Jean Dubuffet: Brutal Beauty @ Barbican

‘The things we truly love, which form the basis of our being, we generally never look at.’

This is a wonderful exhibition, I enjoyed it very much indeed, went round four times and lingered in front of half a dozen standout pieces. After a year in lockdown, I found its  visual energy and originality and diversity immensely refreshing and revivifying.

In a nutshell, Jean Dubuffet (1901 to 1985) rejected the entire tradition of Western art, condemned the whole idea of ‘culture’ as it was understood in his day. As he put it:

Cultural art in its entirety appears to be the game of a futile society, a fallacious parade.

So he set about making art from scratch, basing his aesthetic on graffiti, children’s drawings, finding inspiration in the streets, the look and feel of bricks and dirt and stone and earth, experimenting with found materials like broken glass and torn fabrics, coal dust, pebbles, snips of string, butterfly wings, weeds, handfuls of gravel, unusual industrial oils and waxes and so on.

It sounds dire, but the two big take-homes from this exhibition are that:

  1. in his 45 or so years as a practising artist (1940 to 1985) Dubuffet developed an amazing range of distinct visual styles or approaches
  2. in each of these styles or approaches he created masterpieces, some of them quite stunningly beautiful

‘Jean Dubuffet: Brutal Beauty’ is the first major UK exhibition of Dubuffet’s work in over 50 years, and it is big – it brings together more than 150 works from early portraits, lithographs and fantastical statues to enamel paintings, butterfly assemblages and the later, giant colourful canvases – but it isn’t big enough. I’d liked to have seen more, much more.

Coursegoules by Jean Dubuffet (November 1956) Musée des Arts Décoratifs, Paris © 2021 ADAGP, Paris/DACS, London © MAD, Paris/Jean Tholanc

Intro

The exhibition begins on the first floor with each of the dozen or so rooms filled with works which reflected his styles from about 1940 to 1961. These are very varied, with each room devoted to a different theme or project. They’re all quite small. It is a succession of rooms of small or medium sized paintings and small sculptures.

The exhibition explodes when you come back down to the ground floor and the 6 or so rooms here which feature a succession of big, awesome and sometimes overwhelming works. It’s a great adventure.

There’s a big introduction wall label, supplemented by a biographical timeline, and both bring out the unusual way that, although he moved from his native Le Havre to Paris when he was 17 to study at the prestigious Académie Julian, he left after six months, realising that he could create his own syllabus of favourite subjects, which included philosophy, literature and ethnography. Although he made friends with fellow artists such as becoming close friends with the artists Juan Gris, André Masson, and Fernand Léger, he preferred to go back to Le Havre, marry and work for his father’s own wine business.

In the 1930s he established his own business and was still running it when the Germans invaded France in 1940 and it is typical of his stroppy, anti-establishment contrarianism that, later in life, he boasted about all the fine wine he sold to the occupying Wehrmacht.

1940s

In 1942 Dubuffet decided to start painting again, and adopted a naive style for painting scenes from Paris life. Early on he abandoned the traditional method of applying oil paint to canvas with a brush and instead created a paste into which he could create physical marks, such as scratches and slash marks. In 1944, as the Americans landed on the Normandy beaches, Dubuffet created a series in which he wrote rough, scrawled ironic messages in the style of graffiti onto fragments of newspaper.

In 1945 Dubuffet began to make portraits of friends. They impressed the wealthy American expatriate Florence Gould, and he ended up doing portraits in pen and ink or oil of most of her circle. He would stare at them for hours then go back to his studio and draw or paint them from memory, the key elements of their faces emerging in childish caricatures.

Dhôtel by Jean Dubuffet (July–August 1947) Private Collection © ADAGP,Paris and DACS, London

In 1947 Dubuffet had his first solo exhibition in America, which was a success among young American artists rebelling against the European tradition and looking for new directions. He met and impressed Jackson Pollock and there’s something of Pollock in his earth paintings and, more surprisingly, in his very late paintings (see below).

Between 1947 and 1949, Dubuffet took three separate trips to Algeria, learned some Arabic and spent time in the desert with bedouin. When he returned to Paris he developed his thickly painted style into a specific set of desert paintings, trying to recapture the primeval sensation of being far from traditional culture, almost alone with the universe, the dense clotted surface gripping meaning, existence and all those other existentialist buzzwords.

Exaltation du ciel by Jean Dubuffet (1952)

Right from the start Dubuffet had dismissed the traditional concept of perspective. You can see it in these desert paintings where 90% of the picture represents the earth with only a sliver of sky at the top, creating a claustrophobic sense of total immersion.It is also a dominant feature of the butterfly paintings

1950s

In the 1950s Dubuffet moved to Vence in the South of France where the climate would be better for his wife, Lili, who had weak lungs. He was inspired by the natural scenery. In 1953 he was on holiday with his friend Pierre Bettencourt who was a lepidopterist, catching butterflies and sticking them to boards. This inspired Dubuffet to experiment with incorporating butterfly wings into paintings. The result was a series of entrancing painting-collages. These were really lovely, inspiring, worth dwelling over each one and savouring.

Landscape with Argus by Jean Dubuffet (August 1955) Collection Fondation Dubuffet, Paris © ADAGP, Paris and DACS, London

In the late 1950s (starting September 1957) Dubuffet embarked on a new series which he called ‘Texturologies’. He developed a technique of putting oil paint onto branches of trees or bushes and then speckling canvases. Sounds silly but the result is a set of captivating canvases which can be enjoyed from metres away as shimmering collections of micro-spots or from close up as surfaces teeming with thousands of dots of a range of earth colours.

Jean Dubuffet with soil (1958) (© Archives Fondation Dubuffet, Paris; photo: Jean Weber and © Fondation Gianadda, Martigny)

1960s

In 1961 Dubuffet returned to Paris after 6 years’ absence and was astonished at its transformation from battered survivor of the war to booming consumer society. He developed an entirely new aesthetic (or reapplied his existing one) to capture the busy-ness of the capital’s streets – what he called the Paris Circus – in paintings which were consistently large and dominating. Many have a deliberately sketchy scrappy style, scratchy but vivid and alive. I was particularly entranced by La main dans le sac.

Caught in the Act by Jean Dubuffet (September 1961) Collection Van Abbemuseum, Eindhoven © 2021 ADAGP, Paris/DACS, London © Peter Cox, Eindhoven, The Netherlands

Right from the start of his career Dubuffet had ignored the entire tradition of perspective, preferring to create a two-dimensional presentation of space, filling every inch of the picture plane, sometimes overlapping solid objects as in the butterfly collages. It is this utter rejection of perspective and a child’s motivation to fill every centimetre of the surface which creates the cramped effect of his works.

L’Hourloupe

One day in 1962 Dubuffet was doodling during a phone call, creating zoomorphic rounded shapes then colouring them with tints of blue and red and stumbled across an entirely new look. He called them ‘L’Hourloupe’ and they developed into a whole new cycle of work, created over a decade and encompassing paintings, sculptures, architectural environments and performances. He created 175 freestanding pieces which he called praticables.

The series culminated in a theatrical performance of a show named ‘Coucou Bazar’ at the Guggenheim Museum in New York in 1973 performed to music composed by Ilhan Mimaroglu. This ‘living painting’ was a one-hour spectacle with sixty artworks animated by performers, motors and remote control. Later the show was recreated in Paris, and then, in 1978, in Turin with music composed by Dubuffet himself. My God, what would that have sounded like?

Hourloupe figures by Jean Dubuffet at the Barbican (photo by the author)

The room devoted to the Hourloupe pieces is the largest in the exhibition and, as well as half a dozen large paintings in this style, it includes a low stage holding no fewer than 16 of the life sized cutouts and four dazzling costumes. This was an amazing visual spectacle. I was entranced. I looked at them from all angles possible. So simple, just doodly lines of black against pure white and tinted with blue and red, so big and fun and goofy and strange and delirious.

Hourloupe figure by Jean Dubuffet at the Barbican (photo by the author)

1970s

In the second half of the 1970s Dubuffet created a series titled ‘Theatres of Memory’, a reference to the history book, The Art of Memory by Frances Yates. They are a return to assemblage (the term he preferred to collage) layering fragments of paintings over each other, arranging and rearranging cutout figures, colours and shapes into the discreet panels.

The largest and one of the most stunning pieces in the show is Vicissitudes (1977). At over 3.5 metres wide it’s huge and fills an entire wall. Dubuffet was now 75 and making works like this involved ‘a good deal of gymnastic exercise on a ladder’. I found myself totally absorbed by this piece, and came back to it again and again.

Installation view of Vicissitudes by Jean Dubuffet at the Barbican (photo by the author)

I love the way it’s made of panels which each have a distinct colour palette and style; but the way the panels are very much not arranged symmetrically or classically and yet, at the same time, feel right. The arrangement and patterning feels just so. This has been true throughout the exhibition.

Works from this series were exhibited in New York in 1979 and influenced, among others, artists Keith Haring and Jean-Michel Basquiat, and my first reaction on seeing it was ‘Basquiat!’, not least because these very same galleries hosted a massive and awesome Basquiat exhibition just two years ago.

1980s

At the end of the 1970s Dubuffet returned to black and white ink drawings, now with the fluid grace of a master. I liked these a lot, but they were a bit eclipsed by another series of large colour paintings, which he called Mires, dense clusters of interweaving lines and shapes in primary colours. Whereas the Theatre of Memory pieces had recognisable, if cartoon-like, faces and other real world objects, the Mires are exercises in pure colour and pattern, extensions of earlier ideas but also surprisingly reminiscent of the Jackson Pollock who he met in New York in the late 1940s.

Fulfilment (Epanouissement) by Jean Dubuffet (November 1984) Collection of Milly and Arne Glimcher © 2021 ADAGP, Paris/DACS, London, Courtesy Pace Gallery

Art brut

A key aspect of Dubuffet’s achievement was the almost single-handed establishment of the concept of art brut, which can be translated as ‘raw art’, in the 1940s, and which later acquired the tag, in the English-speaking world, Outsider Art. (The term outsider art was coined by art critic Roger Cardinal in 1972.)

From the outset, Dubuffet was drawn to other untrained artists, graffitists, tattooists, spiritualists, prisoners in gaol or inmates of asylums, whose creativity felt much more inspiring to him than anything on display in the city’s museums. From 1945 he began to collect them in a systematic way, always keeping his eye open for the strange and non-conformist. During and after the war he built up his own collection of such art, which he called art brut or ‘raw art’.

In 1948 he formed the Compagnie de l’Art Brut along with other artists, including André Breton. The collection he established became known as the Collection de l’art brut. It contains thousands of works and is now permanently housed in Lausanne, Switzerland.

He believed that mainstream culture, fully incorporated into international capitalist consumer culture, assimilates every new development in art, and by doing so takes away whatever power to disturb or astonish that it might have had. The result is to asphyxiate genuine expression. Art brut was his solution: only art brut is immune to the ravening maw of ‘culture’, cannot be easily absorbed and assimilated, because the artists themselves were not willing or able to be assimilated.

Thus a major aspect of the exhibition, a simple but inspired idea by the curators, is to dedicate not one but two entire rooms to pieces from what grew into a huge collection of outsider art which Dubuffet himself amassed. 18 artists are featured from Dubuffet’s huge collection, including Aloïse Corbaz, Fleury-Joseph Crépin, Gaston Duf., but two artists, in particular, stood out for me:

Laure Pigeon

Laure Pigeon (1882 to 1965) was a French medium who produced an oeuvre of 500 drawings related to her Spiritualist practice. When he heard that her entire oeuvre was about to be thrown away after her death in 1965, Dubuffet rang the executors and asked if he could have them. The exhibition includes half a dozen examples of her dynamic dark blue cutouts, like Matisse with attitude.

11 December 1953 by Laure Pigeon (1953) Collection de l’Art Brut, Lausanne. Photograph by Marie Humair, Atelier de numérisation

Madge Gill

Madge Gill’s monumental calico drawings in which scores of cartoon faced-women appear trapped in huge, complex skeins of material.

Faces*

Faces by Madge Gill (1947)

The last room is showing a ten-minute video made up of excerpts from various films about him and interviews shot in the 60s and 70s and 80s. At one point he says there’s only really one way of being normal and it’s boring; but there are a 100 million ways of not being normal and they are all fascinating!

Here’s a montage of Dubuffet art works which gives you a good sense of the variety of impression he could create from such disparate materials.


Related links

Reviews of other exhibitions at the Barbican

And concerts

Basquiat: Boom for Real @ the Barbican

This exhibition is great!

Jean-Michel Basquiat (1960-88) was cool and street in a way hardly any artists are, even today. He did graffiti, made goofy postcards, he was in bands, he DJed at clubs, he liked bebop, hung out with early rappers, painted, drew and created art constantly out of the bombardment of signs, images, words and phrases which surrounded him in the grimy, vibrant New York of the early 1980s.

King of the Zulus (1984-85) by Jean-Michel Basquiat. Photo © Tristan Fewings/Getty Images. Artwork © The Estate of Jean-Michel Basquiat. Licensed by Artestar, New York

King of the Zulus (1984-85) by Jean-Michel Basquiat. Photo © Tristan Fewings/Getty Images. Artwork © The Estate of Jean-Michel Basquiat. Licensed by Artestar, New York

Born in 1960, the son of a Haitian father and a Puerto Rican mother, Basquiat grew up in the post-punk scene in Lower Manhattan. New Wave/No Wave they called it. He attended the alternative school, City-As-School High School, where he came to attention after he developed the moniker SAMO©, along with Al Diaz and other friends, to use in graffiti all across the city. They covered buildings all over the Lower East Side with witty, snappy, poetic or satirical slogans.

SAMO originated in the stoned 17-year-olds talking about smoking the ‘same old shit’ but quickly became a cult movement, with claims and counter-claims about ‘original’ SAMOs, with other artists on the scene photographing the graffitos, exhibiting them and so on. Examples include:

SAMO© AS A CONGLOMERATE OF DORMANT GENIOUS

MY MOUTH / THEREFORE AN ERROR

Not your usual graffiti – it was puzzling, elliptical, intriguing. From really early on everything Basquiat touched had a kind of magic about it. And right from the start he was ambitious, concentrating the graffiti around the SoHo art galleries, currying attention with curators. When the Village Voice magazine finally revealed the identities of the hitherto anonymous authors, Basquiat and Diaz declared SAM dead, fellow artist Keith Haring delivered a mock eulogy at the bohemian Club 57, and Basquiat painted SAMO© IS DEAD over the old graffitos. But he continued to use the identity and the celebrity it had brought. At an arty party in 1979 Basquiat agreed to be captured on film creating a one-off SAMO© graffito on the wall of the art space where the party was happening.

A wall of photos of SAMO© graffiti by Jean-Michel Basquiat. Photo © Tristan Fewings/Getty Images. Artworks © The Estate of Jean-Michel Basquiat. Licensed by Artestar, New York

A wall of photos of SAMO© graffiti by Jean-Michel Basquiat. Photo © Tristan Fewings/Getty Images. Artworks © The Estate of Jean-Michel Basquiat. Licensed by Artestar, New York

With Jennifer Stein Basquiat started producing hand-made postcards – again from the detritus of the street – newspaper headlines, polaroid selfies, cigarette butts, posters, ads, random texts. Hard to imagine, but photocopying was a new technology, and their use of a rare colour photocopier showed an innovative approach to using mundane, workaday technology. On a now famous occasion Basquiat plucked up the courage to approach his hero Andy Warhol in a bar and sold him a card for one dollar.

By the turn of the decade Basquiat scraped together the resources to make paintings in an extremely rough, crude style, incorporating lots of text, phrases, slogans, street poetry, misspelled or misspelt, scrubbed out, as well as countless faces, graffiti with ambition, the street experience on canvas.

Hollywood Africans (1983) by Jean-Michel Basquiat. Photo © Tristan Fewings / Getty Images. Artwork © The Estate of Jean-Michel Basquiat/ Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/ ADAGP, Paris. Licensed by Artestar, New York.

Hollywood Africans (1983) by Jean-Michel Basquiat. Photo © Tristan Fewings / Getty Images. Artwork © The Estate of Jean-Michel Basquiat/ Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/ ADAGP, Paris. Licensed by Artestar, New York.

The graffiti is always there as a kind of substratum in the work, but after he exhibited in the scene-defining 1981 exhibition New York/New Wave, Basquiat began to sell pieces and get access to more resources, bigger canvases to mark with acrylics, oil, crayon, pen, using not just paint but wood, scrap metal, foam rubber, all sorts.

The results are scrappy, patchy, quick and dirty, but many are also stunning, stunningly alive, colourful, vibrant, spontaneous, magnificent, in your face, spooky. Of the 1,600 works on show from artists like Warhol, Mapplethorpe, David Byrne and so on, Basquiat was singled out by nearly all the critics. Galleries approached him with contracts, magazines wanted interviews.

Untitled (1982) by Jean-Michel Basquiat. Photo © Tristan Fewings/Getty Images. Artwork Courtesy Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen, Rotterdam. © The Estate of Jean-Michel Basquiat. Licensed by Artestar, New York.

Untitled (1982) by Jean-Michel Basquiat. Photo © Tristan Fewings/Getty Images. Artwork Courtesy Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen, Rotterdam. © The Estate of Jean-Michel Basquiat. Licensed by Artestar, New York

Numerous urban legends quickly gathered round him: a particularly entertaining one is that after his first formal introduction to Warhol at his Factory studio in October 1982, Basquiat rushed back to his gallery and knocked off a painting of himself and Warhol in just two hours and had his assistant take it round to Warhol’s studio still wet. The godfather of Pop was delighted and the two became firm friends. In fact, they went on to collaborate on some 100 works together.

Dos Cabezas (1982) by ean-Michel Basquiat. Photo © Tristan Fewings/Getty Images. Artwork © The Estate of Jean-Michel Basquiat. Licensed by Artestar, New York

Dos Cabezas (1982) by Jean-Michel Basquiat. Photo © Tristan Fewings/Getty Images. Artwork © The Estate of Jean-Michel Basquiat. Licensed by Artestar, New York

The exhibition includes out-takes from the episode of Warhol’s TV show in the 80s where the Bewigged One interviews Basquiat with his arm familiarly round his shoulders, joking and riffing. I see modern bloggers refer to it as a classic ‘bromance’. They collaborated, Warhol creating pop images which Basquiat defaced, rewrote, reinterpreted, remodelled. They did stylish photoshoots.

Andy Warhol and Jean-Michel Basquiat July 10, 1985, by Michael Halsband

Later on in the show, there’s a viewing room where you can see one of the few extended interviews Basquiat did, an amateur effort by some art world friends. Here and in almost all the images – photos, film clips, interviews, TV stuff and some rare footage of him dancing in the studio – he comes over as full of life. You rarely see artists in any medium smile so much – he has a hugely infectious boyish smile. In the scrappy New Wave vibe of Downtown New York, glamour was as important as talent and Basquiat has charisma in buckets.

Jean-Michel Basquiat dancing at the Mudd Club (1979) © Nicholas Taylor © Tristan Fewings/Getty Images

Jean-Michel Basquiat dancing at the Mudd Club (1979) © Nicholas Taylor © Tristan Fewings/Getty Images

But it’s not empty or baseless fame – this astonishingly young man was a fountain of creativity, graffiti turning into postcards and then overflowing into myriads of paintings, drawings, graffitied objects and readymades large and small, scrap-book montages, tell-tale silhouettes, endless self-portraits, notebooks packed full of poetry, film scripts and the bands he was in writing experimental music and lyrics, the DJing, hanging with early rap pioneers, a vortex of energy and exuberance.

Glenn (1984) by Jean-Michel Basquiat. Photo © Tristan Fewings/Getty Images. Artworks © The Estate of Jean-Michel Basquiat. Licensed by Artestar, New York

Glenn (1984) by Jean-Michel Basquiat. Photo © Tristan Fewings/Getty Images. Artworks © The Estate of Jean-Michel Basquiat. Licensed by Artestar, New York

I returned to this particular pair of works again and again. In the century of Picasso, Klee, Kokoschka and hundreds of other semi-figurative modernists, I hadn’t seen anything quite like these, the intuitive use of completely different palettes of colours, the confidence, the lack of fear, the forcefulness of the images blew me away.

Untitled (1983) and Self Portrait (1984) by Jean-Michel Basquiat. Photo © Tristan Fewings / Getty Images. Artwork © The Estate of Jean-Michel Basquiat. Licensed by Artestar, New York

Untitled (1983) and Self Portrait (1984) by Jean-Michel Basquiat. Photo © Tristan Fewings / Getty Images. Artwork © The Estate of Jean-Michel Basquiat. Licensed by Artestar, New York

This is a major exhibition, with both floors of the Barbican’s gallery packed with over 100 works – 14 rooms in all. The eight rooms on the top floor describe a chronological survey of Basquiat’s short life and prodigious output, while the six rooms on the ground floor investigate his influences, a dazzling kaleidoscope of material, from junk TV to the old textbook Gray’s Anatomy, from Picasso and Matisse (paid homage to with Basquiatesque portraits).

Untitled (Pablo Picasso), 1984 by Jean-Michel Basquiat © Tristan Fewings/Getty Images © The Estate of Jean-Michel Basquiat. Licensed by Artestar, New York

Untitled (Pablo Picasso), 1984 by Jean-Michel Basquiat © Tristan Fewings/Getty Images © The Estate of Jean-Michel Basquiat. Licensed by Artestar, New York

Basquiat had an intense involvement with the bebop jazz of Charlie Parker and the other lead boppers (he had a collection of some 3,000 jazz records), but this was just one source of references in a kaleidoscope of ideas and motifs which included anything from Western art which caught his fancy, a dizzying range of African and tribal art, fashion magazines, ad slogans, TV programmes, black sports stars, Hollywood movies, anything he saw, processed and incorporated into his quick vivid works.

Leonardo da Vinci's Greatest Hits (1982) by Jean-Michel Basquiat. Photo © Tristan Fewings/Getty Images Artwork. Collection of Jonathan Schorr © The Estate of Jean-Michel Basquiat. Licensed by Artestar, New York

Leonardo da Vinci’s Greatest Hits (1982) by Jean-Michel Basquiat. Photo © Tristan Fewings/Getty Images Artwork. Collection of Jonathan Schorr © The Estate of Jean-Michel Basquiat. Licensed by Artestar, New York

In the endless vortex of the self-referential New York art world, countless hundreds of thousands of words have been written about Basquiat, raving, promoting, analysing, knocking and dismissing him – but the best summary I’ve read was from his friend, Glenn O’Brien, music columnist in Warhol’s Interview magazine. This quote from him brings out the way Basquiat’s work lets everything in. I think this is much easier for us to understand now, in the age of solid, wall-to-wall social media saturation with images and junk text, than back in the pre-digital 1980s.

He ate up every image, every word, every bit of data that appeared in front of him and he processed it all into a bebop cubist pop art cartoon gospel that synthesised the whole overload we lived under into something that made an astonishing new sense.

‘The whole overload’. Exactly.

In 1980 some of the crowd Basquiat had met at the Mudd Club decided to make a movie about a day in the life of a Boho artist, with Basquiat playing the lead role. When shooting began in December 1980 he was 19 years old! Here’s a clip. God, isn’t he beautiful!

A room is devoted to Basquiat’s involvement with the relatively new music genre of hip-hop. In the late 70s Basquiat was introduced to early cassettes of the new music and found he had much in common with experimental musician-musicians like Rammellzee and graffiti artist Toxic. The painting above (Hollywood Africans) is a portrait of the trio on a trip to California for Basquiat’s exhibition at the Gagosian Gallery, Los Angeles. Back in New York Basquiat and Rammellzee produced a single, ‘Beat Bop’, with J-M doing the cover art. Only 500 copies were pressed. If you own a copy with the original sleeve art, that’s your retirement sorted.

The ‘bop’ in Beat Bop indicates Basquiat’s unexpected devotion to the bebop of the 1940s, and to its tragic genius Charlie Parker (died in 1955, aged just 35, after years of intense drug abuse). Alas, Basquiat also died young, from a heroin overdose in 1988, aged just 27.

Themes

Race Some parts of the exhibition dwell on Basquiat’s colour. In 1985 he was the first black artist ever to appear on the cover of The New York Times Magazine. In the international art world a black face was a tremendous rarity. There are sections in the show about his references to black sporting heroes, to black jazz heroes, and to the new forms of expression developed by black rap music and hip hop.

This is a massive subject, especially in the fraught context of America’s ongoing problems with its black population (I mean by this the relative poverty of Afro-Americans, the disproportionate number of African-American males in prison, and the seemingly unstoppable cases of American cops beating up and shooting dead black men). I note its presence but I’m not expert enough to comment, apart from to notice the presence in many of the works of the recurrent image of a jet black silhouette, presumably a self-portrait, really powerful in its intensity, a mask, a memento, a magus.

Self-Portrait (1983) by Jean-Michel Basquiat. Photo © Tristan Fewings/Getty Images. Artwork © The Estate of Jean-Michel Basquiat. Licensed by Artestar, New York.

Self-Portrait (1983) by Jean-Michel Basquiat. Photo © Tristan Fewings/Getty Images. Artwork © The Estate of Jean-Michel Basquiat. Licensed by Artestar, New York.

Sex There’s less about gender and sexuality than you might expect. In fact there’s a striking absence of sexual imagery or anxiety in his paintings. I wasn’t absolutely clear whether he was gay or straight, until I read references to girlfriends in online articles. Given his punk attitude it’s surprising there isn’t more stuff, even about ‘love’, let alone the vast world of sexual imagery.

Signs Much more evident are the unstoppable flood of signs and symbols. For once a ‘semiotic’ interpretation of an artist would be justified, because Basquiat himself was quite clearly fascinated and obsessed with the strange power of signs and symbols, and the literally infinite combinations which can be made of them. In the rooms on his source materials there’s his copy of Henry Dreyfuss’s book Symbol Sourcebook.

His works are plastered with words and phrases which don’t necessarily mean anything or mean as much as they appear to, starting with SAMO’s deliberately opaque messages. For example, quite a lot of ink has been spilt trying to tease the meaning out of this phrase:

JIMMY BEST ON HIS BACK TO THE SUCKERPUNCH OF HIS CHILDHOOD FILES

which appears in graffitos and in a number of paintings and drawings. He wrote literally thousands of phrases and fragments of phrases across his works. Piecing together the puzzles, themes, meanings or avoidances of meanings strewn across this vast terrain will keep Basquiat scholars in conference invitations for the rest of their lives.

Identity Identity is one of those themes curators and art critics love to invoke but, again, it is for once justified by Basquiat’s work. From SAMO onwards he played with identities and names for himself and his work. For example, the exhibition devotes some space to his mysterious use of the name ‘Aaron’ written across numerous works – including on the redecorated American football helmet, the image which provides the iconic poster for the whole exhibition. Probably it refers to the Afro-American baseball player and all-time home run king, Hank Aaron.

Basquiat wearing his Aaron football helmet

Music Another major theme in Basquiat’s output is music – evidenced by the band he was in, Gray, whose album you can still buy, the hip hop single embedded in this review, and all the theme nights he organised at the trendy Area Club, to name just some output. Music appears in his art as reference to his hip hop friends but also as a major thread of works circling around bebop and the great jazz musicians who he worshipped.

Post-modernism I remember how back in the 1980s we all spent a lot of time discussing what post-modernism meant. I am aware of its derivation from a specific movement in architecture and then its application to literature. But another, popular, interpretation was that it meant the end of High Art as a specially privileged realm. High and low art could be combined and juxtaposed for the sheer hell of it. On this interpretation Basquiat seems a textbook case of an artist who naturally inhabited this new realm, maybe helped to create it. Warhol may have taken commercial products and po-facedly turned them into art objects – Campbell’s soup, the brillo pad box, various iconic movie posters – but these artefacts were themselves highly designed – Warhol’s genius was in recognising beautiful design in the mundane.

Basquiat takes that to the next level, finding – and creating – weird, hypnotically compelling art out of street trash, a graffiti style, spray-can spontaneity, the deliberately undesigned. The Canadian art curator Marc Mayer seems to me to put his finger on it when he notes in Basquiat’s work

a calculated incoherence

teasing, puzzling, refracting, resisting meanings, resisting a simplistic definition of him as a black artist or a musician or a provocateur or a street artist or a naive artist. It seems to me precisely Basquiat’s genius that he was all those things, plus more, much more than the critics can still really get their heads around.

Beautiful And he was beautiful. You’re just having serious sensible thoughts about his references to the Western Tradition when you turn a corner and there’s some film of him dancing in his studio with a massive smile on his face. I took my 16 year-old daughter and she fell in love with Basquiat. I’ve dragged her along to numerous art shows but she told me this is the only one which has ever made her feel that art can be exciting, fun and cool.

Video

There are quite a few video relics of Basquiat, interviews, documentaries, the full-length indie movie he appears in – Downtown 81 – and the more recent full-length biopic, Basquiat directed by Julian Schnabel.

Here’s a documentary about his life & times in which you can hear the man speak for himself.


Related links

Reviews of previous exhibitions & concerts at the Barbican

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