Prodigy who emerged from New York art scene to become one of 1980s’ most celebrated artists gets UK exhibition
Jean-Michel Basquiat dancing at the Mudd Club, 1979. Photograph: Courtesy of Nicholas Taylor/Barbican
He was an art world sensation: young, handsome, charismatic, prolific, influential and pioneering. Yet not a single work by Jean-Michel Basquiat is in a public UK collection and nor has there been a major exhibition in the country that gave him one of his first breaks.
The latter will change next year when London’s Barbican Centre stages the first large-scale exhibition in the UK of the work of Basquiat, a prodigy who emerged from the New York underground art scene to become one of the most celebrated painters of the 1980s until his death, from a heroin overdose, at the age of 27.
“We are definitely long overdue,” said the curator Eleanor Nairne, promising an exhibition that would dig deeper into Basquiat’s complex works than ever before.
Nairne said a lot of people had a vague interest in and admiration for Basquiat, they understood his importance, but fewer people realised just how significant, sophisticated and complex a figure he was.
Putting on a Basquiat show – and this will have more than 100 works – is a particular challenge because so few public galleries own any of his work. There are none in the UK, even though it was Edinburgh’s Fruitmarket Gallery that gave Basquiat his first institutional show in 1984, an exhibition that then toured London and Rotterdam.
Most of his work is owned privately, attracting stratospheric prices when it appears at auction. The Malaysian financier and playboy Jho Low reportedly bought a 1982 painting called Dustheads for $48m in 2013. Celebrity owners include Leonardo DiCaprio and Johnny Depp, who this summer sold two of his Basquiats for $11.5m.
Untitled 1982. Photograph: Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen, Studio Tromp, Rotterdam/Jean-Michel Basquiat/Barbican
Of the roughly 10 works in public collections, all are expected to travel to the Barbican show. They include works such as A Panel of Experts 1982, coming from the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, in which he references a fight between his girlfriend, Suzanne Mallouk, and his lover, Madonna; and Hollywood Africans, from New York’s Whitney, about the stereotyping of African Americans by the entertainment industry.
One highlight of the exhibition will be a reconstruction of Basquiat’s first show, part of a group show at the Manhattan commercial gallery PS1 in 1981. Using a grainy black and white photograph of the wall Basquiat was given, curators have managed to trace 17 of the works, with five left to find.
Nairne hopes the recreation will show just why Basquiat became such a superstar so quickly. More widely, curators hope to explode the many misconceptions that surround Basquiat. “People encounter image rather than works and make lots of presumptions,” said Nairne.
“It has been exciting to do away with some of the easy umbrella terms he gets lumped under. We hear a lot about hip-hop; we don’t hear about Steve Reich.”
He is sometimes portrayed as a street kid and graffiti artist, which Nairne said was not quite true. “He would work in a graffiti vein but he wasn’t a street artist,” she said, pointing out that Basquiat, a regular museum-goer as a child, was brought up in a middle-class family in a Brooklyn brownstone that they owned.
It is true that he dropped out of school at 16 and taught himself how to be an artist, but his early work under the pseudonym SAMO© (which stood for “same old, same old bullshit”), in which he and a friend would graffiti enigmatic, poetic statements across SoHo, was more the work of a performance artist.
Hollywood Africans, 1983. Photograph: Whitney Museum of American Art/Jean-Michel Basquiat/Barbican
Basquiat soon became a key figure in the underground scene, performing in his experimental band Gray, collaborating with his hero Andy Warhol and being cast in the lead role in the film New York Beat with Blondie’s Debbie Harry.
The Barbican show will explore the astonishing range of source material Basquiat used for his works, from bebop jazz to surreal silent films to trashy TV to 19th-century impressionism.
His paintings were often produced in a studio heaving with friends and fellow artists. “He was always working in front of people,” said Nairne. “He always had that performative bent. The idea he was capable of producing the most interesting works while at the same time hosting an ongoing constant party is extraordinary.”
Basquiat is not universally respected. The late art critic Robert Hughes once sourly remarked: “The only thing the market liked better than a hot young artist was a dead hot young artist, and it got one in Jean-Michel Basquiat.” But the Barbican show will argue that his work was both ahead of its time and leaves a lasting legacy.
Nairne said: “He is an artist who manages to be so completely of his moment, we look at his canvases and it transports you to New York in the 1980s. And yet at the same time he is incredibly proto-contemporary, in terms of the way he is working, the sampling of all his reference points.”
The show’s curators have conducted extensive interviews with people who knew and collaborated with Basquiat to try to fathom him out better. They have also combed over his paintings and tried to identify specific inspirations. “You start to understand his world in a much more vivid way than has previously been the case,” said Nairne.
“He leaves clues, they are there for the deciphering. He is almost taunting the viewer a lot of the time to think that this is throwaway.”
Like an ignorant easter suit’, Jean-Michel Basquiat on the set of Downtown 81. Photograph: Edo Bertoglio ©New York Beat Film LLC/Jean-Michel Basquiat/Barbican
Hughes may not have been a fan but many others are. Massive Attack’s Robert “3D” Del Naja once described Basquiat as “the greatest artist of his generation and one of my biggest influences”.
“He changed my way of painting and thinking about art and I’d like to believe that his style and vision inspired the reactionary urban art movement of this generation,” Del Naja wrote in the Guardian in 2013.
Nairne said: “I have yet to meet an artist who does not admire his work. All acknowledge that his work was really important, that actually he shifted things. I hope that will come across.”
Basquiat’s sisters, Jeanine and Lisane, said in a statement: “We are delighted to be working with the Barbican on this important exhibition, which is so long overdue.”
The show is called Boom for Real, a phrase Basquiat used when he loved something, and is guest-curated by Basquiat expert Dieter Buchhart in collaboration with the Schirn Kunsthalle Frankfurt.
Details will be announced next week, along with an accompanying season of New York films from the period such as Desperately Seeking Susan, Jim Jarmusch’s Permanent Vacation and the hip-hop classic Wild Style.
• Basquiat: Boom for Real will be at Barbican art gallery from 21 September 2017 until 28 January 2018.