Jean-Michel Basquiat - Two Heads

Over the weekend I’ll be spending some time in London where one highlight of the trip should be the Jean-Michel Basquiat exhibition Boom For Real at the Barbican.

Back in the 1980s I remember reading a copy of Art Monthly magazine, the cover reproducing a painting by Hans Haacke titled Taking Stock that acted as a conceptual critique of the involvement of Saatchi and Saatchi in the international art world, the Saatchis at the time being the favoured PR company of the Tory Party. This was Haacke’s favoured modus operandi, investigating the links between the art world and capitalist corporations. A key to the work was necessary to understand it fully.

The artist might be making valid points but I doubt that Taking Stock changed the opinion of a single person who viewed it and could Haacke not just have written an essay on the subject instead?

Much more satisfying was an article focussing on New York artist Jean-Michel Basquiat, a self-taught painter still only in his early 20s, who’d started out as a graffiti artist, using the tag Samo on the streets of SoHo and the East Village. Fiercely creative, his improvisatory work was bold and vividly coloured. It engaged the eye and mind rigorously with a mixture of hieroglyphics, tribal art, bits of mysterious text and logos while referencing a diverse range of sources such as Gray’s Anatomy and Leonardo Da Vinci’s sketchbooks.

Jean-Michel Basquiat's Hollywood Africans (1983)

For me, the NYC of this era conjures up images of scuzzy lo-fi movies like Abel Ferrara’s Driller Killer and Susan Seidelman’s Smithereens; early rap, no wave and punk funk; and graffiti art by the likes of Kenny Scharf, Futura 2000, Keith Haring, Fab 5 Freddy and Jean-Michel Basquiat.

A member of the Brooklyn based graffiti collective the Fabulous 5, Freddy also rapped while Jean-Michel co-founded his own ‘noise’ band Gray. Both became regular guests on Glen O’Brien’s live cable show TV Party where they would meet many other talented young artists from varying fields and make connections.

The city had transformed itself into a cultural melting pot where ‘high’ and ‘low’ art, uptown and downtown increasingly collided. The burgeoning graffiti scene was moving from subway train to art gallery, just as other underground movements manoeuvred themselves overground.

Fab 5 Freddy's SoupCans

Early in 1981, Jean-Michel and Freddy took part in the New York/New Wave exhibition at PS. 1. Later dubbed ‘The Armory Show of the ’80s’, this mammoth show embraced art, music, fashion, photography and cartoons. A few months later Jean-Michel was shown at the seminal Beyond Words graffiti show at the Mudd Club in Lower Manhattan, an exhibition co-curated by Futura 2000 (who went on to colloborate with The Clash) and Fab 5 Freddy, the venue being a favoured hangout for a variety of artists from Robert Mapplethorpe to Madonna, Kathy Acker to Klaus Nomi.

Arguably the highpoint of all this artistic cross-pollination was Blondie’s American #1 single Rapture with Freddy and Jean-Michel both making cameo appearances in the promo – that’s Freddy in the background creating some graffiti while Jean-Michel is the DJ that Debbie Harry gets chatting to around the two-minute mark. He was actually standing in for Grandmaster Flash who couldn’t make the shoot.

And who was the first person to buy a Basquiat?

Debbie Harry, that’s who.

 
I have read a coupla eejits online writing off Rapture as another example of ‘whitey’ stealing black culture and dumbing down the content but, firstly, this fails to point out that this kind of thing was a two-way street. A number of hiphop related acts repeatedly sampled acts like Kraftwerk, Queen and The Incredible Bongo Band. Or, as another example, look at how Fab 5 Freddy reappropriated Andy Warhol’s soup cans for a massive mural on a subway train.

As for dumbing down, well, Debbie’s rap certainly doesn’t take itself very seriously and could even be called spectacularly daft but in the days before the release of The Message, rap wasn’t exactly socially conscious and thought-provoking, the average track consisting mainly of egotistical boasting together with a few ‘throw your hands up in the air’ or ‘Lemme hear you say paaaaaarrrrrty’ chants and some overused sample (and if in doubt chuck in a little Good Times seemed to be the motto of many on the scene).

And finally some more NYC music from the era. This is Afrika Bambaataa & Soulsonic Force with Planet Rock, a track that sampled Kraftwerk’s Trans-Europe Express and Numbers very imaginatively:


The Jean-Michel Basquiat exhibition continues in London until 28 Jan 2018. For more information click here.

If you fancy having a gander at the recent BBC documentary Basquiat – Rage to Riches head here. You have seventeen days left to view it if you pay your license or know your way round a good proxy site.

The three images used in this post are Untitled (Two Heads on Gold) & Hollywood Africans by Jean-Michel Basquiat, both from 1982, and Fab 5 Freddy’s Soup Cans of 1980.

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