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.