Basquiat: Boom for Real

Richard Hylton questions the myth of the graffiti artist who became an art star

By Richard Hylton

'Untitled' (1982), Acrylic and oil on linen. © The Estate of Jean-Michel Basquiat. Licensed by Artestar, New York. Courtesy Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen, Rotterdam. Photo: Studio Tromp, Rotterdam Jean-Michel Basquiat, 'Hollywood Africans' (1983), Acrylic and oil stick on canvas. © The Estate of Jean-Michel Basquiat. Licensed by Artestar, New York; Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York; ADAGP, Paris. Whitney Museum of American Art, New York. Gift of Douglas S. Cramer

Barbican Art Gallery, London, 21 September – 28 January

Presented as the first largescale exhibition of its kind in Britain, Boom for Real charts Jean-Michel Basquiat’s meteoric rise from aspiring graffiti artist in Manhattan to international artworld celebrity. The press release tells us that this exhibition, more than any other, ‘focuses on the artist’s relationship to music, writing, performance, film and television, placing him within the wider cultural context of the time’. Divided into 14 sections, this wider cultural context includes, among others, ‘New York/New Wave’, ‘SAMO©’, ‘Canal Zone’, ‘The Scene’, ‘Bebop and Art History’. Such categories function to authenticate Basquiat’s artistic significance and the exhibition’s curatorial premise. Over 100 artworks and an extensive range of archival material such as notebooks, audio and video recordings, interviews, artist correspondence and photographs detail the minutiae of a lucrative but ultimately shortlived career.

By compartmentalising the exhibition into thematic sections, the show’s narrative thrust identifies Basquiat’s processes of production, appropriation and visual interpretation. Paintings such as Jack Johnson (1982), Hollywood Africans (1983) and the totemic Tuxedo (1983) are testament to this, highlighting the artist’s ability for visual and cultural acuity. An array of collaborations, creative associations and influences from Andy Warhol and Fab 5 Freddy to Keith Haring and Charlie Parker further illustrate the wide-ranging scope of Basquiat’s creativity. Coupled with a portrait of a near bankrupted New York City, this seemingly compelling and revelatory narrative masks as much as it reveals. Is it really possible to evaluate Basquiat’s practice and legacy without reference to the coterie of dealers and collectors who played such an influential role in propelling him and his art to the status of immortalised commodity?

this seemingly compelling and revelatory narrative masks as much as it reveals

In Basquiat: A Quick Killing in Art from 1998, Phoebe Hoban notes that ‘Basquiat’s life spanned an [sic] historic shift in the art world, from Pop to Neo-Expressionism, from hip to hype’. Hoban’s observation alludes to an altogether more troubled narrative, laced with pecuniary ambition, self-interest and the commodification of art and artist. Predictably enough, Basquiat: Boom for Real renders the transformative role played by 1980s corporate America and the rise of the rapacious art dealer as peripheral to the narrative of a creative and enigmatic black genius. Entering the exhibition, we are confronted by an enormous black-and-white video projection of Basquiat dancing in his studio from 1985. Such an incidental, almost banal piece of archival footage sets the tone for the show. Basquiat is, quite literally, projected as a larger-than-life persona, an object of curiosity.

Blockbuster exhibitions are rarely the forum in which nefarious agendas, not to mention the spectre of racial politics, can be subjected to closer scrutiny. While the exhibition’s New York-centred narrative further gilds Basquiat’s legacy, it does little to elucidate and contextualise his unrivalled status among wider histories of African-American art from the time. Is SAMO©, the graffiti tag Basquiat developed alongside Al Diaz, a project really on a par with seminal New York street performances by African-American artists such as Adrian Piper (Catalysis, 1970) or David Hammons (Bliz-aard Ball Sale, 1983)? From this perspective and despite its forceful narrative, the exhibition raises more questions than it answers.

Since his death in 1988, Basquiat has received an interminable level of attention from across the international arts arena. Major retrospectives, copious publications, several films and, most significant of all, the ever-increasing, eye-watering sums of money paid for his art at auction. For galleries, collectors, critics, curators, auctioneers, publishers, dealers and family estate alike, Basquiat is the ‘gift’ that just keeps giving. As the latest blockbuster, Basquiat: Boom for Real will invariably ensure the artist’s stock will continue to pay dividends to all concerned. 

From the December 2017 issue of ArtReview