Walking through the gallery, it’s the loudness of the paintings that hits you. A work from 1982, Anybody Speaking Words, is in screaming yellow and black, with a tonsil-filled mouth singing the word “OPERA, OPERA, OPERA” while the performer’s body vibrates with lines, squiggles and curlicues. King Zulu [pictured above] is a field of loud sky-blue populated with the figures of legendary jazz artists: Louis Armstrong clutching his trumpet, Charlie Parker on saxophone, an all-star band for all time. Not far away, you encounter Armstrong and Parker again, in a collage called Plastic Sax from 1984. In the corner of the frame, there’s scribbled a single explosive word surrounded by cartoonish clouds: “KABOOM”
In the 34 years since his death at 27, there have been almost as many attempts to unpick the complex, multifaceted work of Jean-Michel Basquiat as there have been exhibitions and news stories featuring him. In his own time, he was applauded for bringing the scrappy, manic energy of street art to the mainstream art world (too scrappy for many museums, who turned down offers to acquire his paintings and must now be kicking themselves). Some have interpreted him as an arch-postmodernist, an Afrofuturist, even a reborn Beat poet. Others have been intrigued by his complex friendship with Andy Warhol, to the extent that the subject has generated a play, The Collaboration, that’s soon to become a film. As the Black Lives Matter movement has built and built, Basquiat has belatedly been acknowledged as one of the most politicised African American artists of his generation, who confronted police violence and America’s toxic relationship with race.
A new exhibition at Montreal’s Museum of Fine Arts, Seeing Loud, offers yet another key to Basquiat: his obsession with music. To understand what these pieces are really about, we need to listen to them – and him – far more attentively, argues co-curator Mary-Dailey Desmarais. “To Basquiat, music was much more than a soundtrack,” she says. “It was something he absorbed and communicated with.”
The connection has been made before. The Barbican’s 2018 retrospective devoted significant space to Basquiat’s emergence from the night-time scene of late 70s and early 80s New York, noisy with early hip-hop and post-punk, while last year a trio of short films, Time Decorated, 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 snippets – many prised from private collections – is the most thoroughgoing attempt yet to show how deeply music permeated not just Basquiat’s soul, but touched nearly everything he did.
As a kid growing up in Brooklyn, Basquiat was surrounded by music, remembers his younger sister Jeanine Heriveaux, who now co-runs his estate with her sister Lisane. “It was always on, particularly at weekends. It was our father [Gerard]’s downtime: on Sunday mornings he’d be up early, and you’d hear this progression of music, starting with classical, then moving on to jazz – everyone from Ella Fitzgerald and Miles Davis to Charlie Parker to Louis Armstrong. He loved jazz especially, and that rubbed off on 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 much the same way. Enter his studio and, while he pieced together collages or experimented with oil stick, the TV would be blaring while he had music on or had a drum machine pumping away. Sometimes it’d be classical – Ravel’s Bolero was a favourite, perhaps because of its incantatory, ever-building crescendo – but more often Basquiat listened 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 range of genres: Donna Summer, Bach, Hendrix, David Byrne. You can get a taste of his eclectic tastes in the Spotify playlists Jeanine and Lisane have curated for a concurrent exhibition in New York.
Did Jeanine and her elder brother swap listening tips? “Oh, for sure,” she laughs. “I was young at the time, maybe 13 or 14, but I remember one time he introduced me to [hip-hop artist] Jimmy Spicer. He’d just been DJing it at a party.”
Other musical influences came via Basquiat’s enthusiastic dedication to the underground scene in downtown Manhattan, which centred on the Mudd Club in Tribeca and CBGB in the East Village. There, he mingled with musicians including Debbie Harry, John Lurie, Laurie Anderson, Fab Five Freddy and many more (not to mention, a few years later, his on-off romance with an emerging dancer and singer called Madonna).
Despite having received no formal musical training – or perhaps because of it – in 1979 Basquiat co-founded the “noise band” Gray with film-maker Michael Holman, which rapidly became known for its abrasive, atonal performances (legend has it that the band was named after the medical encyclopedia Gray’s Anatomy, often referenced in Basquiat’s art). The artist bashed away at percussion and vamped on clarinet. “He never played one recognisable melody,” one collaborator recalled. Perhaps mercifully, no Gray recordings featuring Basquiat survive.
Instead, as the Montreal exhibition makes clear, Basquiat deployed these influences in the raucous canvases he was beginning to make during the early 1980s, constructing them like musical arrangements. Collages such as his 1984 work Toxic read almost like visual hip-hop: a staccato assemblage of scribbled illustrations and cartoonish found quotes (“hare conditioned”, “soup to nuts”, “eggs don’t bounce”). It was assembled out of Basquiat’s own drawings, which he then photocopied and placed on top of each other, much like a producer might layer a track.
“He was literally sampling his own work,” says Desmarais. “He’s Xeroxing pre-existing drawings and creating these radical juxtapositions, much in the way that hip-hop artists would sample other sounds to create new ones.”
Sometimes, indeed, Basquiat was directly involved in producing: the year before, he helped put together Rammellzee and K-Rob’s single Beat Bop and created its stark black-and-white cover art.
But, again and again, more obsessively than with any other genre, it was jazz – and most of all bebop – that provided the artist’s wellspring and creative nourishment. In some ways, suggests Vincent Bessières (an editor of the book connected to the Montreal exhibition), it is 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 earlier was the stuff that really spoke to him. More than 30 major works refer to jazz directly; references to the music, often coded, run through endless notebooks and drawings.
“There’s footage of him dancing in his studio to Ellington,” Bessières says. “And if you see pictures of him DJing, you look carefully and notice that the LPs around him are Charlie Parker, Ben Webster, Lester Young. That’s what he was listening to.”
The ghostly figure of Parker in particular flits through many of Basquiat’s canvases, from his breakthrough masterpiece Charles the First (1982) to the following year’s Kokosolo, which takes pride of place in Montreal. An acid-yellow canvas layered with photocopies referencing everything from the Bible to advertising, it has an exultant swoosh of black acrylic paint across the top. The work is a tribute to one of Parker’s most breathtaking recordings, Koko (1945), Basquiat’s attempt to capture the athletic virtuosity of his musical idol, the way Parker balanced formal rigour with joyous freedom.
“It reads like a sheet of music,” Bessières points out. “It’s full of quotes and riffs, these motifs he used elsewhere and kept returning to, like a jazz musician drawing on standards.”
Musicians such as Parker and Billie Holiday were part of Basquiat’s personal pantheon, suggests Heriveaux. “He regarded them as royalty, these specifically black heroes. It was important for him to honour them.”
Even so, as the paintings emphasise, Basquiat was acutely aware of the price many of his forebears paid – notably Parker, whose life was beset by sorrows and poverty, and who died at 34 after a struggle with heroin addiction. Heroin also became Basquiat’s drug of choice, and in the end it killed him. In the left-hand corner of Charles the First, Basquiat placed the text “MOST
YOUNG KINGS GET THIER HEAD CUT OFF.”
“I think there’s some kind of personal identification with Parker,” says Bessières. “He’s like Basquiat’s double, in a way.”
In the last room of the exhibition hang two of his very last works, made in 1988 after the sudden death of Warhol and when Basquiat himself was slowly being enveloped by addiction. The title of the series, Eroica (Heroic), pays tribute to Beethoven’s Symphony No 3, whose second movement is a doleful funeral march; the music itself plays on a soundtrack in the gallery.
In Eroica I, Basquiat obsessively inscribes text that looks like it might be scrawled on the walls of a jail cell – “MAN DIES MAN DIES MAN DIES” – next to blood-red holes that could be bullet wounds. Nearby is the phrase “FIXINTODIEBLUES”, a reference to a song sung by the Delta blues artist Bukka White. That song echoes around the gallery, too. A few final bars, then silence.