Newly crowned as the most expensive American artist at auction with a $110 million sale in May, Jean-Michel Basquiat’s work gets a new look this year in a major exhibition, Boom For Real, which travels from London to Frankfurt. Curator Eleanor Nairne speaks about the multifaceted artist, his burgeoning reputation and the unorthodox concept of the show, which features more than 120 pieces, including many major paintings coming from both public and private collections across the globe
On Basquiat’s art
The work manages to feel more contemporary as the years go by, which is extraordinary and so opposite to how many bodies of work feel. The art is fascinating for all the ways in which it engages you and incites you and antagonises you – but also that it wants to be encrypted in certain ways. There is all sorts of evocative gameplaying going on in there.
On the works’ public reception
People who get it have always got it. Generally I find that people who have been with the work in the flesh either get it or admire it. And you very rarely come across artists who don’t like the work. Which is not to say that every artist feels inspired by Basquiat’s work or has integrated it into their practice, but you very rarely find artists who don’t at least admire what he’s done. The big problem has been not enough people have been able to see the work in the flesh.
On the exhibition
It is thinking about Basquiat in a cross-arts context. In the late 1970s post-punk, new wave New York, that’s what you had. Writers, artists, DJs – they’re all wanting to engage with ranges of influences and references and they’re all wanting to work in different kinds of media and they’re not wanting to define themselves in a limiting way. Basquiat is prototypical of the period. He was influenced by this amazing array of source material, everything from Japanese cinema through neighbouring artists like Rauschenberg to new reggae music – a melting pot of things. Basquiat wants to try his hand at a variety of things. Particularly in the early years he’s writing poetry, he’s doing graffiti in the streets, he’s making these postcards and collages, he’s making T-shirts and costumes for himself, he’s making performance pieces, he’s making sculptures. We felt that range hadn’t been fully articulated in shows to date.
On the title of the exhibition
It was a catchphrase he used for something that was ineffably brilliant, that he really liked. For me these three words encapsulate so much about him: the “boom” of the noise and the onomatopoeia and the expression, and the “for real” of the authenticity, that sense that you’re getting to the truth of something.
On the European context
In the States his cultural identity has tended to be talked about in terms of quite a monolithic idea of African American male identity. In Britain we have this great tradition of Diasporic identity – the richness of that thinking has infused a lot of the scholarship here.
On curatorial approach
Basquiat is the first person I think of in terms of every single curatorial question. And that’s been played out partly through our relationship with his family. I’ve gone out and visited with the sisters and spoken with them at about six week intervals through this whole process. They’ve seen every evolution of the design. They’ve been very helpful.
On her hopes for people walking through the exhibition
The most important thing for me is that they feel invigorated. It’s very hard to describe the works – seeing them is a very emotional experience. It has this unbelievable capacity to speak to people. People who feel like modern art is not for them find themselves encountering the work and are quite deeply moved by it. People come away with an amazing sense of energy and creativity and possibility.