Saturday, 13 July 2019


Barbican, London, Thurs 11th July

I don’t believe the concept of plot spoilers applies to reviews, so let’s just say something upfront - this didn’t start well, but got a whole lot better. So you won’t have to listen to me grouch the whole way through, okay?

I’m not quite sure how the rule came to be that modern concerts must have a visual element. Maybe someone figured that without one, everyone would just check their phones the whole time. I don’t object to it in itself, good things have been done that way.

This NIGHT ups the ante by co-crediting the artist and describing the thing as “a multimedia performance”. And perhaps not by coincidence the visual elements just seemed intrusive and gimmicky. To the point it was less like something being added and more like something being taken away.

In the early part, they mostly consisted of live-filming then digitally mapping the players. (See the publicity shot, up top.) Which was so unlike the quite traditional acoustic music I figured that had to be the point. And indeed the publicity comments “We live in a data-driven world, but is it really possible to quantify human emotion? This concert puts that question under surveillance.”

It’s true that music, however lyrical or sublime it sounds, always reduces to maths. A ‘number’ is another name for a musical piece, after all. But this was too much like saying “pay more attention to the little man behind the curtain”. Which isn’t how that quote goes.

It seemed to me the music picked up about a third of the way in, but that could have been me getting better at tuning out the visuals. Two pieces perhaps represented the Quartet’s main strands. They went through the first movement of Steve Reich’s classic ’Different Trains’. (Which of course they premiered, way back when.) While I’ve seen it done live before, it’s always a pleasure to hear and for once the film was befitting.

Having made a reworked ’Purple Haze’ their calling card, they also served up another reworked rock number - the Who’s Baba O’Reilly’. (Though of course that was itself influenced by Terry Riley, lines of influence are rarely linear.) But more unusually they covered two actual songs - ’Summertime’ and ’Strange Fruit’ - while keeping the song structure mostly intact.

If I tell you one piece had the refrain “One Earth, one people, one love” you are probably already imagining how it sounded. Quite possibly while being sick into a bucket. Whereas it was actually a highlight. The refrain was intoned flatly by a computer-modulated voice, while the music was slow and sombre. The film, also thankfully befitting, emphasised the circularity of the Earth. So the refrain became less a feelgood New Age mantra, and more a plainly spoken fact around which we’ll one day have to rearrange our lives. (It later proved to be by Terry Riley and titled, inevitably enough, ‘One Earth, One People, One Love’.)

I left with the feeling this had been an entry-level programme, composed of movements or shorter pieces, and with less of the ‘difficult’ compositions some baulk at. Which is absolutely a good thing to do, from time to time. If there had never been boarding points, I wouldn’t be aboard now. But the last thing you should then do is set it to a distracting filmshow.

That Riley number (not live)…

Kings Place, London, Sun 7th July

Fellow punters leaning over and asking if I know much about this act, that’s not uncommon. The person at the bag desk asking the same question, that’s something new. And I had to admit to knowing nothing beyond what was in the programme: “NYX is a collaborative drone choir and otherworldly electric chorus, re-embodying live electronics and extended vocal techniques.” (And, come to think of it, I still don’t know what the acronym stands for.) The night turns out to be a sell-out, so it seems I wasn’t the only one to be intrigued.

The five women in the choir come onstage gradually, one by one, without any fanfare. The stage is all black save a few strip lights, with the singers equally in black. The titular electronics play a part, as do looped samples. But the voices do most of the work. When not singing they tend to fall stock still, as if meditating. It’s the most ritualistic concert I’ve seen since Stockhausen’s ‘Stimmung’.

It’s a reminder that the chanting voice remains one of the eeriest instruments there is, perhaps because it should by any rights sound familiar. Very near the start, one voice holds a tone, lets it fall and repeats. A second voice then breaks in just as it falls. And the effect isn’t to add a new element, so much as amend the first, like watching a line that suddenly goes into a third dimension. From there the voices are forever scattering and regrouping, your ear effectively one step behind.

There’s something spectrally ungraspable about it all, like an audial version of a mirage. Partly because the whole is always more than the sum of its parts, so always seeming to stem from elsewhere.

And they seem to work that. At one point they build to a full-throated screamathon, but just as they reach boiling point they breaks into something else. The way a movie will suddenly cut from a horror scene.

But this was a gig full of unexpected twists. And while the above description holds overall, there were also for example harmonies launched into worthy of any girl band. And they climaxed with a rousing mantra chant, which stayed revolving round your brain long after the night had finished, and you were on your train home.

Not only not the right gig, but a collaboration with singer Hatis Noit so sounds quite different, but gives you some idea. This is closer, but longer.

Saturday, 6 July 2019


Tate Modern, London

“When we love a woman we don’t start measuring her limbs, we love with our desires.”
- Picasso

Ego Trumps Id

Devoting a prominent ten-room exhibition to one year of an artist’s career, hung more-or-less chronologically - that might seem to be overplaying the genius card. Even when your subject’s Pablo Picasso. Taken literally, it would suggest we could have seventy-three such exhibitions, one for each of his productive years.

But the show’s argument is that 1932 was key. That June, aged fifty, he received a prestigious major retrospective in Paris. And, rather than feel flattered he seems to have taken the occasion as an existential threat. He insisted on curating the show himself, proclaiming in advance he intended to do it “badly”, refused for it to be hung chronologically and then for any dates to be provided, capping it all by refusing to attend the opening.

Retrospectives were then rarely given for living artists, and it seems to have suggested to him he no longer was one. To him it was more millstone than milestone. As the show puts it: “By 1932… Picasso increasingly experienced the trappings of success as a gilded cage. He missed his artist friends of old. He wanted to be closer to the discussions around contemporary art, not least the storm that was Surrealism.”Bob Dylan once said “An artist has gotta be careful never really to arrive at a place where he thinks he's at somewhere. You always have to realize that you're constantly in a state of becoming.” I suspect Picasso would have agreed.

All of which raises the question - if the artist himself felt that way, that his best years were behind him, shouldn’t we take him at his word?

Take Surrealism. It’s true the Surrealists at first embraced him, devoting to him most of the first issue of their magazine ‘Minotaur’. Both he and they were not just interested in primitivism, but tended to treat it as the key to art. And he painted on impulse, getting out of his own way as much as he possibly could, impatient of requests to explain himself. He was a compulsive artist, someone who paints because he can’t not paint.He’s quoted in this show as saying “it’s strange how little the artist’s will matters.”

Which this might look from the outside like the Surrealist surrender to unconscious forces. But it isn’t. The mediumistic aspect of Surrealism is entirely absent. To them art was a tool, a way of getting at something. Which, when it arrived, should be as much a surprise to the artist as anyone else. While Picasso wasn’t about id but ego, specifically his ego. As he said: “A painter paints to unload himself of feelings and visions.”

His liaison with the Surrealists was more marriage of mutual convenience than meeting of minds. An emerging art movement got themselves a star player, while he got to look contemporary all over again. He never formally joined the group notorious for Stalinist levels of party discipline, insistent table-thumping manifestos and high-profile excommunications. On a wall quote he claims his concept of Surrealism was always different to everyone else’s, which is just a more self-important way of saying the same thing.

And yet despite all this his supposed ‘Surrealist’ era is probably my personal favourite of his many periods, and the Marie-Therese pictures are among my favourites of that era. Speaking of who...

The Object Desired

Norman Mailer’s theory of Picasso was that his art wasn’t advanced by broad social, cultural and scientific changes. Art critics like to throw that bigger stuff in because it makes them seem learned, that’s all. Really, it was his love life. He had endless styles simply because he had endless affairs, and he’d boldly launch a whole new look to his work to best flatter his latest crush. This theory goes unmentioned by this show, yet is proven on every wall.

And by 1932, though still married to Olga Khokhlova, he’d already embarked on an illicit affair with Marie-Therese Walter. Picasso never painted from life, but invented a set of motifs to represent figures. (Enhanced by the necessity, at this point, of hiding his affair from Olga.) To the point that its oddly jarring to see actual photos of her, the real person outside of Picasso’s depiction.

The most famous portrait of her, which inevitably makes it onto the poster, is ’The Dream’ (above), apparently on show in the UK for the first time. Typically she’s made up of sweeping contours captured in elegant curves, with a deliberately limited range of bright bold colours. The environment behind her is often similar, as if her personality’s projecting onto her world. There’s a great warmth and softness to these images. She’s made to look innocent, an Alice abroad, her eyes never scrutinising but either absorbingly open or (as here) dreamingly closed. 

She looks so childlike partly because of the childlike nature of the painting. Picasso’s often thought of as bawdy and unashamedly eroticised, yet here she seems as much child crush as sex object. We should remember that, while the actual Marie-Therese famously met Picasso when seventeen, by this point she’s twenty-two. Less than half his age, but scarcely a child. While some of her descriptions (“I was smothered with love and kisses and jealousy and admiration”) make it sound more like his first affair than hers.

With ‘Reading’ (above) there’s more modelling in the figure, and the background looks more like pictorial space. (Unusually it’s made up of angles rather than curves, including a somewhat unexplained frame to the left.) Yet the figure is more distorted, not to mention bright purple. But perhaps most notable is that despite these differences her head is in two halves in both.

And this split face is another recurring motif. Here, despite what was said above, is one point we do have something genuinely Surrealist. In Surrealism muses were held to occupy a liminal space, which the double face might be seen to represent. Note that ‘The Dream’ also has a split background, which includes a curtain being half-pulled back. And gives her arms, and even different parts of her necklace, different colours.

If Surrealism was the desire to break the divide between conscious and unconscious, to see them less as opposites than halves of the same whole, muses were the guides who helped you cross that barrier. And women made muses precisely because they were half-outside society, because they were considered to be more akin to children than men.

‘Girl Before A Mirror’ (above) again plays upon a double image. The mirror’s not obvious, the reflection symbolic rather than actual, the figure not even looking into it. Here the mirror seems to represent not self-awareness so much as another self, rearing up at us.

‘The Sculptor’ (one of the few 1931 works sneaked in) shows Picasso as a sculptor and Marie-Therese as a bust, blurring the line between muse and product. The other two works in the background, the sculpture and hung painting, look to also be of her. If Marie- Therese is an Alice, Picasso’s a combination of luring White Rabbit and Mad Hatter, but mostly Red Queen. Around here, even the way she looks belongs to him. (Though note how he now has her split face and Roman nose.)

Yet simultaneously to all this evoked innocence, if we look back to ’The Dream’ she’s depicted with one breast bared. Which is quite common, though they’re often (as in ’Reading’) represented only by concentric circles. While the upper part of her turned head resembles a penis. (A dirty in-joke I think I’m actually glad I had to have pointed out to me.) In other works she’s not just naked, but has this foregrounded in the title, such as ‘Nude Woman in a Red Armchair’.

‘Yellow Belt’ is one of the simplest and boldest works, yet also one of the most crudely sexualised. This time even I didn’t miss the phallic nose, nor the red slit for the mouth. (Which is then echoed in the back rest of the chair.) If anything, it’s too crude to pass as a piece of toilet wall graffiti.

Body as Landscape

Focusing in on one year like this, you get to see just how fixated Picasso was. Things recur again and again and then again, in sometimes quite slight variations. Yet he wasn’t known for being short of imagination. Why should this be?

Years ago, as the most amateur cartoonist in world history, I’d find myself frequently draw the same things repeatedly. It was out of sheer necessity. I was hoping to hit on what I wanted, a paw-handed monkey hoping to score a visual Shakespeare. But Picasso… I am going to argue that he wasn’t the same sort of artist as me.

We shouldn’t see these myriad variations of a theme as a way of working out, of trials intended to arrive at a finalised version, sketchbook doodles he inexplicably painted up full scale. We should see them more as a way of getting out, of exorcising something. His head was packed with obsessions, which he could only deal with by painting them.

Nevertheless, if there isn’t a progression there are phases. Over the months elements morph, or shift in and out.

Traditionally, tall paintings are described as Portrait, and long as Landscape – after the genre they were most used for. Picasso starts with Marie-Therese in portrait, as shown above. But he soon comes to paint her recumbent figure as a landscape. And not merely in landscape format, he effectively paints her as if she was a landscape. She becomes, in the words of Mark Hudson at the Telegraph, “a slumped mass of prone flesh”. The attention shifts quite decidedly from her face to her body, which has the effect of further sexualising her. There’s paintings where her head’s a bust, as in ’The Sculptor’, as if detached altogether.

The still-nearly-square ’Nude in a Black Armchair’ (above) can be seen as transitional. The cheeseplant, placed here as if sprouting from her, becomes another recurrent motif. Timothy Hilton’s description, “the paintings overflow with a sense of fecundity, felt in the girl herself and all that surrounds her”, (‘Picasso’, Thames & Hudson) kicks in about now.

...then look how far he takes it with ’Reclining Nude’ (above). It’s still recognisably Marie-Therese. The curved arms and disc-like breasts are in a continuity with the works above. But what of the strange flipper shapes in her lower half? The disappearance of hands? The cold slab and complete loss of the cosy domestic interior?

The show comes up with a few possible influences for this, but if you were already thinking ‘tentacle porn’ - top marks! Picasso’s known to have taken to Shunga, Japanese erotic art. And while there are definite similarities, such as the sexually charged use of nature in garden or indoor settings, it might be more illuminating to look at the differences.

Shunga’s adoption of tentacles dates back at least to Hokusai’s 1814 ‘Dream of the Fisherman’s Wife’. Yet, even as that artwork’s (literally) monstrous there’s still something sensuous about it. There’s an accompanying text conveying how much the Fisherman’s wife is getting off on things, so perhaps we can only shrug, say “consenting adults” and not concern ourselves with how she’s going to introduce that squid to her parents. Part of the fantasy is of course more appendages equals more fun. But another part is that sex enables us to become beasts again, to slip out of that pesky human consciousness for a bit.

But there’s a difference. As I once said over Shunga: “With those elegant, endlessly overlapping contours it’s often hard to tell one set of limbs from another – a neat visual analogy for the loss of self that comes with sexual release. The couples look like they’ve become single creatures, multitudinous and self-pleasuring.”

Whereas Picasso’s depictions of flesh lean much more to the monstrous.If there’s someone who finds ’Reclining Nude’ sexy, I can only hope I never run in to them. Unlike the copulating couples found in Oriental art Picasso is rarely himself represented, and if he is (as seen) it’s as the artist. Which only adds to the sense that what we’re seeing is his desire, his fetishistic gaze. The association of sex with horror is never too far away. To misquote Heisenberg, the act of desiring changes the object which is desired. In fact, its the desiring look which makes theobject of desire becomes monstrous, as if it’s been saturated by some kind of transforming ray.

...and, as if that wasn’t enough, there’s one more mutation to come.

Repeat a phrase too many times and you wear out its meaning, it degrades into anunintelligible set of sounds. Similarly, draw something over and again and it becomes codified, at a greater remove from what it ostensibly represents. Picasso may have been painting Marie-Therese out of sexual obsession, but this still happens. So he uses it to his advantage. The elements he’s used to signify her become discombobulated, a set of parts gathered together like loose stones.’Woman in a Red Armchair’ sounds like an alternative title for ’The Dream’, whereas it actually looks like this…

It assaults and breaks down its subject as much as his Cubist era, though in quite a different way. It’s not our view but the object itself which is broken up. Yet the pieces are modelled and textured, so in themselves look more ‘real’ than most of the portraits. Perhaps without him intending it suggests an absence at the core of things, that beneath the motifs he’s been using to fetishise Marie-Therese the real person is absent. Object of desire degrades intojust plain object. Or, as sounds more likely, she was in front of him the whole time but Picasso never really saw her.

Dagger Glares

And where, you may be asking, was Picasso’s wife in all of this?

This was how he painted Olga in ‘Portrait of Olga Picasso’ in 1923, less than a decade earlier - elegant, poised and confident. Now compare that to his mildly different view of her in ‘Woman With Daggar’
, below.(There’s also ten portraits of her in a timeline here.)

Full of shapeless protuberances stretching in every direction, this Olga seems more malevolent spirit than flesh-and-blood person. She’s like a dark cloud intensifying the claustrophobia of the room, her extended devouring mouth poised over the much smaller head of the white figure. The dagger seems to pin down, hold in place, as much as it causes blood to pour. This savage work was painted, of all times, on Christmas Day 1931, perhaps after it was suggested Picasso might want to spend such a day with his wife and child. We should also note how the title has switched from ‘girl’ to ‘woman’.

While the extremely unrestive ’Rest’ (above) takes the setting Marie-Therese occupied in ’The Dream’, only to place in it a contorted figure in it who looks a whole lot more like the Olga of ’Woman With Daggar’. The figure’s angled the other way, facing stage left, enhancing the sense of them as opposites. The warm, solid colours are repeated but made paler, more diffuse, possibly even smeary. And the room’s become claustrophobic and windowless, even the wallpaper pattern distorted.

And what do we make of ’Sleeping Woman By a Mirror’?Compositionally it’s almost a complete echo of ’The Dream’, even down the section missing from the head. But it’s not just bolder and starker, the face is actively violent – an act which seems almost all the artist’s? It seems built around the distinction between an artistic blurring of the features and an actual bruising of the face. 'Sleeping' seems a bit of a euphemism  for it’s reminiscent of the way “rub you out” is slang for murder. Yet the features are preserved perfectly in the mirror. (Which also proves this is Marie-Therese, not Olga.) It seems even within an image of her, we’re being told the image of her is the ‘true’ thing.

The Year Draws In

The show goes on to say: “If love had been the guiding star of Picasso’s life and art in the early part of 1932, and fame its crowning summer glory, by the end of 1932 the signs of tragedy were writ large.”

Marie-Therese grew seriously ill, from a virus she picked up while swimming. Something in Picasso’s brain associated this with (in the show’s words) “the threat of drowning and the possibility of rescue”, perhaps simply because they were simpler to depict in art.

’The Rescue’ (above) finds three figures in the rescue scene, then makes all of them Marie-Therese. There’s quite a stress on the two-dimensionality of the image, the background (bar a few flowers) a wall of green and the waterline conveyed by… well, a line. Also, while one figure is safely on land and looks to be pulling up another, in the lower right her foot is going back in the water, and seems to be mixing with the hair of the third figure. The scene looks urgent, but rather than depict the moment of rescue it’s showing something cyclic – as if we all go under the water repeatedly, and have to haul ourselves out.

A sequel, also called The Rescue’, (above, not painted till January ‘33), takes the same setting. The figures are reduced to two, but also fused into one, further enhancing the notion this is some kind of internal struggle.

And the dangling head in both versions is clearly echoed in the not-cheerily-titled drypoint ’The Rape’, where rescuing hands become the grabbing grip of the rapist. Perhaps we should try to look for some symbolic value for that figure. But we’d just come back to seeing it as Picasso. And perhaps worse, it not only resembles ’The Rescue’ but comes on the back of the notion our lives are beset by perennial problems, against which we can only constantly struggle.

The show tries to tie all this in with “the political and economic situation in Europe”, but inevitably fails. Mussolini was dictator of Italy, but had been for a decade. Hitler became Chancellor, but the start of the following year. In Spain, an early military coup against the Republic was defeated. Picasso was in many ways the Dylan of Modernism. Everyone really, really wants to imagine he was strongly influenced by politics. But he really, really wasn’t. Instead he lived in a hermetic, aestheticised world, where anything that permeated that world soon got absorbed into it. ‘Guernica’, not painted for another five years, was his ‘Masters of War’. An exception to the rule.

The Misogynist Mind

The alert reader may have noticed my first praising these paintings, even saying they’re some of my favourites of Picasso’s, then pointing out their rampant misogyny. Sometimes you need to hold in abeyance the sordid details of an artist’s biography in order to appreciate their art. Bob Dylan’s love songs might still move us, even though we know he often behaved like a jerk to women in real life. No such separation of duties is possible here. Picasso’s whole self goes into his art, for both good and bad. The misogyny’s in the very marrow of his work, the highly masculine virility turned into the creative urge, then disgorged onto the canvas. Picasso the misogynist is Picasso the artist. There’s no getting around this, and we shouldn’t even try.

I once said of Gauguin that “Gauguin, to Gauguin, is a multiplicity, while all women are One…. each individual woman is only there to represent Woman.” Though he was continually changing the style with which he‘d represent Woman, Picasso only really varies from this to decide that all women are Two. Who, not unsurprisingly, are those currently giving him what he wants and those who aren’t.

Women are contrapuntally split between providers/enablers and thwarters. Though Olga’s normally considered to be stabbing Marie-Therese rather than Picasso himself, she’s still in effect the castrating bitch to Marie-Therese’s love object. Yet if they’re constructed as opposites what’s more significant is what they have in common. Neither is a person in her own right, everything about both of them is to do with the role they play in a man’s world. They’re not portraits of two women but of Picasso’s own obsessions, in the path of which two women happened to wonder.

Picasso was a Bluebeard, effectively capturing women like prize treasures. Grand-daughter Marina said of him: “He submitted them to his animal sexuality, tamed them, bewitched them, ingested them, and crushed them onto his canvas. After he had spent many nights extracting their essence, once they were bled dry, he would dispose of them.”

It would be tempting to argue that the problems are so pronounced they become benefits, that they’re so good artworks in the sense of expressing what they mean that they provide an x-ray into the misogynist mind. Like the Police do with suspects, shouldn’t we take wrong ‘uns and try to flip them into useful informers? As I said once of de Kooning, his works are “interestingly misogynistic, they offer insight into the misogynistic mind.”

But I want to believe that so much I can’t help but become sceptical of it. The obviousness of the images come back here. They fit so neatly into feminist theory that they even start to feel slightly unreal. You could drop these images at random into a feminist primer, and they’d fit so neatly. Yet if they illustrate the basics, do they take us any further? Was Picasso, however great an artist, merely commonplace as a misogynist? Is it like looking at a thousand coughs and sneezes, then trying to convince yourself you now have a cure for the common cold? I would, I promise, tell you the answer to that if I knew it.

Saturday, 29 June 2019


It's been a while since we last had a playlist round these parts...

Things start off deceptively calm with the spectral folk of Charalambides, but those dark undercurrents start to cohere with Current 93 and become full-on sinister by the time we reach the Residents. Passing the scenic expanses of Roxy Muisc’s first and David Bowie’s last album, we hit the spiky peaks of mclusky, Fucked Up and the Ex. Before finishing with an uproarious and uplifting burst of Stiff Little Fingers. The title and image come from a Basquiat painting.

John Cale: Over Her Head
Charalambides: Dormant Love
Current 93: A Thousand Witches
The Residents: The Scarecrow
Pixies: Hey
The Smiths: These Things Take Time
Aaron Neville: Hercules
David Bowie: 'Tis A Pity She Was A Whore
Roxy Music: If There Is Something
Robyn Hitchcock: If You Knew Time
mclusky: You Should Be Ashamed, Seamus
Fucked Up: Det
The Ex: Maybe I Was The Pilot
Stiff Little Fingers: Silver Lining

”I have satellite maps for near destinations
”So why take a risk when you can take a vacation?”

Saturday, 22 June 2019


Pallant House Gallery, Chichester

”Drawing [is] the representation of form. Not the representation of appearance of form.”
- Bomberg

The Bright Young Thing

Now attending three exhibitions devoted to one, perhaps not particularly well-known, artist might seem like overdoing it. But after the Tate’s look at Bomberg’s iconoclastic early years as part of their Vorticist retrospective, and the Towners’ focus on his lesser-known later landscapes, this more chronological hang gives a clearer idea of his development. And its the first career-spanning retrospective for a decade, to mark the Sixtieth anniversary of his death. And besides, it’s time this boy was better known.

Speaking of which… though the show is keen to stress how neglected he’s been, it’s probably truer to say he became an art equivalent of a one-hit wonder. The bold Vorticist works, a dynamic combination of Cubism and Futurism into what he called Pure Form, are seen as a very brief flowering of British Modernism. A heady and exciting time, sure, but the First World War soon came along to knock the sense back into us. In fact those works became a burden to his later career. No-one, least of all him, wanted him to carry on in the same way. But when he didn’t, when he broke from that style, no-one wanted to know.

So the temptation now is to downplay them, as if their brilliance (in both senses) still risks outshining what follows. The classic ’Ju-Jitsu’ (c. 1913), owned by the Tate, is here represented only by a charcoal study (both above). The study reveals the figures in actual pictorial space beneath those dizzying Cubist shards of colour, which may be akin to revealing a magic trick.

Perhaps more important is the way the sketch is ‘squared up’, (the commonly used phrase, even though it incorporates diagonals), standard practice for transposing sketches onto larger canvas. Except Bomberg then incorporates these lines into the finished painting. In the middle left, for example, he doesn’t distinguish between the horizontal grid and a diagonal originally drawn to be part of the room. He then fills in between them with solid colour, like a child with a colouring-in book.

Maurice Denis had said, back in 1890, “a picture, before being a battle horse, a female nude or some sort of anecdote, is essentially a flat surface covered with colours assembled in a certain order”, a back-to-basics stance which is at the root of a great deal of Modernism. Why should art be about maintaining illusions, going to lengths to conceal that obvious truth as if were some awkward secret? Anyway, what was the point of art which was merely imitative of things which already existed? Why couldn’t art be about the things it was made of?

All of which might now seem a classic case of art-for-art’s-sake, a fixation with subjects which could only interest artists. But at the time it was often seen as the reverse. Like Brechtian theatre, art which was undisguised as art was more obviously encountering the world. It’s aim was not to seduce and reassure but to challenge and stimulate. Brecht’s own credo was “art is not a mirror held up to reality but a hammer with which to shape it.” Bomberg was, at last at this point, definitely painting hammers.

Form Becomes Bars

At the same time, with hindsight to magnify, the downside of all this seems clear. Given the subject matter, the charcoal drawing ‘Family Bereavement’ (1913) should be a human work. Yet it’s style makes it the very opposite, particularly with the lead figure sporting a triangle for a head. It looks disquieting, but perhaps more absurd. (Is there an old comic with a cover like this? ”Help, me, Superman, we’re all being turned into geometry and my head’s now a triangle!” “I can’t, Jimmy. I’m a rhomboid myself!” I suppose there must be.)

And compare ‘At the Window’ to the early ‘Woman Looking Through The Window’ (c. 1911). The older work (above) looks influenced by Walter Sickert, with whom Bomberg studied. There’s the cluttered confines of an interior, with it’s complex array of mirrors and apertures. In a very Sickert gesture the figure is turned away from us, as if trying to escape the picture they’re in. It’s a dark palette, almost all shades of brown.

After the Great War Bomberg often returned to his East End subjects, and with ’At The Window’ (1919, above) he echoes the earlier composition. But in so doing he condenses it, simplifies, reducing the elaborate wrought iron of the bedstead to a simple angle. The tightening of focus leaves a work dominated by downward strokes, of which the figure seems to become a part. But perhaps most significant of all is the almost complete elimination of the view. (Perhaps the suggestion of a chimney pot remains above the figure’s head.) Even the shadow the outside cast is now gone.

This continues in ‘Ghetto Theatre’ (1920, above.) Now there’s not even a window, opaque or otherwise. Instead there’s regressive levels of figures, like something out of Dante. The safety rails seem less guards than bars on pens, holding people in place. It’s more ghetto than theatre. In both works the bright, Modernist colours of ’Ju-Jitsu’ have been replaced by ruddy reds, sombre browns and greys.

Compare this to another work made by a fellow Vorticist the same year, William Robert’s ‘The Cinema’. Roberts is, as I put it, “celebrating the crowd, its carefree, good-natured unruliness, its true nature lying unabated beneath those bureaucratic rules and regulations.”The twocould scarcely be any more unlike. (And significantly Roberts never entirely abandoned pure form.)

At the Arts Desk, Katherine Walters finds in this “an apt metaphor for his experience of the war”. Which tends to be the general view, that this style was tied to the rise of the machine. “The integration of the parts in the mass” was another of Bomberg’s favoured phrases, and he designed his works almost the same way an engineer would a machine – fitting together a sum of components. And this love of the machine was one of many things which could not survive the Great War. Certainly, that’s what I went for last time.

The show, however, suggests a different interpretation - it was the War Office reneging on their commission for the memorial work ‘The Sappers’, calling it a “Futurist abortion”, turned him against Pure Form, rather than the War itself. (A modified version was duly completed in 1919.)

But what if the reasons were more formal, less historical, than even that? What if it was not war but Pure Form itself that became those bars? New art styles often first offer liberation, only to ossify into another orthodoxy as time goes on. Which raises the question – how pure can pure form go? In the explosive burst of ‘Ju-Jitsu’, it seemed to be throwing things open. But soon it was closing in, trapping its subjects. With their tight focus they’re claustrophobic works, with simply no space in them. And if Bomberg is now imprisoned within his own much-trumpeted style, why not paint that? Perhaps the horrors of the First World War merely accelerated an inevitable process.

”The Spirit in the Mass”

From 1923 to 1927 Bomberg painted landscapes in Palestine. This being his most conventional era, and covered previously, there seems little extra to say here. But let’s take two works, ’Jerusalem, City and Mount of Ascension’ (1925) and ‘The Broken Aqueduct, Wadi Kedt, Near Jericho’ (1926). ’Jerusalem (above) is quite a typical work from the time. A landscape from an elevated perspective, it’s chief feature is its evocation of the radiant desert light – where everything appears luminous and almost insubstantial.

Whereas ’The Broken Aqueduct’ (above), though painted only a year later, is much more solid and looks forward to his post-Palestine era. The foreground in ’Jerusalem’ looks to be passing beneath you, as if it’s been painted from floating in the air. Whereas the foreground in ’Broken Aqueduct’ comes out at you, as though those rocks are within reaching distance.

Moreover, while ’Jerusalem’ almost shimmers smoothly, the paintwork here is much rougher. And in fact it’s at it’s roughest, composed of bold and undisguised strokes, in the foreground – at the same time the foreground is given more significance. It seems reminiscent of the way ancient art used ochre (ie earth) as paint. Romantics were always depicting ruins, and while they didn’t reduce them to a single theme they commonly stood for human hubris yielding to an ever-patient nature. That man-made aqueduct might once have dominated the landscape, but now is inevitably morphing back into it. It’s almost the opposite of ’Family Bereavement’, where geometric shape gives way to volatile formlessness.

While ‘Cathedral, Toledo – Evening’ (1929, above), painted after Bomberg was back in Europe, is another city view like ‘Jerusalem’. But, as with ‘Broken Aqueduct’, the nearby roofs do not fall away below our vision but jut out at us. The wall running the right side of the frame further emphasises this. The paint is as roughly applied as ‘Broken Aqueduct’, but given the city scene the effect is stronger. ‘Jerusalem’ is painted as a set of separate buildings alongside one another, here the town feels more an organism - like an outgrowth of the Cathedral.

‘The Gorge, Ronda, Spain’ (1935, above) is like a sequel to ’The Broken Aqueduct’, one where the aqueduct is at a much greater distance, inhabiting only the uppermost part of the painting, a painting mostly given over to a riot of coloured brushstrokes. His wife has said that at this time he produced paintings “very quickly, one after another”, sometimes without preparatory sketching.

In this era Bomberg is depicting nature is not a fixed view to be passively contemplated, but a powerful force, a perspective he called “the spirit in the mass”. A later pupil, Dennis Creffield, recounted his own definition of this phrase: “living vibrant being found in all nature, not simply the sheer brute physicality of the object.” So a natural subject for him was seascapes. In ’Cyprus’ (1948, above) he doesn’t show land and sea as opposites so much as in a relationship which will always be shifting and indistinct.

Though another work arguably goes still further down this route. In’The Virgin of Peace in Procession Through the Streets Of Ronda, Holy Week’ (1935, above) Bomberg painted the procession from a balcony, eschewing artificial light to work only “from the flickering lights of the processional torches”. You can make out the crests and sides of buildings, but the figures become a blur. In one way it’s very much a verite work, strictly adhering to the rule the artist must paint what he sees. Yet it’s also a sort of return to ’Ju-Jitsu’, taking an original scene and abstracting from it, even as the effect’s almost the opposite to it’s sharp geometry.

The Mysterious Self

In 1935, the Spanish Civil War forced Bomberg to return to London. At which point, in the show’s words, “he largely turned inwards, producing a masterful series of searching self-portraits”. Which raises an interesting paradox - just as he turns to portraits, and often to self-portraits, he becomes more mystical.

‘Soliloquy: Noonday Sun’ (1954, above) was painted post-war, when he could return to Spain. Though the model was a neighbour of just thirty, in Bomberg’s hands she seems to become an aged if not timeless figure. The composition is dominates by burnt oranges and browns, shades she shares with the background, as if dissolving into it. A soliloquy is of course the dramatic device which allows a character to speak their thoughts aloud, which seems a somewhat ironic title for so mysterious a work. A visitor to a country, however regular, might well see it’s people as inscrutable in this way.

Yet it’s scarcely dissimilar to his own self-portrait the same year (above). Both figures are painted as if barely graspable, bodies covered in formless robes or shawls, faces which may or may not be masks.

In the Telegraph, Mark Hudson related the works to Judaism: “he appears to be aiming for a kind of aesthetic reconciliation with his Jewish faith in these vaporous, often only partly realised images.”

However Bomberg’s interest doesn’t seem to be in illuminating, revealing esoteric truths, so much as shadowing, painting the distance between the viewer and the figure. Even when that figure is himself. It’s reminiscent of what David Tibet said of his own mystic/autobiographic music: “All I know about is myself, and I don’t even know very much about that”.

Then again, Hudson’s view would seem to be the show’s intent. It relocates Bomberg from the Vorticists to the Whitechapel Boys (the Gallery magazine mentioning the V-word only to point out he was never formally aligned with it) largely in order to establish him as a Jewish artist. As mentioned after the Tate’s Vorticism retrospective, their self-elected head Wyndham Lewis was not only an anti-Semite but an avid Hitler fan. (Though of course it’s quite likely the useful idiot proved a decoy for ‘mainstream’ racism, a distraction from the less flamboyant but much more institutionalised anti-Semitism which then plagued British society.)

Which raises two associated questions - how much did anti-Semitism play in the critical neglect of Bomberg, and how much did he identify as Jewish? There seems some evidence that, from a poor background, Bomberg was originally a leftist. (Though a dalliance with the official Communist party was brief, following a disillusioning visit to Russia in 1933.)As said of ‘Mud Bath’,though it’s origin was Jewish bath-houses in the East End, the work was “universalised, sanded smooth of any localising signifiers, part of a movement which saw itself as internationalist.”

But perhaps those questions are linked. Certainly they overlap chronologically, when he was being most overlooked his Jewishness became more avowed. Perhaps in response to being sidelinedhebecame, to paraphrase NWA, Jewish With Attitude - self-identifingnot despite anti-Semitism but precisely in response to it. Works start to take on Judaistic titles such as ’Talmudist’ (1935), while herequested a Jewish funeral. Yet all this suggests he was not relating to a Jewish community so much as Judaism. If anything, it made him more of a loner. Lack of popular success made him mystical, as if turning his back on earthly things.

People are wont to say there were no significant British Modernists. Yet we had David Bomberg, and this is how we treated him... He tried to become an official War Artist, to be rejected. He offered works to the Tate, again to be rejected. He tried to take up teaching roles, but only found one with the unprestigious Borough Polytechnic. (However, though they gained no formal qualification, he was highly regarded by pupils who included Frank Auerbach and Leon Kossoff and so he influenced the School of London group. More of which another time.)

But now with a second show devoted solely to him, perhaps things are finally changing. The curators states “despite scandalous critical neglect within his own lifetime, Bomberg is now recognised as one of the Twentieth Century’s leading British artists.” We can only hope they’re right.

Saturday, 1 June 2019


Black Rock, Brighton, Fri 24th May
Part of the Brighton Festival

Teatre Biuro Podrozy (aka Travel Agency Theatre) is an alternative theatre company, operating from Poland since 1988. The publicity reminded me of those Nineties-era performance outfits that came out of squat culture, such as the Mutoid Waste Company or the Dogs of Heaven, some hallucinogenic blend of Hieronymus Bosch and Mad Max set in a post-apocalyptic wasteland.

Yet squat culture was essentially extinguished by Britain, by the simple if brutal expedient of extinguishing squatting. But the Mutoids themselves left the UK for less oppressive climes, so perhaps all that survived elsewhere…

This outdoor performance was described by the progamme as concerning “the continuing story of refugees and migrants caught up in a spiral of war and the dream of escape”. They specified this was in relation to the Middle East, but I was soon wondering whether that was being filtered through a Polish experience of history, a country in Sylvia Plath’s phrase “scraped flat by the roller of wars, wars, wars”.

The fiery wheel from the publicity image soon appears and becomes a defining metaphor for what followed, as settlers were plagued by successive waves of marauders. The first batch (seen in the illo) look Medievalist, but are soon replaced by a more modern army - as if we’re watching history on fast forward. While the settlers inhabit the stage the marauders often raise themselves off the ground, through stilts or wheels.

The performance well employs the physicality of the theatre. We’re well used to upsetting images shown via a screen, to the point they don’t upset us any more. Whereas you have quite a different reaction when the smell of real fire reaches your nostrils.

But the circularity of the fiery wheel, while driving force, also become a confine. It’s a short show, less than an hour. But to escape repetition each iteration has to add new props. Which at times make it one of those theatre shows where everything is doubtless symbolic of something or other. (Those metal poles, presented by the marauders as if a gift? Not a bleedin’ clue, mate.) Not performed with direct sound, the show had to be highly choreographed, which might well have added to this ritualised sense.

But there was an effective ending, largely through presenting so seemingly prosaic an image. The settlers, presumably realising their only choice has become to flee, made paper boats. A Council worker in high-vis then ambled on to hose the stage down. It’s an open note to end on. Was this the boats finding a tide so they might set sail, or just being washed away like street litter? Something no refugee can know before they start their journey.

It has not, to be honest, been a great Brighton Festival. I found there was less I wanted to see than normal, and from my admittedly limited perspective general attendance seemed down. It’s not that stuff was bad, so much as promising but with promises that were continually not fully fulfilled, the cumulative effect of which is frustrating.

Patterns, Brighton, Sat 25th May

Gnod are a band I’ve meant to catch live long before now. But somehow events have conspired against me, and things got to their thirteenth year before it happened.

The gig starts with the double drummers predominant, pounding a circular motif around which the rest of the band arrange themselves, almost like the Butthole Surfers. But the combined force of three… yes, three guitars soon kicks in in earnest. Gnod are, it would be quite hard to miss, a heavy riffing band. Their riffs are powerful and yet unpropulsive. They effectively hang in the air. They’re not just heavy, they’re dark and viscous. Tracks don’t progress so much as thicken.

There are vocal sections, but they don’t really seem the point of the exercise. The music itself does the talking. The set runs all the tracks together, joining them by patches of feedback, which adds to the overpowering sense. The set seems a single thing, a black monolith.

Though at times they lay on repetition to insanity and beyond, just like Sabbath back in the day they’re able to throw in unexpected changes. Guitars gang up in the onslaught but can turn against one another, less counterpoint than counter-forces in grinding tectonic plates of sound. It feels entirely unpredictable at the same time it feels unescapable.

Getting all carried away in the heady atmosphere, I came to see the set as like falling into the power of underworld demons, being smashed into pieces then reassembled in a different order. And, reading a few online reviews, I don’t seem the only one to go in for such fancy talk.

They have a (kind of) religious name. But perhaps more importantly like Swans, who they to some degree resemble, their music isn’t just powerful but overpowering, essentially oppressive. Yet, like Swans, people often talk of it in quite spiritual terms. It’s like the act of surrendering to its onslaught is in itself quite blissfull, as you trust it to take you where you need to be.

Nigh-on thirty minutes of earshred from London the following night…

Then after something that could scarcely be any more of a Saturday let-rip, along came Sunday and...

St. Luke’s Church, Brighton, Sun 26th May

If I’d not had the pleasure of knowing Gnod before now, in happier news I’ve managed to catch the Necks numerous times, stretching back to Lucid Frenzy’s Ye Olde Print Days. (Even if I missed the last show.) They come self-described as “one of the great cult bands of Australia. Not entirely avant-garde, nor minimalist, nor ambient, nor jazz, the music of The Necks is possibly unique.” As ever the trio provided two long, improvised pieces separated by an interval.

The first was perhaps the classic Necks experience, slow to find its way but progressing like a trickling stream with soon becomes a surging torrent. Lloyd Swanton’s hands on his double bass neck proved almost a timeline for the piece, initially providing brief snaps on the upper neck, slowly migrating down before finally starting with the bowing. Much of Chris Abraham’s piano was quite Minimalist in nature, short phrases played circularly.

Yet, however good it is to hear more Necks, the second piece was more unique and so the one which really made the night. It got going much more quickly, with Swanton bowing from the start. Abrahams played longer, more rolling melodic passages while Tony Buck largely kept to percussion. Combined with Swanton’s slow, measured bowing the effect was mesmerising.

Despite originating in Jazz, surely one of the more urban music forms, and in Sydney, not the smallest of towns, nature analogies do seem to lend themselves to the Necks. Partly to do with their unhurried pacing, partly to do with their music having a kind of understated might.

And the very last sighting, in fact, I was comparing their sound to wide open spaces. Which well matched the first section of this second number. But like a river the Necks can take strange curves. And from there it grew sharper and tighter, like a panorama shot across rolling hillsides which then shifts into close focus. (And if that seems a curveball, wait until you hear what happens mid-way through their latest DC, ’Body.’
There are several bands who could be said to match John Peel’s description “always different, always the same”. But the Necks must be prime among them.

A nigh-on seven minute excerpt, a mere smidgen of a track in Necksland…

… plus the trio in fine form in their home town. Forty-plus minutes duration, but worth staying for…

Coming soon! Blog hols...

Saturday, 25 May 2019


The Old Market, Hove, Thurs 23rd May
Part of the Brighton Festival

This 1923 film was based on Oscar Wilde’s play and styled after Aubrey Beardsley’s illustrations for it. And, as with other films of its era, its theatrical in a positive way. Not just uninterested in affecting naturalism, it positively revels in artificiality and the opportunities that creates. Notably, the film never leaves Herod’s palace, which is treated as a castle in the sky. (Well, a mountaintop, but it comes to the same thing.)

Particularly with its close-ups, film inevitably throws the artificiality into sharper relief than stage. It’s not just that the bizarre wigs and costumes are highlighted (though it’s partly that), it’s the way objects (keys, royal rings) can be enlarged on the screen to the point they become fetishised. And, though described in the Festival guide as a “cornerstone of camp”, it doesn’t have the self-parodying humour of camp. It uses film to stage psychoscapes.

I’ve not read Wilde’s play if I’m honest, but the consensus seems to be his achievement was bending the original Bible story until Salome (previously un-named) emerged as the protagonist. (Herod effectively becomes the lonely businessman emptying his wallet in a lapdancing club.) Interestingly, the actor who played Salome, Alla Nazimova, also produced the film.

Which plays up an interesting tension. Sexuality is here all about dressing up and performance, perhaps most obviously in her dance of the seven veils. Yet in this version her desire for John The Baptist is real. The film takes this as a given. But, with his plain loincloth against all this luxuriousness, this could be taken as her yearning for the real. He’s the one exception to the decadent rule of Herod’s palace, a gender-inverted virtuous maiden who refuses her kisses.

The fact of which is to make the tragedy hers. In seizing on him as a means to escape her world’s addiction to sensory gratification she subjects him to her sensory gratification. In other words, reduces him back into a prisoner of the palace. She’s effectively a prisoner of it herself, even if her cage is more gilded. Title cards were removed from this showing, but one states “She kills the thing she loves; she loves the thing she kills.”

Hayley Fohr of Circuit Des Yeux provides the live soundtrack. The Festival programme played up her baritone vocals, which are rich. But the soundtrack is uneven, and sometimes feels unfocused. At times it’s almost clumsy, transitions in the music not matched by anything on the screen. The electronic sections seemed to be for when the film focused on characters, like personalised mood music, but often felt meandering.

But the circular, sonorous motifs of the violin and double bass provided an earthiness to counterpoint the pie-in-the-sky proceedings. And the instrumentation could be boldly pared down, so each instrument got it’s (in cinema terms) close-up. The drums in particular were held back, then came in with a harsh rattle for the deathly finale, a funereal full stop to proceedings.

Films of this antirealist aesthetic seem most suited to the live soundtrack treatment. As a result, they often get it. And the truth is I’ve heard it all done better. For example Partial Facsimile’s live score for ‘The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari’ was much more successful, despite arriving without any Festival fanfare. However the weaknesses here could still be worked out. It has the makings of a decent soundtrack, but needs finalising.

None of the soundtrack seems to be on-line, but the film’s public domain so can be seen here.

The Con Club, Lewes, Sat 11th May

Lau-related proceedings so far… After having first seen Martin Green perform his solo project Flit, and then the full folk trio in action in Shoreham last Winter, this was my chance to catch frontman Kris Drever.

The tour was pre-announced with the notice “he will be performing traditional songs and previously unreleased material from one off projects, as well as music from his award winning back catalogue.” And he performed few Lau songs (if, in a welcome unsurprise, finishing with ’Ghosts’), and had only solo CDs on his merch stall.

However, they were similar enough to confirm my working hypothesis that the band start off with Drever’s songs, then subject them to elaborate and inventive arrangements. Certainly Drever’s solo songs seem quite different to Green’s.

He played solo and often quite simply, attaching a capo to his guitar for several numbers. And I found that, as a general rule, the simpler the accompaniment, the less his hands moved on the frets, the better the song seemed to work. Drever’s songwriting seems remarkably akin to his personality, understated yet beguiling and resonant. (Though he had pedals at his feet, so like so often the apparent simplicity may have actually been hard work to convey.)

He keeps his subject matter similarly close, ranging from life on Orkney (where he lived) to life on Shetland (where he lives now), occasionally breaking out as far as Dundee. He joked about “going for the big universal themes”. Yet of course folk is all about finding the universal in the particular. Songs stretch back into ancient history, and up to the present day.

From Cork…


Dome Theatre, Brighton, Sat 18th May
Part of The Brighton Festival

I confess to mildly mixed feelings on Malian singer Rokia Traore becoming guest director of this year’s Brighton Festival. Not because I don’t like African music, I like a lot of what little I know. But because I’m somewhat cynical about the generic applause it generates from the hands of white Western audiences. Applause which simultaneously exoticises black music while awarding yourself politically correct points.

Initially, Traore is one in a chorus of five singers who take turns to sing the lead. Assuming this was the pattern for the proceedings, I figured we were in for a night which was merely okay-ish. I’m somewhat skeptical of the everyone-gets-a-go format, which normally ends up with no-one getting enough time to get a real go.

Traore then spoke of the irony that some of the worst places to hear African music or see African art can be in Africa itself, due to the lack of entertainment infrastructure, and the foundation that had been devised to counter that.

From then on, she sang lead - and the night was much better for it. In fact my personal highlight was the very next number. It was the only song in English, and she seemed to adjust her vocal style to suit the language - a kind of calm, measured anger. Following her talk it seemed concerned with the situation in Africa today, so perhaps coining a new genre - the State of the Continent song.

And my second favourite, ending the main set, was the only choral number. Traore explained it was a “classical’ (presumably traditional), which became a hit record a while ago. The combination of which seems to sum up her attitude to music.

Saturday, 18 May 2019


Barbican Gallery, London

”He ate up every image, every word, every bit of data that appeared in front of him and he processed it all into a bebop cubist pop art cartoon gospel that synthesised the whole overload we lived under.”

-Glenn O’Brien

Samo (The Words on the Street)

Most people reading this will know how young New Yorker Jean-Michel Basquiat not only went from graffiti artist to acclaimed painter, but in the shortest of times. Previously unknown, at least to me, is that he began as a graffiti writer.

In 1978, then teamed up with Al Diaz, he started plastering Manhattan with ‘Samo’ graffiti (short for ‘same old shit’, example below). Though described by the show as “poetic”, with its appended copyright sign the pithy phrases are more Dadaist, acerbic nihilist messages served up with playfulness. “Anti-art”, the arch-Dada term was sometimes employed.

Many pieces run variants on the phrases “an alternative” or “an end to”, such as ”an alternative 2 playing art with the radical chic sect on Daddy’s $ funds.” Others, despite being sprayed on public walls, absurdly gave space for a multi-choice response. Samo seems to have ended with their friendship, Basquiat even embarking on a ‘Samo is Dead’ campaign. (Though he kept the name a while longer.)

His breakthrough moment was the 1981 ’New York/New Wave’ show. Designed to capture the downtown scene, it’s been described as “the Armoury Show of the Eighties”. Despite exhibiting with better-known artists, and being the only prominent painter, his work got noticed.

Two notable things about his art here - how city-based it is, and how iconic his style, using symbols above depictions. The untitled piece below (1981) could even (semi) approximate for a street scene in pictorial space, though windows are grids, the sun a red circle and a red car is drawn the way a child would. The pictorial space would soon disappear, but the iconic style would remain throughout. It makes his images ‘quick’ and active, rather than contemplative.

Indeed, the more fulsomely titled ’Untitled (Black)’ (1981, below) is already turning the rigid city grid into a more generalised lattice. While introducing what would become a recurrent motif - the skull-like head.

Basquiat’s art is often associated with music, with him even playing in a short-lived band (Gray). Yet there’s an odd incongruence here. The dominant downtown music scene of the time, reflected in that show’s title, was No Wave. Which might best be described as an attempt to out-punk Punk. If a Punk single was, to coin the phrase, a 33rpm scream played at 45, No Wave was the same scream played at 78. And, at least since Romantic times, this was the response art had to the city. It was either a den of depravity or the place where alienation happened, possibly both at the same time.

Whereas, rather than dark, alienated or nihilistic, Basquiat’s art is exuberant. It’s child-like in tone as well as form, channelling a child’s sheer love of drawing. In an early TV interview with Glenn O’Brien, featured in the show, he sports a spiky punkish haircut yet smiles beautifically throughout.

”Extra Large”

And as the those references to pictorial space dropped away the size of his canvases increased. Asked “what’s your medium?”, his quipped response was “extra large.” For example ’Jawbone of an Ass’ the next year (above) is nearly double the width of those earlier works. Yet his art didn’t become any more detailed. Instead his canvases used the extra real estate to expand, become fuller. There’s simply more to see, elements jockeying for our attention on crowded but seemingly casual compositions.

And why should that be? The BBC4 documentary ’Basquiat: Rags to Riches’ recounts how, recuperating from being knocked down by a car as a child, he was given a copy of ’Grey’s Anatomy’, sparking an interest in the breakdown of the human body. A video in the show tells another story, of him seeing a photo of someone holding up a skull. I have a different theory to both.

It may be best displayed by the (somewhat ironically titled) ‘Leonardo Da Vinci’s Greatest Hits’ (1982, above). Invoking the great Renaissance artist of course turns anatomical accuracy into an aesthetic, the first time such a thing was comprehensively attempted. And the images here are tagged with terms such as ‘heel’, ’studies of the human leg’ or ‘study of feet’, as you’d expect from ’Grey’s Anatomy’ or one fo Leonardo’s notebooks.

Some of which correspond to the expected images, ‘study of foot’ (lower right) being next to a reasonably convincing foreshortened leg. But, while ‘heel’ (upper left) has a surfeit of red and black lines, they’re useless as maps of muscle or vein. While ‘torso’ (lower centre) could be found scrawled on a toilet wall. Yet a lattice of ladders draws these disparate images together. Such references are used to playfully underline how iconic Basquiat’s art is.

Similarly, in a method reminiscent of Pop Art, in his imagery he wilfully mixes wildly varying cultural streams. ’Untitled (Titian)’ (1982), for example, references Titian and Leonardo, but also Miles Davis. Batman and Biblical references are both prone to show up.

There’s also the writing, kept from the Samo days. This is initially individual letters which in the fuller canvases spread into phrases. Just like the images, they spill across the canvas in a stream-of-consciousness fashion. Just as his images stem from wildly different sources these often mix up different languages, perhaps reflecting the cosmopolitan environment of New York. Indeed, so iconic is his art there seems (in the first illo) little difference between the grid windows and the letters ‘A’ and ‘R’ to their left. To him, writing and drawing were not separate realms.

When writing about Robert Rauschenberg, I appropriated David Anfam’s phrase “colliding sign systems”. There’s the same combination of objects and splashes of colour here. Except with Basquiat it’s never clear how much they’re colliding and how much they’re combined. Text, iconic drawings and abstract marks, they can juxtapose but as often blend into one another. It’s like a child playing with letter bricks, lego and plasticine, just because they’re all to hand, not caring to distinguish between them overmuch. Your reaction is less a perplexed “what is all this stuff doing stuck together?” and more an awestruck “there’s so much stuff here stuck together!” Marc Meyer described his art as “a tumult of unrelated information” applied with “direct and theatrically ham-fisted brushwork” (from Brooklyn Museum’s ’Basquiat’, 2005).

And this information overload, this feeling of your senses being stimulated in fifty different ways at once, of text and image overlaid, still duplicates the effect of the busy urban environment on you – just in a less literal way than earlier. The central panel of ’Five Fish Species’ (1983, below) not only namechecks Times Square, but reproduces the forest of signs you’d find there. The black nodes and lines seems semi-analogous to a city street plan. Of all the New York artists, he may be the most New York of them all.

In this way he sees the city, for all its noise and clamour, as both his muse and playground. An approach which makes him the successor to Laurie Anderson and artists of the Seventies Downtown scene, as seen in an earlier Barbican show.

”Nothing To Be Gained Here”

The show often wades into these flurries and tries to make order of them. Sometimes it even seems willing to show lesser works, just because they better fit their agenda. Which is misconceived. His paintings aren’t cryptic crosswords to be decoded and ‘solved’ by literate readers. This is more down to curators and critics trying to establish their interpretive role, doing that vital job they do regardless of anything going on in the work. They’re there to answer that guy who insists on asking “yes, but what does it mean?” Often before he’s even asked.

One they busily attempt to interpret is ’Jawbone Of an Ass’. But look at it again. Does it look like it’s asking to be made sense of? Despite being so iconic Basquiat is quite unlike the bold, clean style of Keith Haring. (Even if both came out of New York street art and became friends.) He’s more similar to the rough, raw expressionism of de Kooning or Rauschenberg. Like de Kooning he “looks messy, convulsive, less unfinished than inherently unstable.” Like Rauschenberg he often painted on discarded items, such as doors or wood panels.

But Basquiat took it further, splashing paint like no-one else. His was the most spontaneous, free-flowing style of the lot. Text is often written only to be struck out, often then replaced by itself again. It’s almost impossible to conceive of him making preparatory sketches. It’s like his art appeared without any intermediary stages. (Which partly explains how he could be so prolific within his short life.)

Many works are composites, originally different pieces cut up and recombined. Canvases could be covered with xerox paper then painted over again. ’Piscine Versus the Best Hotels’ (1982, above) does both of these, assembled from four original panels. It’s one of many works which look less like an individual piece of graffiti art transplanted to a gallery than a much-tagged wall, covered in archaeological layers of spray-can, scrawl and flyposting.

Yet these ‘explanations’ often take no interest in any of this, and simply disregard the form of his work. In particular they leap on the text, seeking out connections, while treating the images as a kind of honorary text, something to be ‘read’. Responding to visual art as if it isn’t visual art must surely be a clear case of a category error. To use one of his repeat phrases, “nothing to be gained here”. While his most common tactic in interviews was to derail probing questions with a dissembling smile. He once complained “it’s like asking Miles how does your horn sound?”

Moreover, it’s well documented that he worked on several pieces at once, moving from one to the other as the impulse took him. Consequently you can spot phrases and motifs springing from one work to another. Hardly the method for a man with a focused plan for each work.

Art As X-Ray

There’s another New York City connection. He’d often paint to music, and while there was no discernible No Wave connection, his art has the free-flowing collage style of early Hip-hop. As the scene was then New York based, Basquiat knew many of the artists, appeared in Blondie’s ’Rapture’ video (stepping in after Grandmaster Flash failed to show up) and even produced a Hip-hop single, (Beat Bop’ in 1983, described by Franklin Sirmans as a “deep, moody, industrial soundscape of brooding rhythms and disjointed melodies”. (’In the Cipher: Basquiat and Hip-Hop Culture’, also from ’Basquiat’.

We should remember this was before Hip-hop became Rap, when its basis was DJ turntabling. It had a wild, polyglot, collage style, at odds with pop structure, almost wilfully anti-canonical where anything from music history was fair game. Franklin Sirmans also says “Basquiat’s art - like the best Hip-hop - takes apart and reassembles the work that came before it.” He then himself quotes Brewster and Broughton’s ’Last Night a DJ Saved My Life’: “Quite simply DJing is all about mixing things together… lifting forms and ideas that are already around and combing them creatively.”

Made to be played to live audiences, with no hope of ever reaching the radio, tracks could stretch out as much as his canvases. ’Beat Bop’ lasts over ten minutes. At that point the nearest musical genre to it, in construction if not sound, may well have been Jazz. (Of which Basquiat was also a fan, even swapping works for rare albums. ’Beat Bop’ is of course a pun on Bebop.)

But that’s still to approach his art via influences and analogies, rather than discussing what it does. Possibly of all the great artists, Basquiat was the one who most looked like he threw up his works without much conscious thought. To me it maps the human mind in flight, as it leaps from one free-association thought to another. (In one, a “first drawing of moon” is next to a tennis ball. Other times its words: “Jesus Christ - Jerusalem - Jews - Jot - Josephus”.) The endless excisions and repetitions are the equivalent of “yeah but no but yeah”.

On top of the stimulation of a vibrant city, Basquiat was something of a prodigious dope smoker - a substance known to speed up those mental leaps. It can also have the effect of aestheticising language, making everyday phrases suddenly seem defamiliarised and humorous, just as he repeats terms such as “regular processed cheese” in his work. Something like “keys tuned” seems chosen more for its musicality than its meaning.

’Glenn’ (1984, above) is dominated by a giant free-floating head, emitting rays from its crown and spewing lines of force from its mouth. It sits above an overlaid photocopy collage, some of which include variants of the same head. (Such as in the lower left corner.)

People talk about an ‘x-ray’ effect with Basquiat, similar to Paolozzi’s, though in both cases anatomical diagrams are probably a better analogy. And we’re all used to that effect used in art for symbolic maps. For example, a cartoon of a man with a bottle of beer drawn where his brain should be is instantly explicable. Here the effect is inverted, it’s everything around the head which demonstrates what’s on his mind. But the effect’s the same - art as an x-ray into the mind of the artist. (And while this one’s of Glenn O’Brien, many were actual self-portraits.)

’Black (Titled)’

Yet, having said there’s no point looking to Basquiat expecting him to make sense, when viewed at a broader level than individual works themes do recur and accumulate. In particular there’s repeated references to black history and institutionalised racism. This is unmissable in titles such as ‘Irony of the Negro Policeman’ (1981) or ‘Hollywood Africans’ (1983). Even a seemingly innocuous word such as “sugar” becomes in context a tag for slavery. And, tonally, this creates an undertaste of anger in his work which counterbalances the playfulness.

Which can be hard to reconcile this with Basquiat’s bright-eyed and playful personality. Perhaps by him as much as us. At one point he described his work as “80% anger”. Yet see him asked about “anger in your work” here. It seems most likely he was not innately political, but born black in America, racial politics was a subject likely to find him. To misquote the title of an earlier work, Basquiat was ’Black (Titled)’.

Racism of course affected Basquiat personally, as he went through daily life. But it also influenced how his art was framed. His story soon became the black street-kid graffiti artist who hit the big time. A paradox of his work is that it’s so raw, so concerned to getting back to art as mark-making, and yet at the same time highly citational. (One effect of which is that it can’t be easily labelled, either as Modernist or Post-Modernist.) The temptation is to rid your brain of one of these seemingly contradictory facts. Today, judging by this show, the tendency is to forget the first. Whereas in Basquiat’s day it was to downgrade the second.

Marc Mayer writes of primitivism in art: “A pose, an attitude, primitivism served a strategic purpose at either end of the century. For Matisse, it was an anti-academic posture, an antidote to the impressively skilfull aloofness of the hopelessly conservative Ecoles and academies… For both Matisse and Basquiat, it was time for an artist to make believe that he knew nothing at all but raw feeling. It was time to reconnect the primary sensations of colour, shape, texture and line to the primal fetish for plain handiwork and scary faces.”

Though it’s true he had no formal art training he was privately (and well) educated and took advantage of a Brooklyn birth to attend art galleries and museums. We’ve already seen how past art masters are included in his stew of references. He was more multi-cultured Renaissance man than instinctive savage. In short, his primitivism was as affected as Matisse’s. But people noticed those affectations more when a white man did them. Basquiat was himself aware of this framing, made by a white art scene, and criticial of it.

The Sharp-Pointed Crown

This is of course unsurprising. There’s a romantic appeal to portraying him as some visionary outlaw, happily throwing up graffiti in the street until some passing gallery owner tapped him on the shoulder to tell him about canvases and offer him fame. The truth is that, no Banksy, he actively chased success and basked in the lavish lifestyle it gave him. Picasso famously said he wanted to live not like a rich person but as a poor person with money. And, despite his comfortable childhood, Basquiat had for some years lived the life of an impoverished artist - so, when given the chance, did much the same. When you’re poor, you are effectively money’s bitch. It’s not surprising that people reverse that power relation when they can, scattering the stuff like they’ve no respect for it.

In this sense, the early gag of appending Samo with a copyright symbol should be seen as double-edged. The anti-advertising worked as advertising, spreading his name, getting him interviewed by Glenn O’Brien. Similarly, three-pointed crowns became a motif of his from early on. They often float above heads, for example on the helmet he wears in the poster image, or are used in place of a signature - the way Malevich used a black square.

And while the image is most commonly a symbol of power, I suspect for Basquiat it represented the modern form of power - fame. They’re sometimes replaced by halos, in his 1983 sketch of Keith Haring even writing “Famous” on it. The halos sometimes had radiating lines emitting from them, as if capturing a glow. Yet other times they make the halos appear barbed.

’Famous’ (1982), a double-sided work, has two jet-black heads. One, highly misshapen, has a red eye and a row of bared teeth. In the production line of photo-collages beneath it the phrase “face gets blacker and blacker” is repeated, but never shown complete. The phrase “Hall of Fame” is next to the less highfalutin’ “regular processed cheese.” The wide-eyed head on the reverse looks less angry, but lies below a rough black bar, the symbol of censorship, which drips paint like rain from a black cloud. All of which sounds like a conflicted relationship with the fame he sought.

And perhaps a source of this conflict was that the whole ‘untutored graffiti artist’ narrative. A story strong enough to sell, at least in part, it propelled him into fame. As Rene Ricard said of him: “One must become the iconic representation of oneself in this town.” And if his success was part due to racist notions of blackness which he then used his art to criticise, that would inevitably barb his crown. The show displays his notebooks, one stating “I feel like a citizen its time to go and come back a drifter”. Basquiat had been homeless for a spell, sleeping in Tompkins Park, and in that note seems almost yearning for those days.

I often end up doing a double take on the dates of Basquiat’s work, like it’s information I can’t actually take in. Perhaps partly because the Eighties is a decade I remember well, so never really seems of the past to me. But beyond that, let’s recall that, born in 1960, he would not even be Sixty today. This all happened after painting lost its cutting edge role to other media, mostly to music. It might make him seem a throwback.

Yet he seems to belong both to his decade and his medium, successfully channelling influences from both Rauschenberg and Hip-hop. As so often with him, it’s tempting to take up one side of a paradox and drop the other. which can make him appear the token visual artist in a predominantly musical scene. Even the age of his death, twenty-seven, places him squarely in that stupid club. But we need to go back to an earlier point. The central thing to Basquiat is that he can’t be reduced to sense.