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