Basquiat: A look at the first large-scale exhibition in the UK

Georgia McConnell reviews the Basquiat exhibition in the Barbican - find out why it's unmissable!

Le Jour ni L'Heure. Basquiat, 1960. Photo: Flickr

The most exciting exhibition that I have seen for a very long time. Jean-Michel Basquiat. Today an icon for the rebellious youth. Died from a heroin overdose at age 27 (the popular age for a legendary artist’s career to be cut short). Maybe you have a shirt from Urban Outfitters with his ‘primitive’ crown drawing or perhaps a poster plastered onto your bedroom wall? He probably also inspired A Tribe Called Quest in their approach to hip-hop with their Basquiat-esque album covers.

But before Basquiat reached his pop-star status of an artist, he was merely a graffiti artist in New York in the 1980s. Starting out as the anonymous creator behind SAMO (Same Old Shit) and sleeping rough in Tompkins Square park, he quickly made his name in the landmark exhibition New York/New Wave in 1981 being shown alongside 100 artists and musicians such as Andy Warhol, an exhibition which tried to capture the downtown counter-cultural scene. Basquiat’s career was launched and his painterly talents were recognised. He pointed out to critics that he “never went to art school”, he relied purely on looking. He played up his image of the street kid and run-away teen. But in reality, as a child he often frequented Art Galleries such as MoMA with his mother. His art historical influences are echoed in his later art where he draws upon the works of Picasso and Da Vinci and Matisse to establish himself amongst the artist community in New York.

Dos Cabezas, was produced within 2 hours of meeting Andy Warhol in 1982 for the first time. He famously delivered it to Warhol still dripping wet with paint. This exemplifies Basquiat’s energy and spontaneity even before the drugs. Some might assume that his manic and energetic approach to art was partly drug-fuelled. Considering this painting is one of the most talked about paintings, I had to hunt through the Barbican exhibition only to find it hidden in a corner!

For me his Helmet, 1981, stands out the most in the exhibition for its mix of paint and sculpture, echoing the work of Duchamp’s ready-mades. His approach to creating a ready-made; it consists of a baseball helmet with chunks of real human hair (presumably Basquiat’s own hair) stuck to the top surface of the helmet. He has painted it white with eerie blue bird-eyes on the sides of the helmet to contribute to the vicious bird-like aesthetic. I’m not entirely sure what the meaning behind this nightmarish mask is, but if anyone does happen to know please feel free to impart your knowledge with me.

​If you need a further reason for visiting this exhibition a point worth noting is that all his works are in private hands and not galleries, therefore one can only imagine the effort involved curating this exhibition and tracking down all the private collectors. This might be the only time in history that all of Basquiat’s pieces will be in a room together.

Make sure you hurry because the exhibition is on at the Barbican until 28th January! Also, I recently discovered that students can register as a ‘Young Barbican’ online for £5 tickets! (link below)



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