous statements and messages throughout his work, despite tagging profusely “SAMO IS DEAD” across the city.
It was this rough graffiti style that I think inspired the later work by Basquiat, utilising strong and powerful yet ambiguous messages. As a young artist living in New York, Basquiat regularly visited parties and clubs in the city and it was here that he was able to socialise with fellow artists and future collaborators. In 1979, The Canal Zone (a 5000 sq foot loft space rented by British artist Stan Peskett) invited the graffiti artists Lee (Quiñones) and Fab 5 Freddy to create a series of murals for the space to show the graffiti scene in downtown New York and to encourage other aspiring artists. Basquiat used this opportunity to paint live on camera as SAMO for the first time.
That night, Jennifer Stein, a fellow artist saw Basquiat painting as SAMO and explained how much she loved his work. Basquiat suggested they could work together and explained how they could easily produce painted postcards together. Drawing inspiration from their surroundings in the city such as street detritus, cigarettes, old labels, advertisements and newspapers they created a series of collages that could be photocopied on the newly released Xerox colour photocopying machine, allowing them to easily make art that they could sell. Basquiat would later go on to sell a postcard for $1 to his idol, Andy Warhol, after spying on him in a restaurant – this first encounter helped to form a hugely important relationship in the lives and careers of both artists.
At this party Basquiat met the artist and rapper Fab 5 Freddy, who would later ask him to participate in Blondie’s music video for Rapture as a DJ after Grandmaster Flash didn’t turn up. This is seen as one of the most important songs in the early history of hip hop and its acceptance into mainstream media with Debbie Harry rapping about hip hop culture.
Following this, Fab 5 Freddy and Basquiat together produced the record Beat Bop after Basquiat was introduced to early hip hop production methods such as sampling. The two of them, with rappers Rammellzee and K-Rob produced the single which was originally released as a test-pressing on Basquiats one-time record label Tartown. However Rammellzee has insisted that Basquiat did nothing but foot the bill for the record.
The 10 minute track was a success despite its chaotic and abstract sound; it has been described as a blueprint for the “apocalyptic, witty, and experimental” style of many modern hip hop artists. The track has even been thought to provide a stylistic basis for groups such as Cypress Hill and the Beastie Boys. It has been cited as one of the essential records of old school hip hop, alongside more popular tracks like “Rapper’s Delight” and “The Message”, with one writer calling it “the Ulysses of rap music”.
Basquiat created the album artwork for the record in typical style – inspired by graffiti and a clash of roughly sketched drawings and text. One of the defining features however was the lack of colour that Basquiat usually used, this was a pure monochromatic study. The physical original record is seen as a ‘holy grail’ by record collectors due to the fact only 500 copies were initially produced as well as Basquiats fame as an artist but subsequent copies have been re-issued since 2001.
The exhibition understandably contains a large amount of Basquiat’s paintings of which his style instantly recognisable. A number of these are simply called ‘Untitled’ which is always difficult to write about as there is no actual name to give an insight into the painting and the artists vision for this piece but it highlights the amount of paintings Basquiat created and also perhaps his disinterest in the value of his own work.
Through images, photographs and video footage you can see he would often make multiple paintings at the same time in his studio, sprawling them across the floor; stepping over them whilst walking from painting to painting, splattering paint and ink as he went. I feel that this was done to create a sense of patina to his work, he didn’t want it to look nicely polished, clean and new, it needed to have a sense of life and character. In his earlier years he wasn’t able to afford canvases to paint on so used detritus he found in the streets of the city as a ‘canvas’: windows, doors, scraps of wood and anything else he saw as potential.
Despite the sporadic and expressive nature of his work, there are consistent themes and depictions that appear regularly in Basquiat’s paintings; the most prolific is that of body parts: bones, skulls, heads, feet and the human form in general. The reason for this is said to be derived from when as a young child he was hospitalised after a car accident and was given a copy of Gray’s Anatomy by his mother which he studied profusely. Similarly, this may also be why the body parts he used in his work are covered with words – relating to captions and text used in the book. The book was an influential piece of literature for Basquiat.
“Basquiat’s canon revolves around single heroic figures: athletes, prophets, warriors, cops, musicians, kings and the artist himself. In these images the head is often a central focus, topped by crowns, hats, and halos. In this way the intellect is emphasized, lifted up to notice, privileged over the body and the physicality of these figures (i.e. black men) commonly represent in the world.”
– Kellie Jones.
Throughout the exhibition there was lots of pieces and sections showing the New York image of Basquiat, living this wild lifestyle in the city with his friends Keith Haring and Andy Warhol but something that wasn’t very much covered was the underlying meaning of his work. His paintings, sketches, 3D pieces and also his poetry have so much energy and are charged with political and racial thoughts which are often not clear to the viewer. Basquiat used his work to express his thoughts and feelings about the treatment of black and African people throughout history; referencing slavery and the injustice to black people.
The thought processes of his work are clear to see, adding pieces, moving them around, crossing words or shapes out and covering them with further layers; at times it appears an incoherent mess. But through this mess his messages and stories appears showing the faces and naming the names of people disregarded over history; exploring this as it was (and still is) a relevant factor in society. It’s not easy to get an accurate sense of the exact society and time in which his work was created however you can understand what he was trying to achieve by creating this work and promoting his messages into the white art world. Summarised by Patti Astor: “the art world was white walls, white people and white wine,”. Basquiat stood out as a successful black artist in this white world and also as an artist who brought attention to the ethnic imbalance that existed.
A piece of work that expresses this is Poison Oasis. A composition of black male figure, arms crossed, accompanied by a festering skeletal cow and a vicious snake poised to attack. The cow representing the imminent death, the snake representing the potential impending death and the figure with his arms crossed vulnerable. This painting could be seen as his first self-portrait where he alludes to his own personal situation and position in the art environment as a black artist. Many of his other artworks feature similar environments and black figures in this way.
One of the most interesting parts of the exhibition was dedicated to the work produced by Basquiat in collaboration with his friend and icon, the art legend Andy Warhol. To many artists of Basquiat’s generation, Warhol was admired as ‘The Godfather of Pop’. As mentioned earlier Basquiat and his friend Jennifer Stein apparently sold a postcard to Andy Warhol in a restaurant for 1 dollar with this being their first encounter but not their last; both living and working in New York City the pair became close friends, both in and out of art.
This supposed encounter is re-imagined in this clip from Julian Schnabel’s film, Basquiat with the the enigmatic David Bowie playing the equally as enigmatic Warhol. (there is no definitively accurate story, various versions state how many pieces Basquiat sold and for how much hence the discrepancy between this write-up and the film)
In 1982, art dealer Bruno Bischofberger took Basquiat to visit Warhol’s studio, the Factory, for the first time after which Basquiat rushed back to his studio to paint a dual portrait, Dos Cabezas, which captures an incredible likeness of both the artists: Warhol’s white wig and Basquiat loose dreadlocks.
“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.”
This relationship enabled the pair to work together and collaborate as friends; Basquiat famously convinced Warhol to return to painting traditionally by hand whilst he himself started to utilise Warhol’s synonymous silkscreen technique: a role reversal.
Despite this important friendship: the combination of two massive artists– their collaborative exhibition Paintings, in 1985 was slated and considered a flop. A harsh review in The New York Times dismissed Basquiat as Warhol’s ‘mascot’, demonstrating a common misconception of the pair. Other reviews claimed that Warhol had used Basquiat’s fresh new look as a way to stay relevant at a time when he was struggling to sell work. It’s difficult to ascertain a true opinion on this myself; whether it was an honest collaboration between the pair yielding some great unique paintings and interesting juxtaposition of styles and it was great exposure for the lesser known Basquiat. However I can’t help but see this as simply a great financial opportunity, which of course is how the art world works.
Following the ‘failure’ of their collaborative efforts they parted ways however Warhol’s unforeseen death in February 1987 took its toll on Basquiat’s health and state of mind, showing how important Warhol had been to him both in the art world and as a friend. “They had a falling out and they never had a chance to repair that,” Suzanne Mallouk (Basquiat’s ex-girlfriend) said, “he really went downhill after that”. Basquiat later died in August 1988 from a heroin overdose, he died from the drug that he had been using to cope with being thrust into fame.
Although Basquiat gained this fame as an artist during his lifetime, it was after his death that he became an ‘art legend’. Similar to Van Gogh, he died and left a massive amount of work which has been regularly selling for large amounts. Most notably, in 2017 a painting of a skull by Basquiat sold for $110.5 million at Sotheby’s becoming one of the most expensive works of art sold and putting him in the same category as Pablo Picasso, Francis Bacon and Mark Rothko. Although despite this sale, it will take another Basquiat sale of this magnitude to determine the market for the artist. But is this particular piece worth $110.5 million? Jonathan Jones of The Guardian thinks so:
“It is a painting that bleeds history. Jean-Michel Basquiat’s Untitled (1982) portrays a black skull scarred with red rivulets, pitted with angry eyes, gnashing its teeth, against a blue graffiti wall on which someone has been doing their sums. Perhaps the street mathematician was calculating how many Africans died on slave ships in the 18th century, or how many people lived in slavery in America, or how many young black men have been killed by police guns in the last few years.”
The exhibition at the Barbican was for me an unforgettable experience, the first UK retrospective of one of my favourite artists both for aesthetics and thematics; a true joy to see so many of his paintings in one place; specifically the Barbican exhibition space which is a great environment. Although there is a bunch of parts of the exhibition that I omitted from this write-up; multiple parts of the exhibition focused on the life and times of Basquiat with huge blown up photographs and multiple videos of him dancing, clubbing and socialising which although give the work some context feel somewhat superfluous and unnecessary to people who already know the artist and his background.
There was also a very small section towards the exhibition that felt like an after-thought: a section dedicated to the poetry of Basquiat; perhaps it was intentional being at the end in contrast to the SAMO messages at the start of the exhibition. However the words shared in these scrawled poems, on notebook paper, at times said so much more than some of the paintings did and they deserved a more prominent position.
On the subject of poetry, I found this beautiful piece by Jack Miguel aka Jakaboski inspired by Basquiat’s self portraits.
What is Basquiat’s legacy though? His work is obviously popular and has been immortalised on multiple pieces of clothing and other products and objects but his style and method will always be relevant as long as there are people to write about it and anyone who wants to challenge the idea of going against the system. The rough aesthetic of his work looks simple but complex at the same time, something that cannot be replicated by somebody else.
However. I have a magazine cutting on my desk from a fellow New York artist and musician: Patrick Morales aka Wiki from the rap group Ratking. It is a self-portait illustration which is incredibly similar to the style of Basquiat which is strangely suitable as when I think about the energy and inherent New York-ness of Basquiat’s work it is Wiki’s and Ratking’s music which I hear and connect together; no more so than this song:
The connection between Basquiat and Wiki; the musical style, the video aesthetic, the lyrics, the graffiti and the hip-hop—to me—is crystal clear. It even has a similar style to Basquiat’s Beat Bop and the title of the track Canal refers to Canal Street in New York where Basquiat initially broke into the hip-hop scene in 1979 in the Canal Zone exhibition space.