A Trip to Rome with Jean-Michel Basquiat

Jean-Michel Basquiat's (1960-88) passion for art and American popular culture began in childhood. He used to spend his school hours drawing cartoons and telling teachers he would become famous. In the 70s, he started doing graffiti signing the works ‘SAMO’. In the 80s, he had his his first exhibition and gallerists started to take note. This was the beginning of his career as an artist. He participated in several important international exhibitions and frequented The Factory of Andy Warhol, with whom he collaborated on various artworks. Basquiat emerged because of his distinct style, a combination of tribal and American culture. Tragically however, the young star’s career was cut short in 1988 after a heroin overdose.  

After last year's exhibition on Banksy, War, Capitalism and Liberty in Palazzo Cipolla, it seems an appropriate time for Chiostro del Bramante to inaugurate its major retrospective on the well-known Afro-American street artist Basquiat. The exhibition features a combination of drawings, paintings and installations, concluding with some photographs of the artist that appeared in 70s art magazines, which finally identified him as the “king” of New York City.

We are introduced to Basquiat’s early works already marked by the copyright symbol and the crown, asserting his clearly defined artistic identity. Despite Basquiat's unique style, the curators stress the importance of his work as a kind of neoimpressionism usually associated with Twombly and Dubuffet. In the second part of the exhibition, artworks accentuating Basquiat’s obsession with the human body and medicine books, read during his long stay in NYC hospital after a car crash when he was 7 years old, are displayed. In these artworks, as in medical texts, the artist highlights the anatomy of different parts of the human body; the body becomes something in between the organic and the mechanical. What follows is an area dedicated to the artistic collaboration with Warhol, the significance of which is defined by Keith Haring as a “dialogue between two historical and cultural epochs”. Despite the scepticism of their contemporaries, this collaboration enriched the work of both. Basquiat’s expressionist style highlights the roots of capitalism present in the more organized work of Warhol. Importantly, the exhibition also highlights that Basquiat’s works are simultaneously bound up in a critique of primitivism, which used African art and culture as a way to experiment with new styles while ignoring its values.

The curators have certainly provided an impressive overview of the artist’s work, covering a range of themes, techniques and media. We discover an interesting selection of drawings where enigmatic words arise as a recurrent feature, as graphic marks or signifiers of a combination of cultures: primordial, spiritual, technological and consumerist all at once. Overall the exhibition is well curated and works are provided enough space for contemplation. It is only a shame that the excellent visual experience is accompanied by labelling that  is often chronologically and thematically confusing.

In spite of the disorientating information, the exhibition demonstrates Basquiat’s importance in paving the way for the Black artists who preceded him, showcasing his work’s celebration of Afro-American culture in all its expressions: music, dance and theatre.

JEAN-MICHEL BASQUIAT. New York City at Chiostro del Bramante in Rome: 24 March - 2 July 2017

Lea Marrazzo

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