No sooner than the Barbican closed the doors on its excellent science fiction exhibition Into The Unknown than it spring back open for what looks set to become the exhibition of the year. Basquiat: Boom for Real is, somewhat unbelievably, the first exhibition of Jean-Michel Basquiat’s work in the UK to date. It’s about time: the graffiti artist turned art world darling may have created work at a rate which impressed Andy Warhol, but his motif and language-laden paintings now sell upwards of $100 million.
Boom for Real is a vast, sprawling thing that twists outside of comprehension and resists the understanding of a casual viewer — it’s the kind of exhibition that tugs away a whole afternoon of your undivided attention. Just in time for the weekend rush, we asked the exhibition’s assistant curator Lotte Johnson unravel the stories behind four of her favourite paintings from the show.
Jean-Michel Basquiat and Jennifer Stein Postcard Master, 1979
Mixed media on cardboard, collection of Jennifer Von Holstein
This is one of several collages that Basquiat created in collaboration with artist Jennifer Stein in 1979, when he was just 18 years old. He had met Stein at the Canal Zone Party in New York earlier that year, an event held to celebrate the growing graffiti scene of the time. Graffiti artists Fab 5 Freddy and Lee Quinones made their marks, producing a series of murals for the loft space. Basquiat spray-painted live on camera for the first time that night as his alter ego SAMO© – you can watch this footage in the exhibition.
Stein and Basquiat became close friends; they shared the same absurdist, Dada-inspired sense of humour and had both grown up in New York. They began making collages together, incorporating detritus from the world around them (from newspaper clippings to cigarette butts to photo-booth portraits) to create vibrant compositions. They would divide a standard piece of paper into four, making compositions in each quarter, then they would colour photocopy the sheet (a fairly new technology at the time!), spray-mount it onto cardboard and cut it into individual postcards. They sold their finished products for $1 each on the street, often hanging out in front of MoMA in New York before being chased away by the guards. The series of collages and Xeroxes on display in the exhibition are being shown for the first time since they were made and they capture the incredible energy of two young artists experimenting together.
Hollywood Africans, 1983
Acrylic and oil stick on canvas, Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, gift of Douglas S. Cramer
This vivid yellow painting features three portraits – Basquiat and his two friends, the artist-musicians Toxic and Rammellzee (‘RMLZ’). The title Hollywood Africans, inscribed several times on the canvas, relates to a West Coast road trip they went on together in California, when the trio flippantly referred to themselves as “Hollywood Africans”. The provocative name they gave themselves was intended as a comment on the entertainment industry’s limited opportunities for black actors – they couldn’t see any other “Hollywood Africans” around them.
The small silhouette of a statue in the top left corner of the work, alongside references to “1940” and “Hollywood Africans from the Nineteen Forties”, could relate to the actress Hattie McDaniel, who in 1940 was the first African American to receive an Oscar. She had played Mammy in Gone with the Wind, a role that was a clear racial caricature. The work is a biting critique on the racism that permeated Hollywood, at the same time celebrating Basquiat, Toxic and Rammellzee’s friendship. The inclusion of the phrase “Movie Star Footprints©” refers to the deeply commercialised aspects of the industry, while suggesting that the trio should be given a place within this tradition.
Triptych: acrylic, oil, oil stick and paper collage on wood, Private collection
This triptych is one of Basquiat’s most compelling self-portraits. He often mocked the art world’s tendency to reduce artists to the details of their biography, and at the same time was very self-conscious of how young he was and the stereotyping of black artists. Here he conveys an image of a divided identity, with two imposing silhouette heads placed side by side, one with the eyes and mouth outlined in red crayon, the other silenced by an absent mouth. The left-hand panel of the triptych is blank except for a list of the repeated name Ben Webster, the jazz tenor saxophonist.
Accompanying the silhouette on the right are lyrics by Thelonious Monk, the pianist and composer whose experimental sound was central to the development of jazz and bebop. Music was a powerful source of inspiration for Basquiat and he rarely worked without something playing in his studio – Monk and Webster were two of Basquiat’s musical heroes. Placing himself between these two pioneering musicians, Basquiat questioned the limited recognition of the achievements of black artists.
Untitled (All Stars), 1983
Oil stick, ink, acrylic, graphite and paper collage on paper Schorr Family Collection
This collaged drawing is a great example of Basquiat’s detailed knowledge of the history of jazz as well as his searing critique of the representation of black Americans in the entertainment industry. The seemingly pared back composition is saturated with many different references. “All stars” refers to jazz saxophonist Charlie Parker’s band of the same name, who he played with in his famed Savoy and Dial studio sessions in 1948, and “Max Roach” was the drummer for these recordings. Alongside these pink paper homages to the pioneers of jazz, Basquiat includes a half-white, half-black portrait with the names of Freeman Gosden and Charles Correll written below. These were two white actors who wrote and voiced the American radio show Amos ‘n’ Andy, the title of which is inscribed in blue writing on the piece.
The Harlem-set sitcom was one of the first radio comedy series to feature primarily African American characters. The two actors continued to voice the animated version when the programme moved to television. It seems the charged racial history of the show is referenced in the ambiguous portrait above Gosden and Correll’s names, while the list of Max Fleischer cartoons in red script may offer a nod to the many racist stereotypes in these animations. The portrait and name of “Jackson” nearby refers to US President Andrew Jackson, a major slave owner involved in slavery controversies during his time in power.
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