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

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