jean michel basquiat’s first uk retrospective is coming next year
'Boom for Real', the first large exhibition of his work in the UK, will open at the Barbican in 2017.
Jean Michel Basquiat. Irony of a Negro Policeman, 1981. Private Collection © Estate of Jean-Michel Basquiat. Licensed by Artestar, New York
Jean-Michel Basquiat's work is famously hard to see in the UK. You might be lucky enough to see the late artist's pieces changing hands for millions of dollars at auction houses, or at Frieze Masters, but at a public institution? Unfortunately not. Only a precious few of his works have even gone on display around Europe. There was a small Swiss retrospective a decade or so ago, and The Guggenheim in Bilbao staged an incredible exhibition of his work last year. The paintings are primarily in private hands, so it's a formidable thing to organize.
It's a shame, as he's one of the most significant, talented, singular painters of his generation; few have combined his energy, complexity, talent for cultural references, knowledge of art history, anger, and politics so beautifully.
As well as a leading artist, he was someone who could step confidently away from the easel into the limelight. He was a cultural figure who dated Madonna, hung out on New York's post-punk underground, or with Warhol. He went from doing graffiti on the streets to the elite of the art world, before he died, aged just 27, of a heroin overdose. He left behind an impressive body of work, over 1000 paintings, which we're still grappling with.
Boom for Real promises to show the painter in a way he's never been seen before, to untangle the complex web of references that made up this body of work — from the films and music he drew influence from, to the politics and painters that inspired him. Although untrained, Basquiat was a voracious learner, and took influence from the likes of Cy Twombly, Francis Bacon, Pablo Picasso, refracting them through his own life and into his own style.
Much of his work was intensely political, something that's easily overlooked in the rush to canonize him as a pop cultural icon (and often made easier by the fact that it's so hard to actually see his works here). The works command close scrutiny; colors and textures and compositions make more sense IRL instead of from behind a computer screen. Boom for Real promises to be a long overdue reevaluation of his legacy. It will re-stage Basquiat's first body of work, exhibited at PS1 in 1981, an exhibition that propelled the artist to fame at the start of his career, and made him an instant celebrity on the New York scene.
Alongside this, Boom for Real will unite over 100 of his works — many never before displayed in this country — and will run alongside a film series, The Grime and Glamour, that will explore New York in the 70s and 80s.
Text Felix Petty
Image courtesy of the Guggenheim