The exhibition of Jean-Michael Basquiat’s work at the Barbican Centre, “Boom For Real”, is an energetic and energising show.
His development is charted chronologically, in separate rooms, using a variety of media, from his own creations to video material and documentary evidence.
These follow his progress from graffiti artist to darling of the avant garde art-set, hanging out with Andy Warhol and his factory crowd.
From being an untaught, self-taught, novice, Basquiat dedicated himself to devouring the art-historical scene, incorporating many references into his otherwise idiosyncratic style.
His earlier paintings display little sense of composition, appearing as disconnected, episodic, collections of disparate images, albeit on a single canvas. This fragmentary and fragmented impression is emphasised by the way he would paste images from different pieces of paper onto the canvas.
His works were always constructions, even when they were conceived as wholes, as his subsequent pieces seemed to be.
Nevertheless, his talent appears to have grown, so that later works possess a greater awareness of arrangement in the images, appearing more ‘painterly’ than his previous scratchy attempts.
But still, his iconography is drawn from a variety of sources, typical of the autodidact, lifting symbols from his voracious, magpie approach to reading, often including them as simple lists in his artworks.
Drawing on disparate systems of thought, he incorporated contradictory words and concepts, ideas, and images, with little consideration for their consistency or context.
The crude juxtapositions, exploiting vibrant colours and rough, unfinished, textures, make for dynamic, if disconcerting, paintings: exciting, scary, edgy.
Basquiat’s work, however, despite, even through, its fragmentation, does express, the fissiparous tensions of North American society during his time in New York.
From the 1970s to the 1980s, the city descended into a crisis, of poverty, underfunding and urban decay.
The resultant squalor was reflected in the experimental art scene of that day, and chronicled by Olivia Laing’s personal account of that period in The Lonely City.
The racial conflicts of the era were also experienced by Basquiat as an African-American man; so that he included themes and graphics relevant to those issues in many paintings.
There is, however, one glaring lacuna in the entre show, a blind spot, which for some reason the organisers chose to exclude – Basquiat’s extreme drug use.
Matthew Brown, writing in the Times Literary Supplement, notes its absence from the curatorial commentary for the exhibition – strange when Basquiat died eventually of a drug overdose.
Brown even suggests that the fragmented, disconnected, nature of Basquiat’s art may originate from the drug haze in which he often worked, frequently quite stoned.
Perhaps the curators wanted to distract attention from the stereotype of the black addict-painter, which haunts memories of Basquiat. But if his was a drug-fuelled vision, there is little to distinguish him from other flawed geniuses, like Coleridge, who similarly created despite, and under, the influence of narcotics.
As I walked round the exhibition, I also realised he was about my age, and how much he achieved in that short lifetime.