It is difficult for a Canadian institution such as the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts to position a major new show by the 1980s American art star Jean-Michel Basquiat. The only other time a significant selection of his work has been seen here was seven years ago at the Art Gallery of Ontario in Toronto, and only the MMFA can boast any examples in its permanent collection. Should the museum play to the average visitors who know that he died tragically young and that his work now sells for record-breaking millions but may never have seen a Basquiat painting in the flesh? Or speak to the globe-trotting cognoscenti well-acquainted with his art but still busy debating the nature of his achievement?
With a wealth of multimedia offerings and cultural background, as well as a fresh curatorial take on Basquiat, the MMFA would have it both ways with its new exhibition Seeing Loud: Basquiat and Music. A show that intelligently addresses the artist’s relationship with music – both as a club hopper and occasional hip-hop DJ and as a visual artist fascinated with jazz – it is an exhaustive and occasionally exhausting survey, blanketing the viewer with context about the 1980s club scene in Lower Manhattan while also proposing complex readings of some paintings.
In 1980, a very young Basquiat explained on a community-cable show that he had stopped doing graffiti but was now selling his own postcards. “Is graffiti dead?” asked the hip host of TV Party, but Basquiat, replied no, he had simply run out of good ideas in that medium.
If a youthful Basquiat could reject that avant-gardist insistence on novelty, the art world certainly hadn’t and by the 1970s, as abstraction backed itself into a minimalist corner and Andy Warhol silkscreened any celebrity who would pay the price, it was desperate for the next big thing. Neo-expressionism was that thing and Basquiat’s rise was meteoric. He was a practising visual artist for less than a decade (before his death from a heroin overdose at 27 in 1988) and yet his oeuvre can now command an exhibition such as this one.
It’s the third collaboration between the MMFA and the Musée de la musique – Philharmonie de Paris in France, after shows devoted to Chagall and Miles Davis. Its curators (Mary Dailey Desmarais from the MMFA, the Viennese Basquiat expert Dieter Buchhart and the French jazz specialist Vincent Bessières) demonstrate that Basquiat lends himself well to the multidisciplinary approach. He made many references to jazz in his work, lionizing Charlie Parker and the Black bebop innovators of the 1940s, but also he rose, alongside hip hop, in a cultural period particularly open to cross-fertilization among art, music, video and performance.
That is where this exhibition starts, setting the scene with footage of the TV Party interview and a slideshow of Basquiat’s early graffiti art, the street poetry and political critique created with Al Diaz under the name SAMO©. Basquiat soon moved from walls to postcards to canvases, but where the artists of the seventies had used text as a conceptual device, his approach was either literal labelling or sonic, delighting in onomatopoeia and word play. There’s an early painting here, Old Cars, that combines four cars with repeated AAAAs evoking the sound of traffic.
Meanwhile, Polaroids by the photographer and stylist Maripol introduce the cast of characters including Debbie Harry, Keith Haring and Madonna. Another installation recreates the scene at Area, a club where Basquiat sometimes DJ’d, and includes some of the collaged boxes that he first made for his set there. There’s information about his band Gray (although it never recorded), including a recreation of the crazed shopping-cart instrument that Basquiat once played, and the 1983 film of a performance Basquiat co-ordinated at the Rhythm Lounge in Los Angeles for his friends, hip-hop artists Rammellzee and Toxic.
Whether this seems enlightening or overwhelming may depend on your interest in the 1980s. You may be young enough not to care – or to be eager for scholarly information about an underappreciated decade. You may be old enough to be nostalgic – or merely stunned that the excesses of the 1980s could be considered distant enough that the decade is now the subject of cultural history.
Either way, the seriousness of this exercise can’t be discounted: Every didactic label is a fount of information – to the point where the pile of references can become almost laughable. His portrait Toxic (the stage name of the graffiti and hip-hop artist Torrick Ablack) refers to Nigerian symbols researched by the U.S. art historian Robert Farris Thompson and, through collaged photocopies of Basquiat’s own previous works, to the jazz drummer Max Roach, Charlie Parker’s All Stars, to the white actors who voiced Amos ‘n’ Andy, and to slaving-owning U.S. president Andrew Jackson.
Basquiat was sometimes dismissed as an ill-tutored graffiti artist and, if it’s still required, this show is a full rebuttal, revealing the depth of his cultural knowledge and complexity of his references. Still, providing exegesis versus encouraging contemplation is a tough balancing act for curators, and the issue is particularly tricky in a country where viewers can’t be assumed to know Basquiat’s work well..
So, it’s a relief when this exhibition slows down in its second half, takes a deep breath and makes space for big paintings alongside its most interesting argument: Basquiat, who never painted without music playing, did not simply refer to musicians in his work but translated musical structures into paint.
There are obvious ways in which Basquiat’s mixes of collage and paint and his personal iconography (the crown, the jaws, the masks) can be compared with the improvisational and additive nature of jazz, while his borrowing and composing of texts has obvious parallels to the sampling of hip hop and poetry of rap.
Yet, the most compelling moment in this show goes further than mere comparisons. With Kokosolo, the curators argue that the sequential build-up of collaged images on the canvas is a reference to the build-up of bars on sheet music. The title is a reference to Koko, Charlie Parker’s seminal 1945 composition, and the images, including Atlas with the globe on his shoulders and a can of pork and beans, suggest the improvisational liberation that bebop brought to jazz. The painting also includes a dancer’s shoe print, a motif Basquiat repeats multiple times in a piece entitled Sell Grit, as though this time it were tapping out a rhythm.
But when does entertaining become pandering and selling, selling out? As early as 1982, in the painting Slave Auction with its images of football players and their white referee, Basquiat had pointed to the exploitation of Black cultural figures, while his collaged boxes echo the shoeshine boy’s kit. This exhibition ends with a pair of canvases, Eroica I and Eroica II (in reference to the Beethoven symphony) painted shortly before Basquiat’s death, filled with the stick figure icon for a dead man and a sampling of the Bs from a dictionary of Black slang.
By this time. Basquiat was an art star, with millions and a drug problem: If the 1980s helped create the artist, they also helped kill him. For all the cultural complexities revealed here, his art is packed with the energy, anger and hero worship of youth. It inevitably leads to speculation of what he might have produced in maturity.
Seeing Loud: Basquiat and Music continues at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts to Feb. 19.