Basquiat: Boom For Real
Barbican Art Gallery
I just don’t get it. Why are punters and critics raving about this broad retrospective of the artistic myth that was/is Jean-Michel Basquiat? I completely understand how significant an artistic/cultural phenomenon he was before his early death in 1988 (aged 27, same age as Masaccio, and various rock’n’roll heroes), and he definitely comes across as an interesting bloke, living in interesting times, mixing with interesting people in an interesting city. But “one of the most significant painters of the 20th century” as the intro to the exhibition claims. Come on. Picasso, Juan Gris, Malevich, Chagall, David Bomberg, Stanley Spencer, Emil Nolde, Egon Schiele, George Grosz, Oscar Kokoschka, Max Beckmann, Otto Dix, Gwen John, Lucien Freud Agnes Martin, Graham Sutherland, Francis Bacon, Bridget Riley, Robert Rauschenberg, Jasper Johns, Rothko, Clyfford Still, Josef Albers, Barnett Newman, Frank Stella, Anselm Kiefer, Richard Hamilton, Alex Katz, Peter Doig, Richard Serra, Gerhard Richter. That’s just some of the painters I think are better, Even Hockney, for all his faults, is a way better artist in my book than Basquiat.
Maybe his reputation simply reflects the price of his art. If a Japanese collector wants to pay $110m for one of Basquiat’s works who am I to argue. The same fella paid $57m for another one last year. I guess he must like them. Mind you some numpty just paid $450m for a Leonardo that probably isn’t. I hope whoever it is hands out the readies to charities on a regular basis and pays his or her, or maybe its, taxes.
For me this does point up a whole bunch of necessary, (and probably unpleasant), fictions on which our world is hooked. The fiction of money. The buyer presses a key to conjure up some electronic corn, the seller parks it somewhere in a different server, They both believe it is real. The notion of value. The value of a piece of art is a function of who paid for it in the first place, and for what purpose, whether it survived, so how scarce it is, and how it is now viewed by experts (whose opinions change, a lot). We, the viewing public, also now get a look in, if we like what we see. Let us call this the aesthetic value. This may not be synonymous with its use value. Its exchange value, given its unique character, is likely to be its price, and this can be anything that a buyer wants it to be. A unique object, a tiny coterie of buyers, a rigged market. Clearly price is no indication of value. We also have the fiction of legal ownership sitting behind this Leonardo transaction. The seller’s fortune was built on potash. Once a state asset, now his. Right time, right place, right attitude. And finally we have the prosiac fiction that Salvator Mundi may not actually have been painted by the hand of the great Renaissance polymath. Does it matter? No idea.
Anyway Boom for Real kicks off with some early works from the New York/New Wave exhibition in 1981. There are some naive townscapes which stand out and some of the trademark self portrait skulls. We then see J-MB’s gnomic graffiti work as SAMO© and tour through late 1970’s and 1980s New York, meeting some of his chums and collaborators along the way. Music (he was in a band), video, performance, clubs, postcards, photos, flyers, poetry, helmets, other stuff. Not much visible in the way of drugs, best keep that under wraps (no pun intended), though his habit exudes out of the later works. There is no doubt that J-MB got about a bit and that the New York scene of this period was pretty exciting. No wave, new wave, Mudd Club, Club 57. Most of the music that came out of this era is shite, trust me, but it did give us the mighty Talking Heads, and, latterly, Swans, and the first stirrings of hip hop. Of course this was all middle class, white art students feeding off the prior generations of New York cool, but, given the quality of the legacy, this was heady stuff. (We Brits had to make do with proper working class, DIY, Punk and its antecedents – I for one was happy with that deal).
J-MB stood out because of his beauty, his personality, his relentless self-promotion, his nihilism, his “self taught”, status and obviously his colour. No wonder he was embraced and feted by the artistic establishment, (there is a canvas by Keith Haring, J-MB’s most obvious “influence”), including a room devoted to the relationship with the granddaddy of them all, Andy Warhol. As well as some double portraits, the curators are proud to show off a lease for the flat AW rented to J-MB. There is a lot of stuff like this upstairs, whisper it, maybe a bit too much.
Downstairs we finally get to see more substantial work and this, I am afraid, is where I have a beef. Lists of stuff J-MB read, references to canonic Renaissance artists and Jazz greats, anatomical life sketches, self portraits, poetry of a sort, black heroes, cars, planes, repeated signs and symbols. I can appreciate the fidgety energy and the restless enquiry which blares out from these works and their semiotic value. I can see that J-MB had a lot to say about the situation of a black man in a white world. I can definitely see why people were attracted to him. What I can’t see is any interesting drawing or painting marks. There is a lot to read here, and the man undoubtedly had a lot to say, but nothing much to really see. The hyperbolic nonsense from the curators which follows you round the exhibition didn’t help.
I know I am in a minority here and, given that this is the first major exhibition of his work to appear in the UK, (and there is next to nothing in collections), I can see why the punters are rolling in. I just don’t think he was a particularly interesting painter. Person yes, painter no. There was more for me in the few pieces of work from David Hammons in the recent Tate Modern Soul of a Nation exhibition than there is across all of this exhibition. (Soul of a Nation exhibition at Tate Modern ****). And he, Hammons, is a fella who can properly take the conceptual piss. Witness USD 200K some-one paid for his work On Loan.