‘The true path to creativity is to burn out’

After experiencing raging success across the US, the travelling exhibition covering
a key year in the life of the iconic artist Jean-Michel Basquiat is finally having its European premiere. The Forumist takes a closer look.

This spring, the cultural centre Schunck, in Heerlen, in the south of the Netherlands, is presenting Basquiat – The Artist and His New York Scene, an affecting show that provides a window into the life and work of the legendary artist during 1979-1980, the year before he became famous.

Before becoming an art icon, Basquiat was just like any other kid trying to get by in New York City. This exhibition showcases his output during these crucial 12 months of his life, when he shared an apartment with his girlfriend Alexis Adler on East 12th Street. The selection of work captures the most intimate and complete image of the artist possible. Thanks to the 100 photographs taken by Adler throughout this period, as well as paintings, sculpture and other works by Basquiat, the public are being given the opportunity to follow his path during what might have been the most significant year of development.

The true path to creativity is to burn out

– Jean-Michel Basquiat

The New York art scene at the time was booming. The late 1970s and beginning of the 1980s were a time of evolution: the place of art in society was moving from the realm of the upper classes to the young and hip. Starting out as a street artist in the 1970s, Basquiat first became known for his SAMO graffiti tag, which became the talk of the town as the enigmatic epigrams and short mysterious phrases associated with it started appearing on the streets of Manhattan. One could say that 1979 was the year of real creative exploration for the artist, before painting took precedence, as he pursued music, performance art, drawing and writing with equal, burning passion.

The exhibition that saw Basquiat’s breakthrough on the art scene was the massive and legendary Times Square Show of the summer of 1980. This was his first show both as the graffitist SAMO and as a painter. Together with other likeminded artists, such as Keith Haring, Nan Goldin and Jenny Holzer, Basquiat presented a new, groundbreaking way of looking at art. It has been said that show changed the New York art scene forever and the Schunk exhibition includes 50 original works from it. Influenced by Andy Warhol, Basquiat went on to become one of the most-celebrated artists of the era and a key member of the neo-expressionist movement in the 1980s. Although Warhol initially distanced himself from the young artist’s approaches, the 1980s cool kid and the king of pop art later came to form a lasting friendship. In just a few years, Basquiat created most of his career’s important pieces at a tremendous pace. At the same time, he became the first black artist to gain respect from an art world that was changing.

By the middle of the decade, he was a fully recognised, wealthy and famous artist, but in August 1988, at the age of only 27, he died from a heroin overdose. Though he was gone, he was never forgotten. He “joined” what has become known as the 27 Club, whose “members” consist of famous artists and musicians and actors who have died at this age, often as the result of alcohol or drug abuse; Basquiat’s death thus fuelled the hype around his work and talent. And as so often happens, after his passing, his work was universally feted by the art world. In May 2017, a 1982 skull painting of his sold for $110.5m at Sotheby’s New York, making it the most expensive work by an American artist ever sold at auction. Today, the myths and stories about Basquiat and his work continue to engage new generations of art lovers.

His premature death, less than 10 years after the exhibition that made him famous, makes the focus of the Schunck exhibition even more fascinating. It allows us a glimpse at the young artist’s progress and helps us understand how he achieved cult status. In a way, what we see is Basquiat in the final days of his innocence. Just as the original exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Denver in 2017 made waves around the US art scene, the correlating showcase of the exhibition in Heerlen is already doing the same in Europe. Not only a broad selection of Basquiat’s early brightly coloured canvases and drawings, it shares precious memories of his daily life spent in New York’s East Village.

Basquiat – The Artist and His New York Scene, until June 2; Schunck, Bongerd 18, Heerlen, the Netherlands (schunck.nl). Includes guided tours, film screenings and graffiti workshops

Team Credits:

Words by Ted Hammerin

Picture Credits:

#1 Basquiat at work in 1982 in the basement below the gallery of Annina Nosei; photograph by Marion Busch
#2-3 Jean – Michel Basquiat. Performing in the apartment, c1979–1980, Basquiat Before Basquiat: East 12th Street, 1979-1980, Museum of Contemporary Art Denver; Photographs by Alexis Adler
#4 Times Square Show, New York City, 1980; photograph by Francine Keery
#5 Painted television in the apartment, c1979–1980, Basquiat Before Basquiat: East 12th Street, 1979-1980, Museum of Contemporary. Art Denver; Photograph by Alexis Adler
#6 Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen, Rotterdam / Creditline; photography by . Studio Tromp, Rotterdam
#7 Photography by Carl Brunn – Ludwig Forum Aachen
#8 Jean-Michel Basquiat, Kings of Egypt III (1982), Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen, Rotterdam; photograph by Studio Tromp, Rotterdam