Basquiat exhibition at the Barbican review **

3442

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.

 

 

 

 

 

Soul of a Nation exhibition at Tate Modern ****

tate-1280x640

Soul of a Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power

Tate Modern, 5th October 2017

I seem to have taken an age to get around to seeing Tate’s survey of African American Art through the vital twenty year period from 1963. There are a couple of weeks left to see it however should it be on your radar. It is, like the recently ended Queer British Art exhibition at Tate Britain (Queer British Art at Tate Britain review ***), an insightful overview for the uninitiated like me. Here we get a broad investigation of the Black American experience through these turbulent times and the artistic response to that experience.

It is focussed almost exclusively on the work of Black artists, with one or two exceptions (including a Warhol portrait of Muhammad Ali), and does an exemplary job in highlighting what it meant to be a Black artist in these decades of heightened Black consciousness. It groups artists from different regions, cities, collectives, exhibitions, and sometimes, movements, in order to map these responses which, on the whole, works, though perhaps makes it a little trickier for the dumb observer like yours truly to track the work of individual artists through the rooms.

For me the most interesting and effective art here was the most obviously political. The work that set out directly to highlight the impact of social and cultural change on African Americans, and specifically to attack the injustices meted out to African Americans both in the 1960s and 1970s but also stretching back through American history, was extremely affecting. Contemporary art with vague political entreaties can often seem naive to me. Here the anger, particularly in the work from the 1960s, was visceral.

The curators (Mark Godfrey and Zoe Whitley, who have clearly put a lot of work in here) were, I think, keen to explore the question of whether there was a Black Art independent of the subjects. There were certainly some fine works in the exhibition which portrayed Black American cultural and political “heroes” but I am not sure I understand how this necessarily related to notion of a bounded Black Art. I did however see how disagreements about this concept were debated, and it did help me in my thinking about how cultural superstructures more generally are defined and articulated. It was also interesting to see how the materials and techniques which inform contemporary art (and more specifically the increasing absence of paint) meant that the overtly political narrative seen in the works from the early 1960s became far more diffuse by the time we got to the early 1980s.

It also got me to thinking why I didn’t know any of these artists. OK so I am only a moderately interested observer/consumer, though my awareness has come on in leaps and bounds in the last couple of years. It is also fair to say that it is the job of curators in public galleries to expand the modern and contemporary art canon to our advantage, exactly what they are doing here. And, at the end of the day, it is they, and the rich who buy the works, who chose what we see. In essence if they don’t tell us, we won’t know. But to not really know any of these artists from the country which, I am loathe to admit, has dominated plastic arts in the 70 years, suggests that access to the public consciousness for many of these artists was a problem then and may still be now.

What about the works? Of course there was a fair bit of stuff here which didn’t do much for me. But there was other stuff which really did work on many levels. For what it is worth (precisely nothing) here are my highlights.

  • In Room 1 the work of the Spiral group active through 1963 to 1965 in New York is represented. They chose only to work in black and white in their only exhibition which lends real drama to, for example, Norman’s Lewis two near abstract oil canvases, Procession (which is is a theme he has explored in later works), and Alabama, which is a genuinely chilling depiction of Klansmen at night. The collages of Romare Bearden, a co-founder of Spiral, are nearly as affecting in a different way. This group sought direct engagement with the Civil Rights movement and created a powerful legacy for the next generation of African American artists.
  • Room 6 contains works by Charles White, David Hammons and Timothy Washington from their 1971 exhibition, Three Graphic Artists. White’s harrowing but dignified drawings, including his Wanted series of posters, detail the bloody history of slavery. Hammons’s body paintings were a revelation to me, in terms of the technique and their power. Injustice Case, which shows Bobby Seale, the founder of the Black Panthers, bound and gagged at his trial, will punch yo right in the gut. Hammons’s later engaging conceptual work is also featured at the end of the exhibition. Timothy Washington’s One Nation Under God engraving has multiple layers of meaning. This, along with the Spiral room, was the most compelling for me.
  • I think I could safely ignore the abstract artists in room 7 with the exception of Frank Bowling (born in Guyana) whose large canvas here, (sorry I lost my note of the title – note to self: perhaps this would be a reason to use a phone), refers to his birthplace and whose meditative canvas Texas Louise graces Room 10,
  • In Room 8 there is a wall of black and white photographs from Roy DeCarava which I guarantee will draw you in. The exposures are generally very dark which forces you to look very closely, especially at the portraits, whether they be everyday folk or famous Black musicians. On that note I also found myself fascinated by an OpArt portrait, maybe in Room 2, not because it was an especially powerful painting but because it was the divine Miles Davies.
  • Room 9 is comprised of Black Heroes and my eye was immediately drawn to the ironic self portraits of Barkley Hendricks, one as Superman, its sub-title Superman Never Saved Any Black People referencing a courtroom quote from Bobby Seale, and one nude responding to a critic’s comic (I won’t spoil the joke). His portrait What’s Going On comprised of four men in early 70s high camp white (mocking our expectations of “cool”) and one nude woman in acrylic and oil, refers to the classic Marvin Gaye song which was penned in response to the brutality of the response by police to the Berkeley protest through the 1960’s.
  • Room 10, Improvisation and Experimentation, shows just how diffuse art practice became in the 1970s and into the 1980’s and it is hard to see how this reflects any notion of a shared Black aesthetic. However the screen of barbed wire and chains which makes up Melvin Edwards’s Curtain screams incarceration even if the artist apparently claimed an entirely abstract intent.
  • Room 11 is devoted to the assemblages of Bettye Saar, now in her 90s. Her work also appears in Room 4 I think. The ideas and materials she employs are intriguing and create a link, which others have productively employed, back to African art.