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.

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