“Art is how we decorate space, music is how we decorate time.” – Jean-Michel Basquiat (1960-1988)
In the thriving cesspit of 1970s New York, radical art forms were beginning to emerge from the urban decay. Punk was snarling its way into existence and hip hop was starting to boom out from street corners. This hive of pioneering artistry fuelled the passions of a wayward young graffiti protégé named Jean-Michel Basquiat. In turn, in his tragically short career, Basquiat would splurge his own influence on the music that inspired him and paint the defining strokes of the 1980s neo-expressionist movement.
“There was something very dogmatically figurative about what Basquiat did,” David Bowie once opined in 1996, “and it is having a kind of renaissance. The ‘figurative’ is coming back very much as part of the vocabulary of new art.” In a roundabout way, Basquiat’s very first ventures in art had an almost meta depth to them. When he was a misunderstood teenager skipping school and getting in a few scrapes, he began expressing himself in graffiti art as part of the SAMO collective he began with his friend Al Diaz. SAMO itself was an abbreviation of the phrase “same old shit” that had entered the lexicon of their friendship.
In part, this reflected the jaded youth that they both felt part of. In their art, they ironically broke this mould from the get-go. Spraying jagged abstractions of poetry onto crumbling subway walls and adorning abandoned buildings with quirky fresh images and poignant lines was something that brought a juxtaposition in their work. In their own youthful way, this figuratively imparted the message of art reflecting change in a stagnant society. As he once said himself, “I don’t think about art when I’m working. I try to think about life.”
While on the surface, you might look at Basquiat’s fractured art and think, ‘what sort of wild life was he thinking about when he crafted this one!’ However, as he would also assert, life in the city was wild at the time and he had no cause to reflect that in a realist fashion. As the recent Taschen publication exhibiting his finest works would explain: “His work is inspired by a pantheon of luminaries from jazz, boxing, and basketball, with references to arcane history and the politics of street life—so when asked about his subject matter, Basquiat answered ‘royalty, heroism and the streets’.”
That sense of defining the streets in a contemporary fashion in art riddled with obscure historical context became a driving force in the 1980s, not just on canvas, but also in music too. As Amiri Baraka remarked: “Music changes because the people change…but the forms are more closely related than people think. Rap is nothing but a modern blues. You listen to old Lightnin’ Hopkins or one of them old blues singers, the form is not too far from something say Tupac would use…There’s no great difference between rap and talking blues. That’s why rappers are always sampling people, because they can feel the continuity.”
In a more tangible sense, even the cut-up poetry that litters Basquiat’s art is almost akin to sampling. It is a style that almost leans on the splicing of random words which fellow New York luminary William S. Burroughs would use in his literature a few decades earlier. If Basquiat’s are was fresh, fractured and full of the full gambit of art in all of its guises, then music was following suit with layered spin-offs of its own, almost certainly inspired, to some degree, by the new invigorating works of Basquiat.
And it was a relationship that ran both ways. As Afro-Punk founder James Spooner declares in the mini-series looking at Basquiat’s work and musical passion, Time Decorated, “Everyone wants to claim Jean-Michel Basquiat for their own — jazz, hip-hop, and No Wave, but he was all of these things. He was a downtown kid.” And according to former DJ Todd Boyd: “You can draw a straight line between bebop and hip-hop. Basquiat is really the connection between these two worlds.”
The sense of reflecting the streets and changing society in hip hop bled into Basquiat’s art while the unfurling rhythms of bebop inspired him to be creatively free and devoid of canvas constraints. As Boyd notes: “[Bebop] musicians were often deconstructing the American songbook,” he says. “To me this sort of improvisation, this crossing out, this deconstructing is what you see in the paintings and I think it directly ties into jazz and jazz’s influence.”
Lastly, Basquiat also continued the pop culture trend of artists leaving their lane and becoming figures of influence, not just painters, singers or any other creative engine they usually operated. Like many of the people Basquiat’s work inspired, such as David Bowie and Debbie Harry, Basquiat was not afraid of making it aware that he wished to be part of the wider artistic milieu. As he boldly – and befittingly symbolically – proclaimed himself: “I’m not a real person. I’m a legend.”
You can find out more about Jean-Michel Basquiat and his works in the stunning Taschen collection, simply titled Jean-Michel Basquiat, by clicking here.