Catch a shooting star

Half Haitian, half Puerto Rican, a fluent speaker of Caribbean Spanish, and a jazz expert with a library of more than 3,000 records, Jean- Michel Basquiat epitomised the multilingual power and multifarious stimuli of New York. With a potent bland of cheek, chutzpah and contrariness, Basquiat fused his painting and his persona to turn himself into one of the meteoric symbols of the boom-time Eighties, only then to be seized- upon with equal rapaciousness as one of its first casualties when he died from a heroin overdose at the age of 27, in August 1988.

In the first room of the Serpentine Gallery's retrospective - the first public showing of Basquiat's work in this country for more than 10 years - is a figure that stops you in your tracks. Looming out of the vivid dribbles and juicy patches of a billboard-sized colourfield painting, is a huge black figure - part skeleton, part flesh - who bares his teeth and stretches out his arms in a gesture that simultaneously stands as greeting, threat and surrender. Homeboy or shaman? Servant or Saviour? Stigmata-carrying Christ or signalling Cripps-gang member? The message is deliberately, powerfully ambiguous. Unless they are specifically identified as someone else, the black figures with mask- or skull-like features that populate so much of Basquiat's work nearly always stand as self-portraits; and this early image, painted by an audaciously competent 21-year-old artist, stands as a testament to the paradox and the inscrutability that were to charge his brief, incandescent nine-year-long career.

On canvas, paper or any surface he fancied - there's a painted fridge and a piece of old door in the show - Basquiat wrote, drew, sprayed, printed and painted his experiences, his influences and his aspirations. Often he overlaid styles and sources in a crowded welter of words, symbols and syncopated colour; but, just as effectively, he frequently left things spare: in Sugar Ray Robinson he pays homage to the supremely elegant middleweight champion by a few white lines spelling out a name, a face, and a crown. Such works transcend myth to speak on their own terms.

There was never any doubt that Jean-Michel Basquiat wanted to be famous. He may have dropped out of school in 1977 to make his mark spray-canning the walls of Manhattan; but this son of a successful Brooklyn accountant made sure that he positioned his trademark "SAMO" slogans strategically around the galleries of SoHo and the East Village where they could be intercepted by the influential art-world figures that Basquiat, with characteristic ambivalence, both despised and admired. His mixed feelings about the downtown art scene came through loud and clear in the provocative, fictitious persona of "SAMO" (standing for "Same Old Shit" as well as an abbreviated "Sambo") and such messages as "SAMO FOR THE ART PIMPS", "SAMO saves idiots", and finally, in 1979, "SAMO is dead". The legacy of SAMO lives on, however, in the pungent and poetic use of text in Basquiat's work, along with his famous declaration that he uses words like brushstrokes.

Meanwhile, Basquiat was also cutting a conspicuous swathe in avant-garde circles, sporting a bleached blonde mohawk and paint-splattered white smock, selling painted T-shirts and postcards and collages to the likes of Debbie Harry and Jim Jarmusch, and performing at the Mudd Club in a "noise music" band called Grey. Another hero was Andy Warhol, the Pale Prince of Pop, who bought one of Basquiat's customised postcards around this time, and who later, when Basquiat had been launched as a fully fledged art star, was to become a close friend and artistic collaborator. Their dual paintings, which received mixed reviews and accusations of mutual exploitation, show an intriguing mutual tension whereby the exuberantly excessive Basquiat eats into and paints over, but never quite succeeds in obliterating Warhol's disciplined, meticulously painted logos.

But it wasn't just streetlife, celebrity, and nights at CBGB's that ignited and fuelled Basquiat's art. From early childhood he went with his mother Matilde to New York's Museum of Modern Art and the Metropolitan Museum of Art; and by the age of six he was a "junior member'' of the Brooklyn Museum. However turbulent his subsequent circumstances, Basquiat remained a lifelong gallery visitor, who looked long and hard at the vocabulary of modern art for the means to carry his message. The collaged detritus "combines" of Robert Rauschenberg, the late, unruly paintings of Picasso (whose "Primitivism" was as far removed from its source as that of Basquiat) and the muscular Abstract calligraphy of Franz Kline all underpin his vision; while from Cy Twombly, Basquiat saw how to draw, scribble, write and collage simultaneously - although, unlike Twombly, Basquiat crossed out to accentuate, not to obliterate. This omnivorous assimilation of influence was to extend far beyond art to include the sampling of such eclectic sources as Gray's Anatomy, a lexicon of international graphic symbols, Alexandrian history and the writings and drawings of Leonardo da Vinci, all of which collide and crop up throughout his career.

And then there was music. Although in 1984 he produced a rap record with his friends Fred Braithwaite (aka Fab 5 Freddie) and the graffiti artist and DJ Ramemellzee, Basquiat's first and greatest love was the jazz that he first heard with his father. Discography (One) (1982) simply transcribes the notes from a Charlie Parker album sleeve; while the three-panel Charles the First (1983) is a loose and complex melding of scribbles, dribbles, signs and references that pay tribute to the king of bebop who never played the same thing twice and who died, destitute, in a white woman's hotel suite. There's no doubt that, in his visual riffs, riddles and spaces, and his splicing of airy improvisation with intellectual sophistication, Basquiat aimed at - and often achieved - a visual equivalent to one of Charlie "Bird" Parker's soaring, searing saxophone solos.

By the mid-Eighties, Basquiat had made it. He was the first and only black American artist to reach blue-chip status in his lifetime, but his attitude to success was characteristically ambivalent. He'd been picked up by the SoHo dealer Aninia Nosei in 1981, but Basquiat's use of Nosei's gallery basement as a studio was dubbed by friends as his "dungeon period'', and this was to be the first of several disastrous relationships with dealers and recriminatory accusations of exploitation. "I wanted to be an art star, not a gallery mascot," he said, while finding more and more that the two were mutually inclusive.

Myths still surround Basquiat, and he was frequently responsible for manipulating them himself. In his complicated, contrary attitude to his celebrity, as in his obsessive but also carelessly casual attitude to his work, Basquiat presented a moving target. But amid the decadent posing for magazine covers in bare feet and paint-splattered Armani suits, the caviar omelettes and vintage wines - as well as the punishing substance abuse - he laid bare the messy schizoid dilemmas faced by a black artist trying to make some sense of his role as a cultural polyglot. The fact that he did so with such lightness, grace and force makes him one of this century's most important figures. Like one of his most revered heroes, Basquiat was an artist who could dance like a butterfly and sting like a bee.

n `Jean-Michel Basquiat' is at the Serpentine Gallery, London W2 (0171- 402 6075) to 21 April

Arts and Entertainment
Tate Modern chief Chris Dercon, who will be leaving to run a Berlin theatre company
Arts and Entertainment
Tasos: 'I rarely refuse an offer to be photographed'
arts + ents
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Arts and Entertainment
Girls on the verge of a nervous breakdown: Florence Pugh and Maisie Williams star in 'The Falling'
Arts and Entertainment
Legendary charm: Clive Owen and Keira Knightley in 2004’s ‘King Arthur’
FilmGuy Ritchie is the latest filmmaker to tackle the legend
Arts and Entertainment
Corporate affair: The sitcom has become a satire of corporate culture in general

TV review

Broadcasting House was preparing for a visit from Prince Charles spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
tvReview: There are some impressive performances by Claire Skinner and Lorraine Ashbourne in Inside No. 9, Nana's Party spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Glastonbury's pyramid stage

Glastonbury Michael Eavis reveals final headline act 'most likely' British pair

Arts and Entertainment
Ewan McGregor looks set to play Lumiere in the Beauty and the Beast live action remake

Film Ewan McGregor joins star-studded Beauty and the Beast cast as Lumiere

Arts and Entertainment
Charlie feels the lack of food on The Island with Bear Grylls


The Island with Bear Grylls under fire after male contestants kill and eat rare crocodile
Arts and Entertainment
Aaron Taylor-Johnson as Quicksilver and Elizabeth Olsen as Scarlet Witch, in a scene from Avengers: Age Of Ultron
filmReview: A great cast with truly spectacular special effects - but is Ultron a worthy adversaries for our superheroes? spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Robin Ince performing in 2006
Arts and Entertainment
Beth (played by Jo Joyner) in BBC1's Ordinary Lies
tvReview: There’s bound to be a second series, but it needs to be braver spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Paul Hollywood and Mary Berry, the presenters of The Great Comic Relief Bake Off 2015

Arts and Entertainment
A still from Harold Ramis' original Groundhog Day film, released in 1993

Arts and Entertainment
Christopher Eccleston (centre) plays an ex-policeman in this cliché-riddled thriller

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey looks very serious as Cersei Lannister in Game of Thrones

TV This TV review contains spoilers
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Wiz Khalifa performs on stage during day one of the Wireless Festival at Perry Park in Birmingham

Arts and Entertainment
Festival-goers soak up the atmosphere at Glastonbury


Arts and Entertainment
Star Wars creator George Lucas


Arts and Entertainment


  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

    Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

    How a costume drama became a Sunday night staple
    Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers as he pushes Tories on housing

    Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers

    Labour leader pushes Tories on housing
    Aviation history is littered with grand failures - from the the Bristol Brabazon to Concorde - but what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?

    Aviation history is littered with grand failures

    But what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?
    Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of Soviet-style 'iron curtains' right across Europe

    Fortress Europe?

    Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of 'iron curtains'
    Never mind what you're wearing, it's what you're reclining on

    Never mind what you're wearing

    It's what you're reclining on that matters
    General Election 2015: Chuka Umunna on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband

    Chuka Umunna: A virus of racism runs through Ukip

    The shadow business secretary on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband
    Yemen crisis: This exotic war will soon become Europe's problem

    Yemen's exotic war will soon affect Europe

    Terrorism and boatloads of desperate migrants will be the outcome of the Saudi air campaign, says Patrick Cockburn
    Marginal Streets project aims to document voters in the run-up to the General Election

    Marginal Streets project documents voters

    Independent photographers Joseph Fox and Orlando Gili are uploading two portraits of constituents to their website for each day of the campaign
    Game of Thrones: Visit the real-life kingdom of Westeros to see where violent history ends and telly tourism begins

    The real-life kingdom of Westeros

    Is there something a little uncomfortable about Game of Thrones shooting in Northern Ireland?
    How to survive a social-media mauling, by the tough women of Twitter

    How to survive a Twitter mauling

    Mary Beard, Caroline Criado-Perez, Louise Mensch, Bunny La Roche and Courtney Barrasford reveal how to trounce the trolls
    Gallipoli centenary: At dawn, the young remember the young who perished in one of the First World War's bloodiest battles

    At dawn, the young remember the young

    A century ago, soldiers of the Empire – many no more than boys – spilt on to Gallipoli’s beaches. On this 100th Anzac Day, there are personal, poetic tributes to their sacrifice
    Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves

    Follow the money as never before

    Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves, reports Rupert Cornwell
    Samuel West interview: The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents

    Samuel West interview

    The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents
    General Election 2015: Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

    Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

    Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, on what the leaders' appearances tell us about them
    Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

    Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

    The architect of the HeForShe movement and head of UN Women on the world's failure to combat domestic violence