An unlikely graffiti artist

It’s unusual for me to attend art shows where you have to pay and book in advance. I don’t have the money and I can never be reasonably confident that I’ll be up to attending on the day. Basquiat’s Boom for Real may seem an odd choice for an uncool miserablist like myself (I’m an unlikely graffiti artist), but I have never been to the Barbican so I thought it would be a bit of a day out.

Note: There’s a Barbican photo gallery at the bottom of the page

I never find tube journeys easy. For a while, I was unable to get on a train other than on the District Line to High Street Kensington (for the Central Library). Those trains are spacious and not deep underground.  The problem began after getting stuck in a tunnel on a Piccadilly Line train for almost an hour one swelting Summer’s day. Now I’m OK-ish if I get a seat and don’t make eye contact. It’s a relief if a young woman doesn’t offer me her seat. This has happened to me twice in the past few months. I get the message. Because of the chain-smoking and the prematurely grey hair I look old for my age. But I’m not THAT decrepit.

The Barbican seems like quite a swanky neighborhood. Brutalist architecture apparently. I know nothing about architecture. I thought brutalism was something you occasionally see in photographs on Whores of Yore (Twitter).

Had a bit of a mooch around the arts centre. Theatres, restaurants, galleries occupied by the usual types. Might have been a convention on for creative industry workers, university lecturers, and those fruity charity comms girls. But there plonked down amongst all the plushness was a bag lady. No, not some Daphne down on her luck, drowning her sorrows having made herself destitute helping her children through university and getting them on the property ladder, a proper bag lady. Several overcoats, a couple of dozen carrier bags, happily reliving aloud her fond memories: once was an art student, the first girl at college to wear a mini-skirt, exhibited all around Europe, caught gonorrhea in Venice. It’s always a joy to hear people talk aloud in public.

The Barbican is noted for its theatre. I’ve only been to the theatre once. A girlfriend took me to see a performance of The Slab Boys her flatmate was in. He kept forgetting his lines and saying “prompt”. I was so ignorant I thought it was part of the play. That’s probably a very state joke, but I’m so clueless about what happens on the stage I wouldn’t know.

After the performance, there was another performance. My girlfriend insisted that the theatre had more relevance to working-class lives than pop music. Superficially this seems absurd, but then who am I to say? I make jokes about not really liking music, but it’s not that far from the truth. When I was younger my musical tastes were always influenced by what music a girlfriend was listening to – along with interests in books and art. I could be described as a late developer when it comes to having an intellectual life. I split up with the theatre girl on the grounds of me being a philistine.

Basquiat, what can I say? Happily, I wasn’t the only unlikely graffiti artist at the exhibition. The usual grand old duchesses and dukes of the avant-garde were present, now in their 70s and 80s with their ripped jeans and bohemian hair. That said, it was very largely a young crowd. Few parents with nippers in pushchairs which is always a pleasure to see.

For those of you who don’t know, Basquiat was a graffiti/street artist from the late-70s and early-80s who became a pioneer in the 1980s downtown New York art scene. Precocious and self-taught, he played an important role in bringing graffiti art into the mainstream. He was establishing himself as a major contemporary painter when he died at 27 from a heroin and cocaine overdose.

I know a little about New York’s art scene in the 70s and 80s. I’m aware of the culture from which Patti Smith emerged, I had a girlfriend-inspired interest in Talking Heads and I read a history of New York nightclubs: The Last Party: Studio 54, Disco, and the Culture of the Night. This charts the rise and fall of club culture including the Mudd Club where Basquiat hung out as a DJ and hip-hop early adopter.

Admittedly I have more or less gone out of my way to avoid hip-hop and take a Morrisseyesque view of DJs. You may have seen me mocking the Victoria & Albert Museum (V&A) and others on Twitter for the championing of intellectual disco.

Forty years ago in the emerging street culture of New York’s South Bronx, music and visual arts fusing must have seemed full of possibilities. Aunts and uncles dancing at the V&A these days doesn’t, especially given that there is no shortage of venues where they could be letting their hair down. And on Friday nights the Poppys and Millys have turned the once august institution that is the National Portrait Gallery into Faliraki.

The graffiti in the exhibition left me as puzzled as ever. I haven’t the faintest idea what distinguishes some scribble on a wall from street art: I’m probably being an elitist describing anything as scribble. That why I went, looking for clues. Here’s a clue, I’ve lived on 60s-built concrete estates smothered in graffiti. There was no graffiti anywhere around the Barbican estate amongst the polite signs to respect the residents and keep noise to a minimum. I don’t think graffiti survives very long around the Barbican.

I try to read as much poetry as I can, but I need a huge flashing neon sign to tell me if anything is any good. I noticed that Basquiat’s poetry was influenced by William Burroughs and that he performed with him.

I enjoyed the paintings. Even with my untrained eye, I could see the influences of and references back to Picasso. I liked the sheer elan of it all.

Not sure we’re supposed to shit ourselves in amazement that a street artist had heard of Leonardo da Vinci. Basquiat’s mother took him around galleries as a kid. It’s worth noting that while Basquiat didn’t go to art school he wasn’t exactly from the ghetto. He had a comfortable middle-class upbringing.

I think the curators may have been overselling some points. The guy was interested in ancient Eygpt. That didn’t make him an Egyptologist. I’m not sure Basquiat was over-reaching himself, but his boosters appear to be stretching it.

This exhibition is definitely worth seeing. If you can’t make it, there’s an extremely good website run by Basquiat’s Estate. The BBC has a video interview with three young black artists about his influence and an interview with one of his contemporaries and friends.

The Barbican looks like a great place for a mental patient to loll around. If I were the type and had the money I’d go for a day and see an exhibition, a film and have a meal. Maybe next birthday.

Note that the Basquiat exhibition is £12 for the unwaged.

Featured image: Photo of the gallery guide & a postcard from the Basquiat exhibition taken with my iPhone, September 2017.

The gallery: Photos taken around the Barbican with my iPhone, September 2017.

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