Many of Basquiat’s earliest drawings and paintings are presented in the exhibition’s opening rooms. These trace something of the artist’s beginnings as a street-based artist prior to his meteoric rise into the upper echelons of New York’s contemporary art circuit in the 1980s. Many of the earlier works, such as ‘Untitled’ (1981), in which the outline of a car is spray painted on to a section of found upholstery foam, show Basquiat not only utilising the language of the street but its materials too. These are not the tentative experiments of a young artist, but highly confident, bold and visceral gestures that smack of meaning something, of earnestness.
Basquiat’s signature tag or leitmotif, the crown, appears frequently. His works present black men as kings, warriors and sports stars: the crown variously operates as a symbol of royalty, a halo or a crown of thorns. Identities are presented, complicated, layered up and symbolically washed over with paint. Masks and mask-like faces play a similar role. In ‘Self-Portrait’ (1983) Basquiat is flattened, his head and shoulders reduced to a block of black acrylic paint. A pair of narrowed eyes gleam from the paper beneath. They bore straight through the viewer, accusatory, yet it is difficult to determine whether the mask is looked at or looked through.
It goes without saying that so much of Basquiat’s practice resonates soundly with contemporary politics. In particular, ‘The Death of Michael Stewart’ (1983), made in response to the murder of his artist friend by police, parallels the recent high-profile deaths of Freddie Gray, Michael Brown and others, foregrounding the urgent and continuing crisis in US race relations. Audio extracts from Martin Luther King and from Charlie Parker’s 1945 jazz track, both of which lend Basquiat’s exhibition its title, can be heard within the gallery, for language, music and art are always bound up with the political.
A seemingly contradictory engagement with capitalism is at work here too, though. For on one hand, Basquiat’s works criticise the obscenity of wealth and dominant power structures, as in ‘Untitled (False Economy)’ (1985) and ‘Loans’ (1981), and yet his extended series of paintings made in collaboration with Andy Warhol during this same short period trade in the lexicons of advertising and global branding strategies. Along with significant commercial success in his short lifetime, Basquiat’s position on the subject is difficult to pin down, and the irony that so many of his works now belong within hugely valuable private collections is not lost.
Jean-Michel Basquiat: Now’s the Time
3 July – 1 November 2015
Review by Anneka French
Published by this is tomorrow, 12 August 2015