WWalking through the gallery, it is the volume of the paintings that strikes you. A 1982 play, Anybody Speaking Words, is screaming in yellow and black, a mouthful of tonsils chanting the word “OPERA, OPERA, OPERA” as the performer’s body vibrates with lines, scribbles and flourishes. zulu king [pictured above] it is a field of strong blue sky populated by the figures of legendary jazz artists: Louis Armstrong clutching his trumpet, charlie parker on saxophone, an all-time star band. Not far away, you bump into Armstrong and Parker again, in a collage called Plastic Sax from 1984. Scrawled in the corner of the frame is a single exploding word surrounded by cartoon clouds: “KABOOM.”
In the 34 years since his death at 27, there have been almost as many attempts to unravel the complex and multifaceted work of Jean-Michel Basquiat as there have been exhibitions and news about him. In his time, he was applauded for bringing the frenetic, manic energy of street art into the mainstream art world (too harsh for many museums, who turned down offers to acquire his paintings and now must be kicking themselves). Some have interpreted him as an arch-postmodernist, an Afrofuturist, even a beat poet reborn. Others have been intrigued by his complex friendship with Andy Warhol, to the point that the subject has spawned a play, The Collaboration, which is soon to be made into a movie. As the Black Lives Matter movement has built and built, Basquiat has belatedly been recognized as one of the most politicized African-American artists of his generation, who confronted police violence and America’s toxic relationship with race.
A new exhibition at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, Seeing Loud, offers yet another clue to Basquiat: his obsession with music. To understand what these pieces are really about, we must listen to them, and to him, with much more attention, argues co-curator Mary-Dailey Desmarais. “For Basquiat, music was much more than a soundtrack,” she says. “It was something that he absorbed and communicated with.”
The connection has been made before. the Barbican Retrospective 2018 devoted significant space to Basquiat’s emergence from New York’s late-’70s and early-’80s night scene, buzzing with early hip-hop and post-punk, while last year a trio of short films, decorated time, explored the artist’s fascination with rap, no wave and bebop. But the Montreal show, which features more than 100 paintings, notebooks, sound clips and multimedia fragments, many of them prized from private collections, is the most comprehensive attempt yet to show how deeply music permeated not just Basquiat’s soul. , but touched almost everything he did.
As a boy growing up in Brooklyn, Basquiat was surrounded by music, recalls his younger sister, Jeanine Heriveaux, who now manages his estate with her sister Lisane. “He was always on, particularly on the weekends. he was our father [Gerard]The Downtime of: Sunday mornings you’d get up early and you’d hear this progression of music, starting with classical and then moving on to jazz: everyone from Ella Fitzgerald and Miles Davis to Charlie Parker and Louis Armstrong. He especially loved jazz, and that passed on to Jean-Michel ”.
As Gerard himself recalled in an interview before his death in 2013, “for him, the ear would be listening to music and the hand would be making art.”
Contemporaries describe the adult Basquiat operating in the same way. He’d walk into his studio and, while he’d put together collages or experiment with oil sticks, the TV would be blaring while he had music or a drum machine blaring. Sometimes it would be classic Ravel’s Bolero was a favorite., perhaps because of its charming and ever-building crescendo, but Basquiat listened more often to the bebop he first heard at his father’s knee. At his death, the artist’s collection numbered 3,000 records, spanning an impressive variety of genres: Donna Summer, Bach, Hendrix, David Byrne. You can get a taste of his eclectic tastes in the Spotify playlists that Jeanine and Lisane have curated for a simultaneous exhibition in New York.
Did Jeanine and her older brother exchange listening tips? “Oh sure,” she laughs herself. “I was young at the time, maybe 13 or 14, but I remember one time she introduced me to [hip-hop artist] Jimmy Spicer. I had just played at a party”.
Other musical influences came through Basquiat’s enthusiastic dedication to the underground scene in midtown Manhattan, which centered on the Mudd Club in Tribeca and the CBGB in the East Village. There, he mixed with musicians like Debbie Harry, John Lurie, Laurie Anderson, Fab Five Freddy, and many more (not to mention, a few years later, his on-and-off romance with an up-and-coming dancer and singer named Madonna).
Despite, or perhaps because of, no formal musical training, in 1979 Basquiat co-founded the “noise band” Gray with filmmaker Michael Holman, who quickly became known for their abrasive, atonal performances (legend has it that the band was named after the medical encyclopedia Grey’s Anatomy, which is often referenced in Basquiat’s art). The artist attacked the percussion and turned pale with the clarinet. “He never played a recognizable tune,” recalled one contributor. Perhaps fortunately no recording of Gray with Basquiat survives.
Instead, as the Montreal exhibition makes clear, Basquiat deployed these influences on the raucous canvases he was beginning to make in the early 1980s, constructing them as musical arrangements. Collages like his 1984 Toxic read almost like visual hip-hop: a choppy assemblage of scribbled illustrations and cartoonishly mixed quotes (“hare conditioned,” “nut soup,” “eggs don’t bounce”). It was assembled from Basquiat’s own drawings, which he then photocopied and placed one on top of the other, as a producer might overlay a track.
“He was literally testing his own work,” says Desmarais. “He’s photocopying pre-existing drawings and creating these radical juxtapositions, in the same way that hip-hop artists would test other sounds to create new ones.”
At times, in fact, Basquiat was directly involved in the production: the year before, he helped put together Rammellzee and K-Rob’s Beat Bop single and created its cover in black and white.
But, time and time again, more obsessively than with any other genre, it was jazz, and especially bebop, that provided the artist’s creative wellspring and nourishment. In a way, suggests Vincent Bessières (editor of the Montreal exhibition-related book), it’s a paradox: this relentlessly experimental young artist, living in New York during one of its most fertile musical periods, felt that music written 40 years ago years before was what really spoke to him. More than 30 important works refer directly to jazz; references to music, often coded, run through endless notebooks and drawings.
“There are images of him dancing in his studio with Ellington,” says Bessières. “And if you see pictures of him DJing, you look closely and you realize that the LPs around him are Charlie Parker, Ben Webster, Lester Young. That’s what he was listening to.”
Parker’s ghostly figure in particular flits across many of Basquiat’s canvases, dating back to his revolutionary masterpiece. charles the first (1982) to the following year’s Kokosolo, which occupies pride of place in Montreal. An acid-yellow canvas layered with photocopies referencing everything from the Bible to advertising, it has a jubilant splash of black acrylic paint on top. The work is a tribute to one of Parker’s most impressive recordings, Koko (1945), Basquiat’s attempt to capture the athletic virtuosity of his musical idol, the way Parker balanced formal rigor with joyous freedom.
“It reads like sheet music,” says Bessières. “It’s full of quotes and riffs, these motifs that he used elsewhere and he kept coming back to, as a standards-based jazz musician.”
Musicians like Parker and Billie Holiday were part of Basquiat’s personal pantheon, Heriveaux suggests. “He considered them royalty, these specifically black heroes. It was important to him to honor them.”
Still, as the paintings emphasize, Basquiat was well aware of the price many of his ancestors paid, particularly Parker, whose life was beset by sorrow and poverty, and who died at age 34 after a battle with heroin addiction. Heroin also became Basquiat’s drug of choice, eventually killing him. In the left corner of Carlos I, Basquiat placed the text “MÁS
YOUNG MAN KINGS CUT OFF THEIR HEADS.”
“I think there is some kind of personal identification with Parker,” says Bessières. “He’s like Basquiat’s double, in a way.”
Two of his latest works hang in the last room of the exhibition, made in 1988 after Warhol’s sudden death and when Basquiat himself was gradually becoming addicted. The series title, Eroica (Eroica), pays homage to Beethoven’s 3rd Symphony, whose second movement is a mournful funeral march; the music itself plays on a soundtrack in the gallery.
In I heroic, Basquiat obsessively scribbles text that appears to be scrawled on the walls of a jail cell: “MAN DIES, MAN DIES, MAN DIES,” alongside blood-red holes that could be gunshot wounds. Nearby is the phrase “FIXINTODIEBLUES,” a reference to a song sung by the Delta blues artist Bukka White. That song also resonates in the gallery. A few final bars, then silence.