“Basquiat: Boom for Real” Exhibition


Today, I made the journey to London for a number of events, including “Basquiat: Boom for Real” at the Barbican Centre. I have recently become more familiar with Basquiat and his work through a friend’s recommendation. I had watched a couple of documentaries about him so had a good idea of what I was expecting. I imagined the exhibition would be one large white room with a collection of his works hung on the walls, I thought I’d get around it in an hour max. How wrong I was.

The exhibition took up the whole gallery, on two floors with several rooms. Not only did we see his work, but several video installations were installed, showing interviews with Warhol, curators and Basquiat himself. I had completely underestimated how long I would be there. I was there for at least 3 hours.

I’m pretty sure I went around the exhibition in the wrong order, or not the order that was intended. I soon realised that they curated it in chronological order as well as in categories, so my notes are a bit all over the place.

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In each room, there were different pieces that I was drawn to for one reason or another, or for seemingly no reason at all. I will go through each of these pieces, their depiction and background as well as what I got from viewing it.

The first room was New York New Wave, a series of work that was a visual response to the noise of Manhattan. The visualisation of sound as well as visual chaos relates to Wednesday’s workshop on noticing and the everyday, taking from our surroundings and translating into our artwork. The pieces were hung in a similar formation to how they were originally hung in 1981, at surprising heights and in unusual configurations. I drew a layout of these in the first page of notes in my sketchbook as seen above.

There was one piece that for some reason I was really drawn to; I must have stood in front of it for ages. It was one of the smaller pieces in the configuration. Unfortunately, I am having a job trying to find an image of it; so many of his pieces are untitled. The piece was two pieces of paper mounted onto canvas using tape, with panels drawn onto it with oil stick, which to me read as a comic book strip. It was child-like and was drawn in by the sense of drama in the use of imagery (canons and cars) as well as the use of words “AAAAAAAAH”. There was no intention of neatness. The paper was torn and irregular shaped, taped onto canvas with creases in the tape. The drawings seemed to be applied in such a way that there was a sense of urgency, enhancing the subject, like a cry for help. It was traumatic and sad to look at. I have seen a documentary about Basquiat and remembered that he was hit by a car as a child, but I didn’t need to know that prior to looking at this piece. The story was being told right in front of me. There was a canon there, a visual representation of the sound experienced I suppose. I think this painting struck me so because of how there was no filter in its display of trauma. I guess that’s something that I am working on in my own work as well as emotionally.

I never went to art school…I just looked…That’s where I learned about art by looking at it

-Jean-Michel Basquiat

This quote was written on one of the gallery walls in large type. After having a lecture the day before about noticing as research, this felt very relevant. As I went around the exhibition, I could see that this was his process. He was like a sponge, absorbing his surroundings but proactively looking as well, taking on investigations into what interested him and noticed the disruptions they caused.

Contrary to the order I was meant to see the exhibition, I then went to the self portrait room. Basquiat was inspired by the creative possibilities of identity. A lot of his work were self portraits, not necessarily visual representations of his aesthetic, but in a number of different guises. He questioned the relationship between the artist’s identity and their reception.

Famous, 1982 – Jean-Michel Basquiat

The piece “Famous” is a double sided piece, using photocopied drawings collaged as background, repeating without pattern. On these collages pieces, there are visual and written representations of popular culture, including Captain America, Walt Disney and regular processed cheese. On top of this were blacks skull, one on each side. On one side was the word “Famous” written onto it in paint, and on the other a large rectangle with paint dripping onto the skull, like rain. For this piece, I was more drawn to the collage background and finding the intricacies of what was written and drawn. This is something I started to learn when viewing Basquiat’s work was that it could be viewed at different distances to see different things. From further away, I was drawn to the black skulls. Stepping closer I was interested in the composition as a whole and going closer I was drawn to the background.

Untitled, 1982 – Jean-Michel Basquiat

Moving on to other self portraits, I was drawn to this piece. I think it was the skull-like head and the “sun” behind that drew me to it. I enjoy the meaning and connotations behind these two symbols. With this one in particular, I felt like I was experiencing it and not just looking at it. What you can’t see in an image of it online or in a textbook is the aggression behind the application of the oil sticks. It was so smooth it had a shine to it, like when oil pastels are applied heavy and vigorously. I could feel the anger in the application. It shows that physically seeing a piece brings a whole new energy and meaning behind what is depicted.

Self-Portrait, 1984 – Jean-Michel Basquiat

In this portrait, I could see not just a visual representation of a person, but I could see a factory-like building and a tower that connects to the eye. I could also see a tree, the trunk being the nose that branches out into the forehead. I do not know if this was intentional, but if it was, there are new things that come into play. The concept of industry, cityscapes and their relation to nature. Maybe I’m looking too deep into this, but from being able to spend time with this piece in a culture where images are seen and not really viewed, these were the connotations I found.

Self Portrait (Plaid) 1983
Self Portrait 1983 – Jean-Michel Basquiat

This self-portrait, done in oil on paper on wood, is a black on white silhouette-like image. The simplicity of this was really striking to see in person. From this, I could see the Statue of Liberty, with his iconic dread crown like the crown of the statue. Was this intentional? From the interviews I watched with him at the exhibition, he seemed to have a conflicted opinion of the concept of celebrity and being famous. He had a desire to be noticed, but didn’t like the attention he was getting as opposed to his work. Celebrity and popular culture were a huge source of inspiration to him also. From this piece as well, I could see his issue with being in a predominantly white industry through his use of colour.

Dos Cabezas 1982 – Jean-Michel Basquiat

This piece was in the Andy Warhol section of the exhibition. Dos Cabezas is probably one of his works that most represents a visual likeness to Warhol and Basquiat. What I really liked about seeing this piece was that you could see fingerprints and the indentations of they make in the thick layers of paint application.

Beat Bop Cover, 1983 – Jean-Michel Basquiat

In the Beat Bop section of the exhibition, this cover created by Basquiat included a number of symbols, in white on a black background. I was drawn to the monochromatic aspect, drawing the eye to the simplistic designs. Again, I could look at this piece from a distance and appreciate the composition and then look closer to the individual symbols and their relation to each other. I drew some of the symbols used in my sketchbook notes, which I want to start incorporating in my pieces, not necessarily these specific ones, but looking at a number of symbols in relation to my research project.

I don’t know how to describe my work, it’s like asking Miles, how does your horn sound?

-Jean-Michel Basquiat

Jean-Michel Basquiat and Jennifer Stein. Photo Booth EPZ, 1979, Photo: Justin Piperger

Warhol was introduced to Basquiat’s work when he sold him one of his postcards in a cafe. Working with Jennifer Stein, Basquiat made postcards by sectioning paper into 4, create compositions in each quarter, colour photocopy it, spray mount it onto card and then cut them into individual postcards. He was inspired by his surroundings, using street detritus, news paper headlines, advertisements and even cigarette butts. From looking at a cabinet filled with the postcards they created, it felt as though the combination of pieces weren’t critically considered. You can see the speed in which they were made. I liked the different use of media, particularly photo booth photographs, and how the different textures work together once flattened into a single image with a photocopier. This inspired me to play around with collage more, whether in a compositional manner or simply for textures, which could be created digitally in Photoshop.

I’m usually in front of the television. I have to have some source material around me to work off

-Jean-Michel Basquiat

Jean-Michel Basquiat, Untitled (Estrella), 1985,
Untitled 1985 – Jean-Michel Basquiat

Basquiat understood the power of cinema and television to capture collective consciousness, whilst critical of racism in popular culture. I spent quite a bit of time with this work, again appreciating and looking at it at different levels. I could really identify with the connections within it; it felt like a mind map, an explosion of ideas that all interlink. I wrote down a few words when experiencing this work: connection- wires, anatomy, electricity. Anatomy is something he used a lot in his work, with one of his main reference materials being “Gray’s Anatomy”. There’s also a real sense of pain in the face of this portrait, with red gums highlighting this.

Leonardo da Vinci’s Greatest Hits – Jean-Michel Basquiat

Moving on to the Encyclopedia room, we see how Basquiat was inspired by his chosen source material. As a self taught artist, he learnt from textbooks and reference material. He looked closely at anatomy, and here we can see his references to the work of Leonardo da Vinci. I really liked the way he simplified complex anatomy such as the spine in a single line spiral but was still identifiable as its representation. I also liked how the whole painting is made up of wooden panels that have a gap between them. There is no secret in its makeup, but each panel is not a separate piece, giving it a “DIY” feel, as if the canvas was formed from found objects. I found it quite funny that Basquiat clearly drew a foot, then scribbled over the top and labelled it “Bad Foot” with an arrow pointing towards it. He is not censoring or covering up his mistakes as such, but highlighting them. This made me think about my own work and my yearn for perfection and being afraid to make mistakes. Here, Basquiat has essentially said “Here is my mistake”. I really like that openness he has with his audience. It’s a learning process.

Jesse, 1983 – Jean-Michel Basquiat

Again, in this we can see Basquiat’s influence of anatomy from textbooks. In contrast to many of his pieces, there is a lot more space free in this piece, but still has a cluttered aesthetic. I personally struggle with space in my work. I feel like I have to fill it. The same goes for my sketchbooks; they are very cluttered. I want to start to be able to leave more space in my sketchbooks and my work in general, let my illustrations breathe where I think it’s appropriate for them to.

Glenn, 1984 – Jean-Michel Basquiat

“Glenn” was made using acrylic, oil stick and photocopied collage on canvas. Again, he references anatomical elements with some African art and masks inspiration. He also references plant life and shopping lists in the photocopied collage background, similar to the piece “Famous” mentioned before.

This gave me the idea of turning sketchbook pages into Photoshop brushes and creating digital layered collage effect background for pieces. I am currently struggling to find a happy medium between two styles I seem to have adopted. I have one style that’s quite cartoony with bold lines and vivid colours, and another style that is much more loose and messy and raw. Maybe by using a similar technique, I could combine the two styles into one piece. this is something I want to play around with.

This would mean that the pieces would have to be presented quite large, maybe not to the scale of Basquiat’s work, but large enough to see the details. This means I’m going to have to start working bigger. My confidence in my work is improving, and am now feeling like I’ve outgrown an A5 sketchbook. I’m going to move up to an A4 sketchbook as I have early finished my current book, so will be able to get more detail in each piece and not feel so constricted.

Five Fish Species, 1983 – Jean-Michel Basquiat

Basquit and William S Burroughs were very good friends, and this piece is about the story of when Burroughs accidentally killed his wife by shooting her in the head. This story is told in Burrough’s book “Naked Lunch”. This tripych is loaded with symbols, something Basquiat increasingly used in his work. He combined and clashed high and low culture in his use of symbols and was obsessed with their semiotics. For example, in this piece, he uses “hobo symbols” in the form of bold circles and lines, meaning a combination of “good road to follow” and “nothing to be gained here”. I started to think that maybe the inclusion of “hobo” symbols are not only to combine high and low culture but also make the work more accessible to a wider audience.

I want to start looking deeper into symbols and their semiotics. I am conscious that it is easy to get bogged down with symbols, but I would like to explore their possibilities and include some in my work for more accessibility and a greater understanding of its meaning.

Overall, the exhibition was incredibly interesting and eye opening. It has given me a new level of appreciation for Basquiat’s work as well as some ideas that I want to work on in the near future. I will go back to my sketchbook and Photoshop to play around with some of these ideas and will blog about these soon.



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