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.