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Bebop and Basquiat

Basquiat Bird 3

There’s only another week in which to see Boom for Real, the big Jean-Michel Basquiat retrospective at the Barbican, before it closes on January 28. I left it until last week to pay my first visit and I’m going to try to go again. There’s a lot to see and I want to spend a bit more time thinking about his relationship with modern jazz in general and Charlie Parker in particular, which is what struck me most of all as I was going around the show.

Basquiat, who came to fame as a teenage graffiti artist on the streets of New York and died in 1988 at the age of 27, must have really loved Parker’s music. It can’t have been a pose. The names and phrases scrawled in many of the paintings show an intimate knowledge of Bird’s work. Crispus Attucks High School was the one Parker attended in Kansas City. Buster Smith was the alto saxophonist he admired in his apprentice years. Doris Sydnor was his third wife. Joe Albany was one of his pianists. Dial and Savoy were two of the labels for which he made his finest recordings. “Half Nelson”, “KoKo”, “Now’s the Time” and “Warming Up a Riff” were some of the tunes he cut. The Stanhope Hotel was where he died.

There’s a real feeling for jazz here. Not just Parker but Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Thelonious Monk and Dizzy Gillespie are referenced in the works included in Boom for Real. Basquiat’s blend of the heroic and the grotesque seems to me a fair representation of an art form that had to fight its way first into existence and then towards acknowledgement. The harshness and challenges of a jazz musician’s life are as present in the paintings as the aesthetic value of what they produce. There’s a title of a Monk tune that sums it up: “Ugly Beauty”.

“Jean-Michel says his paintings are jazz on canvas,” Jennifer Clement writes in Widow Basquiat, a portrait of the painter’s relationship with his girlfriend, Suzanne Mallouk, first published in 2002. There’s a passage in which, having discovered that Billie Holiday’s grave has no headstone, he spends a weekend designing one with the help of his friend, the art curator Diego Cortez, while Suzanne makes trips to get them cocaine.

There are people who don’t appreciate the way Basquiat turned street art into something for which collectors now pay vast sums. To them, the $110.5m paid for one of his canvases last May, setting a record for a painting by any American artist sold at auction, represents an insult to the history of art. But I think he did something important in getting the spirit of the music on to canvas. I wish he could have done it without feeling the need to copy Parker’s heroin habit, but I’ve felt that about a lot of people and there’s really no point. Just go and look.

* Untitled (Charlie Parker) was painted in 1983 and is in the Barbican exhibition, on loan from the Schorr Family Collection.

8 Comments Post a comment
  1. MJG #

    A very welcome retrospective of an artist I’ve admired since the Serpentine show in 1996.

    I thought the downstairs galleries were consistently rewarding, My one criticism of the show was it tried just too hard to place Basquiat in the “scene” in NY at the time (upstairs). I know he was part of that but the presentation of it sometimes crowded out his work I thought. Having said that, the graffitied fridge really made the collaboration/mutual influence point very well.

    As you say, the Jazz references were everywhere and felt in no way superficial or for effect. I need to make my return visit soon, too. As for those who can’t see beyond the graffiti, they’re either not looking or might benefit from parking some art historical prejudices.

    January 19, 2018
  2. puppylicious28 #

    Thanks for this Richard…

    “Going to look” tomorrow afternoon in celebration of my birthday (yesterday) with my crew including son (trumpeter Jay Phelps in case you didn’t know). Really looking forward!

    All best Danielle

    Danielle White Raestar Promotions Tel: +44 (0)7841 675 263 Skype: daniraestar


    January 19, 2018
  3. Corinne Drewery #

    Thanks for the reminder Richard…have seen this show once but couldn’t take it all in in one visit. There is such a playful immediacy to these improvisations on canvas…….but the closer you look the more complex they become…shame this bright young star who brought thoughts in images and music dancing together in his paintings had to fade too soon…

    January 21, 2018
  4. markswill #

    I agree with ‘MJG’ that contextually the show is a bit of a disappointment and to an extent disagree with Richard about Basquiat’s importance. “Getting the spirit of the music on canvas” is very much an ‘eye of the beholder’ trope which not being as big a fan of the music as Richard I don’t have a valid view of, but I DO appreciate his playfulness and am morbidly intrigued by the influence of heroin on his art. But $110.5m for one of these glorified doodles? Emperor’s new suit of clothes, anyone?

    January 21, 2018
  5. Paul Tickell #

    Really looking forward to seeing the exhibition this weekend… Thanks, Richard, for teasing out the jazz references. The BBC documentary on Basquiat to mark the opening of the show, showed little interest in what the graphic ‘doodles’ might signify. For example, it did not follow up on obvious ‘written’ references to the leader of the Haitian Revolution Toussaint L’Overture, a Black Jacobin surely close to Basquiat’s heart? Nor did the film show any interest in the boxers listed by Basquiat – including Jersey Joe Walcott and Jack Johnson. I wonder if the painter knew the Miles Davis score for the Johnson film? So I would take issue with ‘markswill’ – certainly the verbal doodles get you thinking: they are not ‘glorified’ but glorious… By way of a footnote: wandering around Frieze Masters in the autumn, a couple of images really drew me in. I saw them from afar and without knowing who the artist might be the, I just had to go to take a closer look. They were Basquiats.

    January 21, 2018
  6. MJG #

    So much for my revisit. Exhibition is now sold out. I’m glad to see such interest but disappointed not be able to see it again, this week

    January 22, 2018
  7. GuitarSlinger #

    ” The Eighties ‘ turned out to be very different indeed , a ‘figurative’ revival conducted by the worst generation of draftsmen in American history – Julian Schnabel , David Salle , Jean-Michel Basquait : the all too familiar chorus line of spectacular mediocrity and even more spectacular price inflation ” – Robert Hughes

    Which is to say compare the intricate , necessary and mandatory ‘ craft ‘ of jazz and Bebop in particular in order to attain the level of ‘ art ‘ .. to the childish scribblings of an inane heroin addled fool made popular by the art dealers to an extremely deluded and desperate for something ‘new’ public … is the very epitome of contradiction

    Sigh ….. steeped within the current zeitgeist of entertainment addiction – addled by celebrity and conned by the almighty dollar/pound/euro … I’m afraid it’ll be a very long time before we’ll see the likes of Robert Hughes , LJK Setright etc … again

    Eco .. basta .. va bene

    January 24, 2018
  8. Paul Tickell #

    Hughes was all bluster and pugilistic pose in his prose. And very convincing with it. Until you examine what he was actually saying and it does not amount to much at all. He was no Walter Benjamin or John Berger… One random example from many: what he says about Matisse in THE SHOCK OF THE NEW is middle-brow bland cliche but all dressed up in Hughes’ alluring swagger. Not much behind it though. And as for his book on Rome, he is well-nigh so ignorant about the city in antiquity that Mary Beard thought it deserved to be pulped. People will be looking at Basquiat long after Hughes, a much hyped critic magnified by TV, has been forgotten.

    January 26, 2018

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