Basquiat: Boom for Real review

4 out of 5 stars
4 out of 5 stars
(4user reviews)
Photographer: Jean-Michel Basquiat, 'Untitled', 1982. Courtesy Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen, Rotterdam. Photo: Studio Tromp, Rotterdam. 
 (Robert Gerhardt and Denis Y. Suspitsyn)
Robert Gerhardt and Denis Y. Suspitsyn Jean-Michel Basquiat, 'Hollywood Africans', 1983. Courtesy Whitney Museum of American Art. © Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/ ADAGP, Paris. 
Jean-Michel Basquiat on the set of 'Downtown 81', ‘LIKE AN IGNORANT EASTER SUIT’. Photo: Edo Bertoglio ©New York Beat Film LLC. By permission of the estate of Jean-Michel Basquiat. 

Time Out says

4 out of 5 stars

How much had you achieved by the age of 27? Me, I had a useless degree and a lot of poorly completed JSA workbooks. Nice one. Jean-Michel Basquiat, on the other hand, had become the biggest young artist of his generation: rich, gorgeous, successful and influential. And then, nothing. Because at 27, in 1988, Basquiat died of a drug overdose. He burnt brightly, and burnt very, very quickly.

Basquiat was an art-world darling from his early days as part of cryptically snarky graffiti duo SAMO© (short for same old shit) through to his collaborations with Andy Warhol and his big later canvases. He was constantly collected and endlessly celebrated, and this sprawling show – the first major retrospective in the UK ever, apparently – unpicks all the elements that made him so special.

It starts upstairs with a recreation of his bit of the famous ‘New York/New Wave’ exhibition in 1981. This was his announcement to the world, and holy fucking wow, what a statement. The works are a collision of graffiti smears, naïve imagery, expressionistic splodges and the grim grime of the city streets. Art history, poetry, personal scraps and street art, all splashed everywhere. The rest of the upstairs explores how hip hop, clubbing and collaborating shaped his work. Each room features one or two major works and a raft of photos and sketches. There’s a brilliant Warhol/Basquiat mashup based on the Arm & Hammer logo and a room of gorgeously aggressive self-portraits. But there’s a lot of documentation, a lot of background info, and a hell of a lot of wall texts. You just sort of wish they’d shut up and leave the paintings to speak for themselves. It’s so overloaded that it almost overwhelms the art.

Almost. Because Basquiat is still Basquiat, and a lot of this is staggering. Downstairs the art’s given centre stage and you finally start to get what the fuss is really about. His whole world is in every canvas. Jazz, boxing, Egyptian history, film, TV, Warhol, Matisse, anatomy, poetry, all smashed together in a frenetic art hurricane.

A lot of his work is a mess, but that mess often coalesces into a joyful, angry, pulsating mass of colour and symbolism. ‘Ishtar’ is electric with blue-greens, hieroglyphs and clenched jaws. The massive ‘Glenn’ whacks a giant fire-breathing head over pages of sketches. Some of this is thrilling, other bits descend into indistinguishable chaos.

But chaos or perfection, Basquiat matters. His work is an attack on the limitations imposed on black Americans, filled with freedom and history and passion and beauty. Sure, Basquiat was more of an assimilator, an aggregator than a revolutionary, but his world is one of possibility and potential. It’s just sad that he never got to fulfil it properly.



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4 out of 5 stars

Average User Rating

4.3 / 5

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1 of 2 found helpful

Basquiat is a fascinating and exciting figure, and the three star rating I'm giving the show is not a reflection on his body of work, but rather on the slightly off tone in the presentation of his work somewhere as big as the Barbican.

The clean Barbican exhibition space, populated by middle-class mothers and their children, jars with Basquiat's work, the details of his life, and the nature of how he met his end. Everything feels too sanitised, which prevents you from experiencing the full power of the things he created. It did not sit well with me.

However, the exhibition is still and interesting insight into a rarely exhibited artist, so I would still recommend that you go and see it: just be aware of the culture clash.


I didn't really know who Basquiat was until I went to the exhibition. But I always love the exhibitions at the Barbican as they don't just show artwork from the artist they really tell the story of their life and their influences which I think helps to really drive an overall understanding of the artist.

This one did the most amazing job of bringing his work to live starting from the graffiti days in Harlem to working with some of the biggest names in art.

A fascinating look at a modern artist who had a huge influence in modern culture.

Well done to the Barbican for introducing us all to more works of Basquiat. Yes, there are middle class mothers and their children, but all are mesmerised by his work and the exhibition gains, rather than detracts, from being open to all. What would you prefer, an adult only exhibition down a seedy alleyway?


Basquiat at the Barbican is a great way to discover one of the most influential artists in street art, yet one that doesn't often have dedicated exhibitions. Over 2 floors, you get to follow Basquiat's career, from selling postcards in front of the MoMa to his encounters with Andy Warhol. The ground floor is mainly about Basquiat's inspirations, from books to other artworks, you get to understand how rich his paintings are. An incredible artist who left inspiring artworks from his short but bright career.