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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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The Independent Group & The Independent Group

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Bryan Ferry: This is Tomorrow (Polydor)

This week I’ve been reading Alastair Sooke’s Pop Art: A Colourful History which includes a long chapter on the rise of British Pop Art.

Sooke is a critic who has been known to take a slagging but I’m especially enjoying reading about Peter Blake, who will always be best remembered as the co-creator of the cover of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band but who has also designed album sleeves for Paul Weller, Pentangle, The Who and the John Peel tribute album Right Time, Wrong Speed, as well as producing paintings, prints, drawings and sculptures that have found their way into the collections of many of the world’s finest galleries.

It’s fascinating to read about the young artist who in the post-war years looked across the Atlantic with envy. Britain was drab and dreary in comparison, a nation of rationing, a single TV channel and beige wallpaper while for many young people America represented glamour – a world of colour, Coca Cola, fast food and Hollywood.

Even in London it proved impossible for him to find a pair of jeans. He bought some work overalls made with a material that resembled denim, cut off the top off and created his own makeshift version.

Of one of his paintings of the time, he says: ‘Self-Portrait with Badges was about the unusualness of wearing jeans and trainers – people only wore trainers then for sport. And the idea of an adult with a lot of badges didn’t exist. People would have thought I was mad.’

People only wearing trainers for sport? Changed days, eh?

Some see Blake as the Godfather of Pop Art with his paintings of film stars, pin-ups, wrestlers, tattooed women – a far from common sight at the time – and, of course, pop artists of another kind like Elvis and Bo Diddley.

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Sooke contrasts Blake’s work with that of the informal artistic gathering of artists, architects and theorists that became known as the Independent Group. They can also be seen as forerunners of Pop. Formed at the ICA in London, like Blake, the IG were also mesmerized by the shiny new world represented by the USA, especially in their case automobiles, movies, comics and science fiction magazines.

Unlike Blake though, the IG took a stringent, intellectual view of these phenomena, they wanted to analyse the relationship between so-called ‘high’ and ‘low’ culture, while Blake simply wanted to enjoy.

‘When are you getting to Bryan Ferry?’ I hear some of you asking.

Soon. Honestly.

just-what-is-it-that-makes-todays-homes-so-different-so-appealing this-is-tomorrow-installation-shot

Just as Blake will be remembered for an iconic album cover, the Independent Group will likely remain collectively best known for a seminal 1956 exhibition that they staged at London’s Whitechapel Gallery.

The theme of the collaborative show was the ‘modern’ way of living and the most imaginative representation of this was a collage by prominent member Richard Hamilton, Just What Is It that Makes Today’s Homes So Different, So Appealing? featured in the catalogue and some promotional posters (that’s it above left, next to a photo of an installation Hamilton helped create for the exhibition). The name of the show was This Is Tomorrow – yes, the inspiration for the first single from Bryan Ferry’s fourth solo album, In Your Mind.

Many decades before he got into the whole hobnobbing with toffs scene and raising his son to be immensely proud of killing foxes, Ferry had been a promising art student and was taught at Newcastle Uni’s art department by Hamilton, who like Blake went on to design an album cover for The Beatles, in his case, The White Album.

Actually Ferry had taken the name of the debut Roxy Music single, Virginia Plain, from one of his own Pop Art influenced watercolours of his student days under Hamilton and the older artist went on to influence Ferry in his music career, which Ferry has been happy to acknowledge: ‘Certainly some of the early songs were very collage like – where I’d actually throw different styles of music into the same song,’ he told Michael Bracewell in the book Re-Make/Re-Model. The title of his next album, 1978’s The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, was borrowed from a conceptual artwork by Marcel Duchamp, a piece Hamilton recreated for a Duchamp retrospective during the 1960s at the Tate.

Hamilton, incidentally, didn’t like being labelled as a Pop Artist and he didn’t approve of the This is Tomorrow title for the exhibition either, telling Bracewell: ‘Nobody can say what tomorrow’s going to be like – let’s concentrate on today.’

A good point maybe but let’s actually concentrate instead for a few minutes at least on a track from January 1977. With Chris ‘Motorbikin’ Spedding on guitar and Roxy’s Paul Thompson on drums, this is Bryan Ferry with This is Tomorrow:


For more on Bryan Ferry, click here. For more on Richard Hamilton, here’s a segment from a Channel 4 documentary that also features Ferry.

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In Glasgow, The Independent Group was the name given to the collection of musicians that worked with Paul Quinn on his work for the reactivated Postcard label.

Was Quinn, or label boss Alan Horne, inspired by the name of the London based art grouping?

I suspect so but I’m guessing.

Sacrilege I know but I’ve never been that keen on Quinn’s voice, although I did absolutely adore Will I Ever Be Inside of You? where he was aided and abetted by the exquisite, celestial vocals of Jane Marie O’Brien.

From 1994, this is Paul Quinn and the Independent Group with Will I Ever Be Inside of You?:

 
Footnote:

Some years ago I went along to see Hamilton’s show, Protest Pictures, at Inverleith House in Edinburgh, a space where I’ve also seen work by artists of the calibre of Douglas Gordon, Lucy McKenzie, Cy Twombly and Jim Lambie. Inverleith House is a fantastic place to see contemporary art but one which, sadly, will no longer do so after tomorrow. Which is a shame.