The expansive exhibition of work by the late Jean-Michel Basquiat at Guggenheim Bilbao focusses, as it has to, upon works made within a ten year period: an intense and energetic outpouring of highly politicised ideas. The exhibition draws together thematic strands - heroes, the street, the reclaiming of history - a framework that allows for some of Basquiat’s most familiar and less well known concerns to be explored in nuanced ways.
Many of Basquiat’s earliest drawings and paintings are presented in the exhibition’s opening rooms. These trace something of the artist’s beginnings as a street-based artist prior to his meteoric rise into the upper echelons of New York’s contemporary art circuit in the 1980s. Many of the earlier works, such as ‘Untitled’ (1981), in which the outline of a car is spray painted on to a section of found upholstery foam, show Basquiat not only utilising the language of the street but its materials too. These are not the tentative experiments of a young artist, but highly confident, bold and visceral gestures that smack of meaning something, of earnestness.
Basquiat’s signature tag or leitmotif, the crown, appears frequently. His works present black men as kings, warriors and sports stars: the crown variously operates as a symbol of royalty, a halo or a crown of thorns. Identities are presented, complicated, layered up and symbolically washed over with paint. Masks and mask-like faces play a similar role. In ‘Self-Portrait’ (1983) Basquiat is flattened, his head and shoulders reduced to a block of black acrylic paint. A pair of narrowed eyes gleam from the paper beneath. They bore straight through the viewer, accusatory, yet it is difficult to determine whether the mask is looked at or looked through.
It goes without saying that so much of Basquiat’s practice resonates soundly with contemporary politics. In particular, ‘The Death of Michael Stewart’ (1983), made in response to the murder of his artist friend by police, parallels the recent high-profile deaths of Freddie Gray, Michael Brown and others, foregrounding the urgent and continuing crisis in US race relations. Audio extracts from Martin Luther King and from Charlie Parker’s 1945 jazz track, both of which lend Basquiat’s exhibition its title, can be heard within the gallery, for language, music and art are always bound up with the political.
A seemingly contradictory engagement with capitalism is at work here too, though. For on one hand, Basquiat’s works criticise the obscenity of wealth and dominant power structures, as in ‘Untitled (False Economy)’ (1985) and ‘Loans’ (1981), and yet his extended series of paintings made in collaboration with Andy Warhol during this same short period trade in the lexicons of advertising and global branding strategies. Along with significant commercial success in his short lifetime, Basquiat’s position on the subject is difficult to pin down, and the irony that so many of his works now belong within hugely valuable private collections is not lost.
Perhaps lesser known are the artist’s interests in art history, and wider cultural histories and mythologies. Works that explore the legacies of Leonardo di Vinci, Vincent van Gogh and Pablo Picasso place such figures alongside and equal to Jesse Owens and Cassius Clay. Likewise, ‘Moses and the Egyptians’ (1982) and ‘Exu’ (1988), titled for a Latin American ‘trickster’ God, are testament to the remarkable diversity of Basquiat’s personal canon, sampling and re-mixing narratives to suit his complex political ideologies. That the exhibition is able to keep pace with the artist’s dynamic consumption and production of culture in all its forms is its major success.