Basquiat Boom for Real at the Barbican

Anna Lucchinetti

London, 2018 starting the year right could mean going to see Basquiat’s exhibition at the Barbican and learn something about this incredible artist that significantly marked the 20th century. Basquiat was born in Brooklyn in 1960 and even though he died only at the age of twenty-seven, he is still remembered for his revolutionary way of conceiving art. In this exhibition, each room explores a theme linked to the artist’s career; starting from the creation of the logo SAMO that started appearing on the New York City’s walls at the beginning of the 1980s, the exhibition continues exploring the people and the places that influenced Basquiat’s young mind.

The curators, Dieter Buchhart and Eleanor Nairne, recreate the cultural wave that was affecting New York City during a time of enormous cultural growth; through photographs and videos, the exhibition shows the places and fancy clubs where influential figures of the time frequently met to spend the nights together. As part of the show, there is a ninety-minute film directed by the notorious photographer Edo Bertoglio where Basquiat plays the main protagonist. The film, Downtown 81, aims to help the audience to get an insight of the way of living in the downtown during the 80s and to further explore its culture and influence on its contemporary artists. The exhibition displays works of art created during Basquiat’s collaboration with Andy Warhol. After the two of them were encouraged to work together by the art dealer and collector Bruno Bischofberger, they started a long and fruitful collaboration. Basquiat Boom for Real also displays a wide collection of Basquiat’s self-portraits. These works are particularly ironic and self-conscious as the artist liked to make jokes on the way the art world used to perceive him and his idenity’s reduction to merely his biography. When Basquiat painted himself, he did not paint what he saw in the mirror, but rather the way he thought people perceived him and the way the art market was presenting him like.

In the last section of the exhibition, the curators collected paintings and objects which prove that Basquiat used his passions as a source to get inspiration for his paintings. For example, the room Bebop exhibits numerous paintings about jazz music and iconic figure of the field that Basquiat admired; one of them is Charlie Parker, a famous black musician who was the founder of the ‘bebop’ movement. In addition to music, Basquiat was very passionate about history of art. While growing, his mum took him to many art galleries and with the passing of the years he became an avid exhibition-goer. In Basquiat’s art, his knowledge of art history is used to propose revisited versions of notorious paintings made by artists like Leonardo da Vinci, Picasso, Éduard Manet, Marcel Duchamp and Henri Matisse. Basquiat used to paint whatever he read or saw. Particularly, he was obsessed with the use and perception of symbols and he enjoyed painting images he would see in the TV.

Even though Basquiat Boom for Real is successful in making the audience analysing the artist’s way of thinking and his socio-political background, it omits some important elements of his life. Indeed, the exhibition does not reveal the dark side of Basquiat’s life: he frequently assumed drugs and he died because of a heroin overdose. Even though, this fact might not be the first thing the audience wants to hear about an artist, I think it is important to consider also the worst factors of an artist’s life as, in most cases, they are the ones that majorly influence their art. Nevertheless, Basquiat Boom for Real is worth a visit, but be aware that there is much more history behind what is displayed. Maybe that could be a good way to start further research.

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