Basquiat was a famously self taught artist. He drew inspiration from absolutely everywhere, from jazz to cartoons, science to literature. His work is an abundance of worldly influences and cryptic references. The blurbs in the exhibition go a long way to decoding some of these.
Much of the show is concerned with Basquiat’s relationship with Andy Warhol. Images of the artists standing side by side in boxing gear play on the idea of them as rivals. In one corner of the show, you can find photographs of the New York club scene and its patrons. These include Madonna before she was famous, and Grace Jones, one of Warhol’s visually striking muses.
The works are frequently primitive looking, but not to be taken at face value. The layers of paint or collage are heavy with significance, as the information alongside them points out. Basquiat was an incredibly knowledgeable person, with far reaching interests. These are represented in the show, in the form of some of the books he read. Miles Davis and Pablo Picasso are amongst the gods he worshipped.
Often Basquiat would write just the first name of an important figure or personal idol on a picture. In an especially vivid, quirky photograph, he dons a baseball helmet with ‘Aaron’ emblazoned across it. This is thought to pertain to Hank Aaron, a heroic sportsman in the 1970s.
Basquiat was acutely aware of the prejudice in Hollywood during his lifetime. The piece ‘Hollywood Africans’ is a satire on the film industry. In the early 1980s, he starred in the picture Downtown 81, which wasn’t released until 2000, because of financial difficulties. Amusingly, part of the audio track was lost in that time, and Jean-Michel’s voice had to be dubbed by an actor.
Basquiat first gained recognition as a street artist. He and a friend, Al Diaz, spray painted poetic, sometimes political statements around downtown Manhattan, under the name SAMO©, while they were still in high school. Legends like ‘SAMO as an end to mindwash religion, nowhere politics and bogus philosophy,’ caught the attention of the art world and public at large.
Elsewhere on display, are pages from the artist’s extensive notepads. They feature short, experimental poems. Collections of words such as ‘really old shoes take trains with the minerals’ are more about evoking a feeling through verbal associations, than forming coherent verse. It’s a bit like Allen Ginsberg’s beat poetry.
There’s an activity sheet for kids, prompting them to do things like spot the number of crowns in the exhibition – a motif which appears time and again in Basquiat’s work.
Basquiat died tragically aged just 27, from a heroin overdose. He came out of left field to leave a permanent mark on the art world. His highly developed, niche aesthetic, opened doors on new vistas for future creative people to explore.