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Basquiat, Bebop & The Barbican

Dos Cabezas, a 1982 self-portrait of Jean-Michel Basquiat alongside Andy Warhol.

Dos Cabezas, a 1982 self-portrait of Jean-Michel Basquiat alongside Andy Warhol.

Florence Aukland

Thanks to the Barbican, it’s now possible to get to know the man behind the skulls and the doodles. Basquiat’s work is some of the most influential in the contemporary art world, and goes hand in hand with his identity – he was bloody cool. Born in 1960s Brooklyn to Haitian parents, he emerged onto the art scene through his anonymous graffiti work ‘SAMO’ (same old shit) and witty statements scrawled around 1970s New York that represented a society in flux.

Boom for Real celebrates this chaos; more than 100 pieces of Basquiat’s work are on display, from the earliest days of frustration at New York/New Wave, where most pieces have ‘AHHH’ scrawled over them (I feel you brother), to his complex interpretations of textbooks and art history. Whether commenting on race, consumerism or the state of a city on the brink of bankruptcy, each piece highlights the struggles of a generation.

But Basquiat was a package: art meets music and ‘the scene’. From his love of ‘bebop’ to his performances at the Mudd club, the interviews and soundbites on display help bring an otherwise hectic collection of work back down to a digestible Sunday afternoon level. A giant looped video of the young artist dancing around his studio adds warmth to the work, helping us to truly understand why celebrities loved him, women wanted him, and artists like Andy Warhol were so keen to partner up. I love the thought of him trading paintings for rare blues and bepop LPs, and that he kept a box of copies of his favourite records to gift to friends when they visited his studio. 

Joining the 27 club, Basquiat’s genius was cut short by an accidental heroin overdose in 1988. “Such a waste of a life”, some bloke muttered as I exited. I couldn’t disagree more. Basquiat achieved more in his lifetime than many could dream of, and Boom for Real celebrates this refreshingly positive contribution to American popular culture.