As Seeing Loud: Basquiat and Music opens at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, Chief Curator Mary-Dailey Desmarais reveals the late artist’s fascinating relationship with music
Organize an exhibition on Basquiat these days. It looks like he’s reached saturation point: his work is splattered on Converse shoes and Tiffany campaigns, printed on Urban Outfitters t-shirts and Urban Decay eyeshadow palettes, or engraved, indelibly. , in the shoes of his many fans via these crown tattoos. . In March, our sister site Dazed Digital even ran an article about it, asking if this level of fame and ubiquity was what it really wanted. This does not mean, of course, that Basquiat’s popularity and resonance within contemporary culture are unjustified: his art is unquestionably good, his themes are topical and the artist’s cultural intersections (going out with Madonna, modeling for Comme des Garçons, etc.) even more to her tradition. But let’s go back to my starting point: organizing an exhibition on this highly exposed artist must be a challenge.
The new exhibition at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts See strong: Basquiat and music, however, offers an interesting and unique insight into the life and work of the artist, highlighting in particular his relationship to music: the artists he listened to; the scenes in which he was involved; the musicians he befriended and worked with; and the deep and varied interests he had in the field. Basquiat’s father played jazz and classical music in the house – according to his sister, who was present for the vernissage – and he sat on the floor to draw. Years later, the artist would continue to play music while working – and yet the music was not just a soundtrack to his work, it was the lifeblood that ran through it. He seethes in his paintings, surfacing via musical symbols and signposts to the musicians he admires, through the poetic application of words. It is present on the canvases as much as on the painting.
At the opening of the exhibition in Montreal, its chief curator Mary-Dailey Desmarais talks about four genres with which Basquiat shared a particular intimacy and which are brilliantly explored through this exhibition.
“Basquiat was a big fan of some no-wave bands like DNA and The Lounge Lizards. He became good friends with Arto Lindsay [a member of DNA] and John Lurie [a member of The Lounge Lizards] and made leaflets for them, many of which we have in our exhibition. He also did paintings or murals, in some cases, of places where these bands were playing – so Club 57 and Tier 3. We have this painting that hung on the Tier 3 wall, which was never seen before but which is very well documented because he does a poster and postcards afterwards, so we at least know where it comes from. He did a painting of James White and The Blacks, he also did this portrait of The Kipper Kids, who were this post-punk performance duo [made up] by Brian Routh and Martin Von Haselberg.
“He was really an active part of this no wave and new wave scene and all the kind of experimentation and do-it-yourself spirit that was happening at the time. He was a regular attendee at Glenn O‘Brien’s TV show TV night, which was a public-access TV show, which often had regulars at Club 57. Basquiat sometimes read poetry there; other times he was in the control room. So he was really an active part of that. And then of course, as part of the band Gray, he shared the stage with DNA and The Lounge Lizards – they performed in the same clubs and sometimes on the same night, and you can see how this music taps into the culture no wave and new wave.
“Basquiat also befriended major figures in the hip-hop scene. He was friends with Fab Five Freddy and the two shared a real bond around music. He was also friends with graffiti artists A-One, Toxic, and A-Row, and he went on to produce that hip-hop single in 1983 with Rambo Z, which is really at the heart of early hip-hop. Then, when Rambo Z and Toxic came to Los Angeles in 1983 and performed at the Rhythm Lounge, Basquiat made these drawings of cars that overlap the performance.
“He attended many hip-hop concerts, but much more than that, he visually represented hip-hop culture through his art and participated in it as a producer and as a collaborator on some music videos. And he stepped in for the Debbie Harry video Rapture in 1981; he has collaborated on paintings with Futura, Fab Five Freddy, Kenny Scharf and other kinds of large graffiti paintings in the exhibition.
“Then also, of course, in many of his paintings. You can compare the compositional techniques he uses to sampling and hip hop; how DJs took pre-existing sounds and created new sounds. This is something Basquiat did; he sampled his own work, he took these photocopies and then he recombined them and created these radical juxtapositions that gave new meanings like in hip-hop. In the portrait of Toxic, he relates this through photocopies of his own work to jazz. In particular, he photocopies this drawing, which quotes not only jazz but also the American slaveholder President Andrew Jackson and these caricatures made by Max Fletcher at the beginning of the 20th century which were very prejudicial, [with] no black representation. Also Charles Correll and Freeman Gosden, who were two white actors who were hired to voice black characters and give them these totally cartoonish portrayals. So he sort of stages this dialectic between authentically black performance and cultural production and his frankly racist portrayals of black people in popular culture. These paintings are really rich and complicated, and he was deeply invested in all kinds of music-related stories.
“Jazz was definitely the most important musical genre for Basquiat. His father played a lot of jazz while he was growing up. Very early, his father describes in an interview how Jean-Michel draws on the floor while playing his jazz. Art and music met very early in [Basquiat’s] world. While listening to this music, he also developed a deep appreciation for the pioneers of bebop, which is a more forward-thinking genre of jazz that was really spearheaded by Charlie Parker. He cites Parker many times in his work, he cites Parker’s tragic loss of his daughter at age two, and he understood Parker among many other jazz musicians as true champions of black excellence, and he wanted to celebrate that and his work.
“Basquiat is someone who was keenly aware of the lack of representations of black heroes in art museums. He once said, “I don’t see enough black people on the walls here.” He set out to celebrate black creative expression and the examples of black excellence he found in these jazz musicians. Certainly, in the case of Parker, he admired his improvisation and the depth of his art. I don’t want to speculate, but Parker himself died too young, and it seems that Basquiat saw in him a kind of kindred spirit. When you look at the board Charles I, at the bottom, it is written “the young kings have their heads cut off to live”. It’s like he understands the pitfalls of fame and identifies with those artists as well, as a black artist facing racism.
“He and Fab Five Freddy talked about not being able to get a cab in New York. And George Condo told me the story where he and Basquiat went to a party in Los Angeles and the bouncer told Condo you can come in, but the bouncer said [to Basquiat], ‘We do not accept your species here’. Obviously, this was deeply painful for Basquiat. Condo didn’t go to the party and said, “Well, we both left, and we just went home and listened to some jazz.” For me it was very interesting. Getting turned down at the door and then coming back and listening to jazz – shows that it was more than just a soundtrack he was listening to, it meant more to him and was actually a building block for the work he has do.
“Basquiat was very interested in the African roots of certain African-American musical genres such as Zydeco, Mississippi Delta Blues, and even jazz, which originated in New Orleans. He was interested in the African roots of these genres and in the transmigration of certain cultural practices from Africa, through the Middle Passage and the slave trade. This is a subject that can be seen in his work – for example, the Pompidou painting Slave auction. Here is a painting in which he represents human beings being forcibly transplanted by boat to North America. On the bottom right, he writes the initials PRKR – that’s how he wrote Charlie Parker – so in the space of this unique painting, he connects the history of jazz to the history of slavery. In another table like Negro period, he quotes Bob King and the moon landing, but also the animals of Africa. He creates these sweeping juxtapositions that show he was really interested in how certain African cultural practices were brought to the United States and endured through music.
“He’s someone who read and really admired Robert Farris Thompson’s book, Flash of the mind. Robert had a crazy intellect, he spoke ten different dialects of African languages and Basquiat called him his favorite living art historian. He actually commissioned Robert Farris Thompson to write the essay for his second one-man show to Mary Boone. But why is it important? Because you can see that this book is about the culture of the black Atlantic, that is, the culture that developed around the transmutation of African cultural practices once they hit the America and the Caribbean.
“You can see Basquiat quoting this book when he makes certain symbols like this figure in the Untitled painting from 1987. It is a form of proto-writing, found in West Africa. This symbol, as explained in Thompson’s book, means “everything belongs to me”. He’s copying symbols from that book in there, so he’s clearly very interested in the culture and specifically the musical culture of the Black Atlantic.
See strong: Basquiat and music is presented at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts until February 19, 2023. The exhibition is organized by the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts and the Museum of Music – Philharmonie de Paris.