‘I don't think about art when I'm working. I try to think about life.’
In 1967 a seven-year-old Brooklyn kid was playing stickball in the street when he was hit by a car. Confined to hospital to recover from his injuries, his mother gave him a copy of the textbook ‘Gray’s Anatomy’ to amuse him.
Years later when Jean-Michel Basquiat was an artist, the imagery that he had absorbed from that book repeatedly made its way onto his canvases - as skulls, spines and skeletons; as cross-sections, labels and anatomical diagrams. Basquiat had a special skill for translating his personal experiences into his work.
‘I never went to an art school. I failed at the art courses I did take at school. I just looked at a lot of things, and that’s where I think I learned about art.’
Basquiat, whose parents were Haitian and Puerto Rican, grew up with an instinctive love of art. As a child his mother took him to the Metropolitan Museum of Art and as a teenager he regularly visited galleries with his mates.
After leaving school at 17, Basquiat joined the vibrant post-punk creative scene that congregated around the run-down streets of lower Manhattan. With a friend he began spraying surreal, witty, provocative graffiti-poetry, under the SAMO© tag, all over SoHo and the Lower East Side. With another friend he created collage-based post cards and sold them on the street for a dollar or two. (His customers included his hero Andy Warhol.) He formed a band named Gray after the book that had made such an impression on him as a kid. He DJed at clubs and parties; acted in an art-house movie; hung out with members of the burgeoning hip-hop scene. And when eventually he turned to painting, he sold his first picture to the musician Debbie Harry.
Basquiat was an artistic autodidact. He saw no boundaries between media and he thrived within a networked creative community.
Basquiat was also a sponge for knowledge, inspiration and stimulus. His paintings are filled with references to his love of music (from bebop to hip hop); to his passion for sport (Sugar Ray Robinson, Floyd Patterson, Joe Louis); to the art history books he read (Da Vinci, Titian, Manet, Picasso, Duchamp); to his interest in the African American experience. All these elements are mixed in with the planes, automobiles and skyscrapers of his native city; with birds, masks and demons; with crowns, hats and halos; with icons of popular culture; with the enigmatic political poetry that he had first expressed in his graffiti.
‘I’m usually in front of the television. I have to have some source material around me to work off.’
There’s some fascinating film footage of Basquiat in 1985 sketching and making notes in front of the telly. He was clearly processing the material from one medium directly onto another; allowing himself to respond freely and intuitively, loosely and spontaneously. Across his work there are references to the cartoons, sci-fi shows and movies he had been watching – to Popeye and Felix the Cat; to ‘Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea’ and ‘Apocalypse Now.’
‘It’s sort of on automatic most of the time.’
Basquiat was special. He synthesized low and high culture; words, images and symbols; personal memories and public knowledge; the present and the past. He orchestrated his responses to the world, channeled and filtered them into one compelling, magical brew. And he seems to have captured something about what it is to live in these super-fast, over-choiced, hyper-connected, ethically-conflicted times.
Sadly in 1988 Basquiat died from a heroin overdose. He was 27.
So often the marketing and communications business is insular, introverted, isolated. For inspiration we consider adjacent markets, sectors, campaigns and brands; we examine our competitors and Cannes winners, popular ads and award books. But we rarely look beyond our own orbit.
Basquiat teaches us some simple lessons: that true creativity knows no boundaries; that it thrives within a Bohemian culture; that it needs constant stimulus, provocation and experience to sustain it; that if we want to make interesting work, we should seek catalysts from beyond our immediate environment.
You need input if you’re going to create output.
‘Basquiat: Boom for Real’ is at the Barbican in London until 28 January 2018.