Bowie, Bach and Bebop: How music powered Basquiat

 In 1979, at 19, artist Jean-Michel Basquiat moved into an abandoned apartment on East 12th Street in Manhattan with his girlfriend at the time, Alexis Adler. The home, a sixth-floor walk-up, was rundown and sparsely furnished. Basquiat, broke and unable to afford canvases, painted with abandon on the walls and floor, even on Adler’s clothes.

The one item that remained undisturbed was Adler’s stereo, which had pride of place on a shelf scavenged from the street.

“The main thing for us was having big speakers and a blasting stereo. That was the only furniture I purchased myself,” said Adler, who still lives in the apartment. When Basquiat was around, she recalled, “music was playing all the time.”

On Thursday, the exhibition Basquiat: Boom for Real opened at the Barbican Center in London. The show focuses on the artist’s relationship to music, text, film and television. But it is jazz — the musical style that made up the bulk of Basquiat’s huge record collection — that looms largest as a source of personal inspiration to him and as a subject matter.

Jean-Michel Basquiat’s ‘Glenn’, 1984 (The Estate of Jean-Michel Basquiat. Licensed by Artestar, New York)

The first major retrospective of his work in Britain, it is a kind of homecoming for Basquiat’s art: In 1984, the first institutional show of his work opened at the Fruitmarket Gallery in Edinburgh, and then travelled to the Institute of Contemporary Arts in London. In a satisfying closing of a circle, a large drawing that Basquiat made in London for the institute’s exhibition, but that ended up not being shown there, will go on display at the Barbican.

Basquiat’s tastes were eclectic: Curtis Mayfield, Donna Summer, Bach, Beethoven, David Byrne, Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, Aretha Franklin, Public Image Ltd.’s Metal Box album. “And he had his favourite tracks that he would just play and play,” Adler said. “Bowie’s Low, definitely. And the second side of Heroes. The influence of music was huge.”

Basquiat eventually amassed a collection of more than 3,000 albums. It spanned blues, classical, soul, disco and even zydeco, a type of popular music from southern Louisiana. He also made his own music: as the leader of Gray, an experimental art noise quartet; as the producer of the single “Beat Bop”; and as a DJ at venues like the scene-setting Mudd Club in Tribeca.

Basquiat made frequent references in his work to the musicians he most admired. He paid…

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