Born in New York in 1960 to a Haitian father and a Puerto Rican mother, Jean-Michel Basquiat began his career as a graffiti artist in the streets of Lower Manhattan. Within just a few years, his Neo-Expressionist paintings had made him the undisputed star of New York’s art scene. Tragically, his success was short-lived: he died of a drug overdose in 1988, at just 27 years old.
On 21 September, Basquiat’s first major UK retrospective, Basquiat: Boom for Real, opens at the Barbican Centre in London. Just weeks later, on 6 October, his 1982 painting Red Skull will be offered in the Post-War & Contemporary Art Evening Auction at Christie’s London.
Alastair Smart caught up with Dieter Buchhart, co-curator of the Barbican show, to discuss why Basquiat is the hottest artist at auction right now; why the upcoming retrospective is so long overdue; and to gain a better understanding of Basquiat’s complex relationship with Andy Warhol.
Can this really be Basquiat’s first major exhibition in the UK?
Dieter Buchhart: ‘Hard as it is to believe, yes. He had smaller shows while he was still alive, like the exhibit at Edinburgh’s Fruitmarket Gallery in 1984. There was another at the Serpentine Galleries in London in 1996 but this is his first proper retrospective.’
For such an important artist, why so long a wait?
DB: ‘It’s hard to say. For a while, perhaps there was a bit of London-New York rivalry, the art establishment in the former not wishing to lavish attention on someone from the latter. But in 2017, with the art world so international, there’s just no avoiding Basquiat.’
Jean-Michel Basquiat, Hollywood Africans, 1983. Courtesy Whitney Museum of American Art, New York. © The Estate of Jean-Michel Basquiat / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/ ADAGP, Paris. Licensed by Artestar, New York
What can visitors to the show expect?
DB: ‘More than 100 works charting the whole course of Basquiat’s career. We’ll start with a look at his background as a graffiti artist, his days marking the streets with the tag ‘SAMO ©’. Then we’ll recreate the first big show he was part of, 1981’s New York, New Wave at PS1 in Queens, New York, before looking at his numerous successes on the downtown art scene.’
Basquiat is famous for having lived his life at breakneck speed, from painting in Armani suits to dating Madonna. Your focus, however, appears to be squarely on his art.
DB: ‘Very much so. After his death, a whole mythology developed around Basquiat. Everyone knows his life story; his rapid rise and fall has become legendary. If anything, though, that delayed a serious appreciation of his genius as an artist. Thankfully, that has changed considerably in the last decade, as time passes and clear-eyed assessments can be made. Museums and institutions that were once a little reluctant to embrace Basquiat are now doing so.’
On the other hand, his standing among collectors — commercially, that is — has always been high...
DB: ‘He earned very well from art in his lifetime, that’s true. But I’m sure even he would have been surprised by the prices his work now commands [his 1982 painting, Untitled, realised $57.3 million at Christie’s last year]. He’s now in the very top division of artists at auction.’
Rammellzee vs. K-Rob, produced and with cover artwork by Jean-Michel Basquiat, ‘Beat Bop’ vinyl record, 1983. Courtesy Jennifer Von Holstein © The Estate of Jean-Michel Basquiat. Licensed by Artestar, New York. Photo: Justin Piperger
Will you be revealing a new side to Basquiat?
DB: ‘We’ll certainly be making much of his openness to different media. He was in an experimental band called Gray, for example. He starred in cult cable-television show, TV Party. His inclusion of fragments of text in his work reflects a love of poetry. He even produced a classic hip-hop single called Beat Bop [for Rammellzee and K-Rob].
‘This was an artist who took inspiration from all sides. People perhaps think of his work as having a raw, street aesthetic, but he drew on a truly encyclopaedic array of sources, from Leonardo da Vinci’s notebooks and bebop jazz to Alfred Hitchcock films and cornflakes packaging. It was his talent for adapting or “copy-pasting” elements of these for artistic use — before the notion of copy-pasting even existed — that makes him, I think, such a vital figure today. He was two or three decades ahead of his time.’
Is there anything about him that might surprise traditionalists?
DB: ‘Oh, absolutely. The sheer energy of his line is probably number one. There aren’t many artists whose line one recognises instantly, but Basquiat is among them. It was unique.’
Though self-taught, Basquiat developed a strong artistic bond with Andy Warhol. Was Warhol more than just a mentor?
DB: ‘He was. They first met when, as a teenager, Basquiat spotted Warhol through a restaurant window. He was a big fan, and jumped at the the chance to introduce himself. He ended up selling Warhol one of the punk-style postcards he was making at the time — for a dollar.
Jean-Michel Basquiat, Untitled, 1982. Courtesy Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen, Rotterdam © The Estate of Jean-Michel Basquiat. Licensed by Artestar, New York. Photo: Studio Tromp, Rotterdam
‘The pair would go on to become good friends. One of the works we’ve included in the Barbican exhibition is Dos Cabezas, Basquiat’s double portrait of himself and Warhol — an homage to his hero.
‘As to the question of artistic influence, it was mutual rather than one-sided. Yes, Warhol encouraged Basquiat to try silkscreening, but Basquiat in turn convinced Warhol to pick up a paintbrush for the first time since the 1960s. The pair actually made a successful series of art works together, in Warhol’s studio in 1984-85, examples of which will be on show at the Barbican.’
Which other works do you recommend visitors to particularly look out for?
DB: ‘I've always loved the charge running through Basquiat’s image of a boxer with his arms raised in triumph (1982’s Untitled ). It’s just masterly. Likewise his satire of how black people were treated in the entertainment industry, Hollywood Africans. Dos Cabezas, too. This list could go on and on — it’s probably best for people to come and decide for themselves. Basquiat won’t let them down.’
Basquiat: Boom for Real is at the Barbican in London from 21 September to 28 January 2018; barbican.org.uk