© The Estate of Jean-Michel Basquiat, Licensed by Artestar, New York

© The Estate of Jean-Michel Basquiat, Licensed by Artestar, New York


They say life imitates art, step into a world where art is a life in detail at the Barbican's Basquiat 'Boom for Real' exhibition.

Basquiat, the revered artist whose flame burnt brightly but briefly, has his first exhibition at London's Barbican until early next year. It is not just a retrospective of his works, but a look through the lens at his acute world and his rise to iconic status. A time capsule from a life lived intensely amongst the characters of New York's post-punk art scene.

Before the age of 20, Basquiat had made an impression, not in the galleries frequented by the art elite, but across the streets and side alleys of New York. As part of a graffiti duo his irreverent epigrams, decorated sidewalks, challenging viewpoints at the push of a spray can. He was the original Banksy under the pseudonym SAMO© an abbreviation of Same old shit. In a blink, he achieved every aspiring artist's dream from the dark streets of downtown to the light of the press's flashbulb and Warhol's studio. He became the sweetheart of the alt-art set. Always trailblazing never indulging people.

Boom for Real is the first large-scale UK exhibition of his work. Showcasing 100 pieces from an artist who has had little UK exposure. Jane Alison, head of visual arts at the Barbican said, "we are truly thrilled to be staging the first show on Basquiat in over 20 years." The works are collated from international galleries and private collections, celebrating his fascination with varied media, from music, performance art, film and television.

As you walk through the exhibition, it's impossible to miss the enigmatic artist amongst the works. He stares out from large photographs, and footage replays fragments in his limited time. He is clubbing, reflecting, creating and we are along for the ride. The Barbican takes us back to the lower east side of the 80's, the hedonistic, culturally exciting hub. Scribblings, notebooks and used tickets are close to the touch as if it all transpired just a moment ago.

And then to the paintings. The works, though from another time, are current in style and energy. They are vivid, energetic and graphical with hectic brushstrokes, vibrant colours and bold capitalised messages scattered about the canvases. Each lively mark representing the splintered nature of Basquiat's mind, skipping between stimuli and thoughts. He had a deep understanding of art history and craving for knowledge. From historical figures to art contemporaries, his portraits reflect an eclectic mix of life's characters. And while there is an element of cartoon-like primitivism in his works, there are also elements of darkness. The skulls (perhaps prophetic), the blood artworks and the gas masks. And then to lighter tones, the Hip Hop songs and the screen-time with Debbie Harry. While his style was always bold and distinctive, he was almost impossible to pin down, racing through a catalogue of thoughts and expressions before his tragic and untimely death aged 27. 

All who knew Basquiat said he had something special. He was beautiful and charismatic. Whether he set out to be one of the world's most sought-after painters is debatable, what is certain is that he intended to provoke thought. His work continues to invite extreme reaction from collectors and critics. While there are polarised opinions on the level of his ability, his paintings now sell for millions. Is there an element of morbid voyeurism that makes his appeal so broad or is this the work of a true visual virtuoso? And like so many celebrated artists, it is his death that sent his star shining even brighter. Hard to believe this all occurred in a nine-year time span. A short tenure yet so much achieved. 

The show at the Barbican runs until the end of January. Get your ticket here!