The Eclectic Genius Of Basquiat At Barbican

Basquiat: Boom for Real, Barbican ★★★★☆

The Eclectic Genius Of Basquiat At Barbican Basquiat: Boom for Real, Barbican 4
Basquiat's work is filled with references that it's unlikely one person can grasp them all.

A fiercely talented man who brought together the worlds of fine art and hip-hop, was the protege of Andy Warhol, and died of a drug overdose at the age of 27. His work now sells for over $100m. The myth that surrounds Jean-Michel Basquiat is so large it almost overshadows the art he created. In one interview he even remarked that people seem to care more about his personality than his work.

To ensure we get to know the artist, the Barbican has brought together over 100 of his works, to properly pore over this legendary artist's short but highly varied career. It's a massive coup for the Barbican; there isn't a single Basquiat work in any public collection in the UK, so his work will feel fresh to most visitors.

Intensity was never lacking in his work. © The Estate of Jean-Michel Basquiat. Licensed by Artestar, New York.

Basquiat's mind was a giant sponge. He would listen to jazz while making art, and integrate references to the slave trade and Darwinian evolution into the same work. Da Vinci would collide with African American folk artists, but Basquiat would also create works where Saturday morning cartoons or Alice in Wonderland characters would pop up — he loved experimenting and could find inspiration seemingly anywhere. This freedom is reflected in his words:

I never went to art school ... I just looked ... that's where I think I learned about art, by looking at it

Basquiat greatly admired Warhol and created this portrait of the two of them. © Tristan Fewings / Getty Images © The Estate of Jean-Michel Basquiat/ Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/ ADAGP, Paris. Licensed by Artestar, New York..

We don't need to see Basquiat at work in a studio to picture his frenetic energy. You can almost feel the ideas pop into his head — as he decided he had to capture them in a painting or collage.

Heading deeper into Basquiat's psyche, we see his sketches and even a whole set of framed notebook pages; are these words flashes of brilliance or just random musings? We'll never know.

© Tristan Fewings / Getty Images © The Estate of Jean-Michel Basquiat. Licensed by Artestar, New York

Alongside his paintings, we get to see how much Basquiat admired Warhol and the chance to work alongside him.

He always admired other painters, as we can see from his collection of art history books and artworks where he repetitively writes the names of greats such as Picasso, Titian and Matisse — it feels like if he could write their names over and over then maybe some of their ideas would cross over to him.

This idea of looking up to others and his own self-doubt are manifest in his many self-portraits where he portrays himself as almost demonic, with red rimmed eyes. Even though he's highly regarded now, it's clear he didn't think of himself as one of the greats, and that he created such a high volume of work just so he could get closer to them.

The New York scene was a massive part of  Basquiat's career. © Tristan Fewings / Getty Images © The Estate of Jean-Michel Basquiat/ Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/ ADAGP, Paris. Licensed by Artestar, New York.

With the sheer diversity of ideas and work present, it's difficult to believe this artist had such a short career. Jean-Michel Basquiat was certainly an extremely talented individual, but is he one of the all time great artists? We think not. Could he have been? Quite possibly. Sadly we're never going to find out how brilliant he could have become.  

Basquiat: Boom for Real is on at Barbican Art Gallery until 28 January. Tickets are £16 for adults.

Last Updated 24 September 2017

HHGeek

I remain terminally bamboozled as to the popularity of Basquiat. Even with membership of el Barbi, I won't be making the effort to go to this exhibition - so many other, better things to do with my time.