Basquiat: Boom for Real

Aaaah, Jean-Michel Basquiat. I must say, 2017 really is his year. Everything revolving around him and breaking auction records with his artworks. Do you think he would enjoy this boom, such recognition and fame surrounding him, if he was still alive?

I couldn’t miss the opportunity to see his incredible sort of retrospective at Barbican. And I was definitely not disappointed. A young black guy, who emerged from a street artist to the name we now all know.


The Barbican Gallery is such an interesting space. And I think it was just made for this particular exhibition, which occupied both floors. When you first ascend the stairs, you are faced with a labyrinth of open rooms, each with a different title and various coloured walls. You just wait in anticippation of what you are actually going to witness. The rooms are numbered in the little booklet you get at the beginning, so you know which path to take.

New York/New Wave

The first room offers the artworks from the exhibition that shot Basquiat to the stars. I enjoyed the decision of recreating the hang, as the visitors can get a better idea of the art world in the eighties.

But at the same time, even just this room could be his whole Barbican exhibition, it is so grandiose. It is quite overwhelming being surrounded by so many of his works at the same time. It was my first experience like that. And I still had 13 more rooms to go through.

Curators put a video interview of Diego Cortez in the room as well, contextualizing New York/New Wave exhibition even more. However, it is hard to follow the talking, as the visitors are discussing the artworks right behind you.

I noticed some people had problems with finding the captions, because they were all positioned at one place, on the opposite wall from the artworks.



The second room takes us through the story of graffitti artists SAMO© with the photographs of their works. We might find parallels with Banksy in a way. A sensation of not knowing who leaves the graffitti on the streets, telling the story of the contemporary world. However, SAMO© was soon exposed as a young Basquiat and Al Diaz and the exact same thing is now happening with Banksy. Do you agree with a theory of him being Robert del Naja?


Canal Zone

This room carries you into the time when Basquiat was selling his postcard art (made with other collaborators) for a dollar each outside MOMA and being chased away by the guards. It really makes you think. If only they would know what a sensation will be born a few years later.. And do you think people, who bought the postcards, know what treasures they have at home?


The Scene

Here is an introduction of Basquiat’s personal night life in the Mudd Club and all the connections he was able to get from it. You see, staying up late can be a good thing sometimes..

The connections between Andy Warhol’s The Factory and even Dada’s Cabaret Voltaire; the young minds hanging out together, producing the future of the art world.


Downtown 81

A dark room, containing a huge screening of a movie Downtown 81 that definitely transports you to a different era, especially with all the echoing voices of visitors all around you. It is really a special experience..or was I just really tired and daydreaming? All in all, the benches are a good thing to longer enjoy Basquiat as a star of the film.


Beat Bop

I will call this a music room. It is awesome. And it also has all the free space in the middle. Possibly they anticipated someone dropping in a dance, so they moved all the artworks to the walls. And indeed we did move to the beat of rap.



This offers an insight into the often misinterpreted relationship between Basquiat and Andy Warhol. I enjoyed how it explains it through the artworks.



A collection of so-called self-portraits with characteristics that are very specific for Basquiat.



This is the first space when you walk down the stairs. It is quite overwhelming when you look downstairs and see what else you are about to appreciate. The exhibition is huge.

When you first walk in, you are greeted by jazz and blues music, which echoes throughout the whole exhibition. It transports the visitor to the time of Basquiat’s creation in his studio. And the artworks here are dedicated to just that: the music giants that influenced him.


Art History

The artworks presented in this space are taken from his art historic artistic influences. Also the books that he was studying are exhibited, including his original copy of Leonardo. Basquiat was acknowledging the work of other artists, his artistic heroes through some of his own artoworks. He was really a versatile artist. What as shame he left this world so young. It would be interesting to see what else he would’ve achieved.



This space is a very interesting one. At first glance, the artworks look quite random, however, one can soon start drawing the parallels with Dali and Duchamp and their inception of their own personal iconographies. As with them, we will never know exactly what was actually going on in the brilliant head of Basquiat.

All the artworks are mostly ambiguous. One needs a lot of knowledge to at least try to understand all his references.

And at the same time, his examination of the black history is not as obvious as it could be. Sometimes you really need the written interpretation to grasp the meaning.



In a small room, his poems are presented, with a recording of his passionate reading from Genesis, which is echoing through the space.

The Screen

Basquiat aspired to be a cartoonist as a child. He wasn’t that off actually. And this room presents loads if his TV connotations.



The exhibition concludes with a screening of an interview from 1985. It is an intimate conversation between friends and a very good addition to see him at work/listen about the work. But again, it is quite hard to hear because of all the noises around. Subtitles would be greatly appreciated for the convenience.



All in all, it is amazing to see all these artworks together, brought in from all over the world, gathered in one big adoringly worthy retrospective. And loads of the artworks are from the private collections, so it is a very good opportunity to catch them, before they go back to storage.

Kudos also to curators for contextualizing each room with added documentation that validates the artworks. The exhibited newspapers, photos, articles and videos can be seen as an exhibition in an exhibition, which makes it even more personal and intimate. They take nicely you through Basquiat’s life with the artworks and the stories surrounding it. And even the crowd was responding to the theme. It was definitely a younger crowd than at Dali/Duchamp exhibition, dressed more provocatively and with all the individual characteristics. A good addition to this kind of exhibition.



  1. Featured image: personal archive
  2. Personal archive
  3. Personal archive
  4. Leith, M. (2017) New York, New Wave. Available at:
  5. Fewings, T. (2017) New York, New Wave. Available at:
  6. Personal archive
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  9. Personal archive
  10. Von Holstein, J. (1979) Anti-Baseball Card Product. Available at:
  11. Personal archive
  12. Madonna. Available at:
  13. Basquiat. Available at:
  14. Personal archive
  15. Basquiat, J. M. (1983) Hollywood Africans. Available at:
  16. Personal archive
  17. Basquiat, J. M. (1982) Dos Cabezas. Available at:
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  19. Basquiat, J. M. (1982) Untitled. Available at:
  20. Basquiat, J. M. (1983) Self-Portrait. Available at:
  21. Personal archive
  22. Basquiat, J. M. (1981) Self-Portrait. Available at:
  23. Basquiat, J. M. (1986) King Zulu. Available at:
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  25. Basquiat, J. M. (1984) Picasso. Available at:
  26. Basquiat, J. M. (1983) Untitled, Titian. Available at:
  27. Personal archive
  28. Basquiat, J. M. (1982) Jawbone o fan Ass. Available at:
  29. Basquiat, J. M. (1982) Moses and the Egyptians. Available at:
  30. Personal archive
  31. Basquiat, J. M. (1987) Notebook 5. Available at:
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  33. Personal archive

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