Basquiat, Boom For Real, Barbican Art Gallery, London, review: The art itself is drowned by fame-frothy noise and visuals

This is not so much an art exhibition as an excessively documented account of a social and political phenomenon called Jean-Michel Basquiat, a not especially socially disadvantaged black artist from Brooklyn (his mother was taking him to exhibitions at MoMa as a child), who was born in 1960, died from a heroin overdose in 1988, and whose paintings now sell for upwards of $100 million dollars at auction. There’s no mention of his death in this show. It’s all about him being on the ever more exciting up and up.

Is that a criticism? Yes, because the art itself – the exhibition’s fundamental reason for being, surely – gets a little drowned out by all the circumambient, fame-frothy noise and visuals – what circles he moved in; how he got to know Warhol, etc. All this attention to the detailing of an individual life – the least scrap of signed paper, the most inept scrawling on a matchbox, is worthy of our reverent scrutiny, apparently – puts the cart before the horse. It leads us to assume that Basquiat is, we have already all agreed, a great and highly significant artist without much trying to prove that to be the case. 

Well, there’s nowt quite so queer as commerce, you might say. So we begin, right beside the entrance to the show, with a display of Basquiat t-shirts, Basquiat books, Basquiat this, that and the other.. Then the noise of a rasping sax seizes us by the throat – the boy loved nothing more than Bird and Be-Bop – and we stare up at a giant screen where he is dancing in his studio. The art of any real significance comes drip by intermittent drip between the many diversions which oblige us to reflect upon everything to do with the life that he lived in New York City from 1979 on, when he had his first work in a show.

Jean-Michel Basquiat, ‘Self Portrait’, 1984 (Jean-Michel Basquiat/Barbican)

What is the work itself like then? It’s frenzied, on the hoof, and often made, we’re told, to the accompaniment of music drilling in the ear. As a child, he had ambitions to be a cartoonist, and cartooning, throughout, is a big part of what he did. The work is wild, unpremeditated, improvisatory, with all the violent, ad-libbing elasticity of the moment. The cartooning comes compacted together with text, daubings of furious colour swatches, the snatching of found images from anywhere and everywhere.

Jean-Michel Basquiat on the set of Downtown 81 (©New York Beat Film LLC. By permission of The Estate of Jean-Michel Basquiat.Photo: Edo…

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