Basquiat: Boom For Real

Barbican, London until January 28, 2018.

The music events that accompany this retrospective of a major figure in 20th century art are not ear candy. Sound was central to the painting of Jean-Michel Basquiat, the genius-child whose first-hand experience of destitution in ghetto un-fabulous ‘80s New York strikes a cruel irony given the recent sale of one of his works for the grand sum of $110m. Hence the gallery full of canvases, notebooks, drawings and postcards is also suffused with the holler of horns and the bounce of basslines. Whether it was the TV, radio or the record player, some kind of audio equipment was turned on when Basquiat flicked a switch in his own mind and trained his eye on a background, which in his ‘broke ass’ years could be palettes orphaned in the Big Apple’s fruitless streets.    
The artist did not just enjoy music; he plugged right into its exemplars, listening for long hours to jazz and blues and spending part of his teenage years in bands. Among the acts who are a part of the live strand of the Basquiat season the recent double bill of Kid Creole & The Coconuts and Arto Lindsay is especially relevant as they all appeared in a low-budget film, Downtown 81 [New York Beat] that captured the cross-fertilization of music and visual art which occurred in the place that was not so much the joyously fabled city that never sleeps as the war zone dumpster in which many would only weep.
Poor housing, absence of employment opportunities and the presence of racism made for an unholy cocktail. Son of Haitian and Puerto Rican immigrants Basquiat, a highly intelligent boy who attended a high school for gifted children unsuited to mainstream institutions, was all too aware of the outsider status assigned to him from the word go, and his impressively deep understanding of the misdeeds of western capitalism, colour prejudice and colonialism informed the bulk of his output. Past and present empowered him, though. He revered jazz icons such as alto saxophonist Charlie Parker and had a close friendship with the exponents of nascent hip-hop culture, such as Fab 5 Freddy.
Graffiti art was Basquiat’s chosen medium in his formative years but the witty tags of SAMO, a riff on Same Old Shit, were child’s play compared to the densely layered and conceptually daring works that were to come. The recurrent images of skulls and various skeletal or anatomical figures and diagrams overlaid with cryptic text produced something truly unique, as if he were bridging the gap between the art of free hand drawing and the praxis of reconfiguring instruction manuals and product packaging, from mass-marketed boxes to album sleeves, with their details of instruments and players. Lists, possibly the most mundane of presentations of data, are sliced and diced, subverted and made to dance on a surface. The Pictionary flourish is linked to a hyper-real, consumerist world. Yet the spiritual and political elements are at times devastatingly impactful, whether it is a diss ‘n’ kiss-teeth on the rotten legacy of sugar in the British West Indies or a take on machine against man – as the artist put it, ‘pistol vs dinosaur’.
Essentially, Basquiat investigated inanimate objects as much as he did flesh and blood, which is why his representation of a piano keyboard, such a vital tool in jazz, is framed by the repetition of the word ivory, hence creating a visual motif around the origin of the aural rhythm. References to rubber, copper, plastics and metals abound as Basquiat invites the viewer to think about material as well as the manipulation and manipulators thereof. His sensors were always up and sharply tuned. Those distinctive skyward dreadlocks were like antennae picking up anything in his vicinity. “I get facts from books, stuff on atomizers, the blues, ethyl alcohol… Egyptian glyphs,” he tellingly revealed.  
That range of inspirations certainly resonated with the sets performed by Lindsay and Kid Creole. The former, backed by an outstanding band that featured bassist Melvin Gibbs, has a unique blend of violence and sensuality at the heart of his aesthetic, juxtaposing guitar chords that evoke the merciless grate and grind of heavy industry, the austerity of the raw materials evoked in Basquiat’s work, with lithe Brazilian samba.
Creole, on the other hand, upholds the big band tradition a la Count and Duke, complete with a ballsy horn section, that was also relevant to the artist’s world. In Downtown 81 Creole is on stage as a young man, playing Caribbean-inflected music with an unabashed degree of showmanship and, almost four decades later he touches down as an older but no less charismatic figure to play those songs – Stool Pigeon, I’m A Wonderful Thing Baby, Annie I’m Not Your Daddy – that are much more than hits that rocked many a club in the Thatcher-Reagan years.
They are gems of smart lyric writing and expressive composing and arranging. Because his world was so multi-media and referential Basquiat is rightly aligned with hip-hop, but the craftsmanship of his work is such that Creole’s swing classicism was not alien to him at all. For there to be Beat Bop there had to be Bebop in the first place.
Kevin Le Gendre