The explosive works of Jean-Michel Basquiat, a trailblazer of the New York art scene of the 1970s and 80s, are to be shown in London starting this week in his first major British exhibition.
The former graffiti artist, who died in 1988 at just 27 years old, mined a huge range of influences including jazz, pop culture, abstract and primitive art and old masters in producing his dynamic and distinctive paintings, earning him a devout legion of supporters.
“These works are able to induce almost maniacal passion in people, once you get hooked there’s no going back,” said Eleanor Nairne, curator at Barbican Art Gallery, where the exhibition will open on Thursday.
“His work is really expressive, loose, free,” she said. “Very rough and ready, but with that raw texture to it, teeming with thoughts, influences.”
His “Untitled” work sold for a record $110.5 million (92 million euros) in New York this year, a sign the increasingly high esteem in which his work is held.
The vibrant, busy pieces reveal a stream of consciousness, absorbing influences from high and pop culture, including jazz master Charlie Parker, Leonardo da Vinci, Henri Matisse and the Looney Tunes’s Road Runner and reproducing them in abstract forms.
Common motifs include the use of symbols and text, often repeated in blocks, exploring themes such as colonialism and class politics.
– ‘Beginning of information age’ –
Nairne said Basquiat had a “seismic impact not just on contemporary art, but much more broadly, in fashion and in media, whether it be Jay Z or Banksy.”
Basquiat, born in 1960, learned his trade in the late 1970s in the post-punk underground art scene in downtown New York, being a protege of pop-art icon Andy Warhol and becoming a pioneer of multi-media work.
He also played in a band as part of the scene that spawned artists such as Blondie and the Ramones, and his use of chopped-up samples in his paintings echoed similar techniques being used at the same time by hip-hop pioneers like Grandmaster Flash.
“This is an artist who has this insatiable appetite for information,” said Nairne. “We might think of this as the beginning of the information age.”
“He always had the television on in the studio, always had books spread open and music playing. He was able to sample from a lot of material.”
Since his death of a heroin overdose, Basquiat has had little exposure in Britain.
The Barbican Centre worked with international museums and private collections for three years to secure more than 100 works, from vast paintings like “King of Zulu” to handwritten poems influenced by beat poet William S. Burroughs.
British graffiti artist Banksy counts himself one of Basquiat’s biggest fans, and caused a stir by producing two new works close to the Barbican, one pointing out the irony of holding the show in a neighbourhood largely devoid of street art.
Among those coming to survey Banksy’s latest works were Sharon De Boos and her young daughter Elise.
“I wanted to show my daughter, she’s never heard of Banksy so I thought I’d show her, it’s something different,” De Boos said.