Three decades after American artist, Jean-Michel Basquiat's last neo-expressionist creations, his ideas and creative spark remain just as bright and alive. Held at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts and organized in collaboration with the Paris Museum of Music, Seeing Loud: Basquiat and Music is the first large-scale multidisciplinary exhibition exploring the role and influence of music in Basquiat's chaotic brilliance. Painted dichotomies between wealth and poverty, integration and segregation, inner and outer experience, all capture the minds of viewers as they experience the work of one of the most innovative artists of the second half of the 20th century.
Basquiat's paintings exude profound meaning and social commentary which captivated the New York scene in the 1980s. He married text to image and fused poetry, drawing and painting; abstraction, figuration, and historical information is interwoven with contemporary criticism. The use of social commentary in his paintings was a vehicle for introspection of his experiences in the Black community as well as challenges to power structures and systems of racism. The subject matter behind a great many of his compositions remains abundantly topical today.
Because his visual poetics were thoroughly political and direct in their critique of colonialism and resulting systemic injustices, Basquiat can be regarded as a prime case of an artist naturally pursuing the United Nations Sustainable Development Goal of Reduced Inequalities, particularly considering the enduring relevance of his work.
The music conveyed to Basquiat both a message about the transatlantic migration of cultural forms and the harsh realities of a Black artist facing racism. “He’s kind of staging this dialectic between authentic Black performance and cultural production and its frankly racist representations of Black people in popular culture,” says the exhibition's chief curator Mary-Dailey Desmarais.
“These paintings are really rich and complicated, and he was deeply invested in all the kinds of histories that are bound to music.”
The compositional techniques he used are compared to music ‘sampling’, in which musicians take pre-existing sounds to create new ones. In the same manner, Basquiat would sample his own art. By taking photocopies and recombining them, he created sweeping juxtapositions that produced new layers of meaning in his existing work. The exhibition further examines his pictorial compositional techniques in relation to music and references his connections to particular labels, musicians, cultures and sounds, particularly jazz.
Basquiat acquired a profound admiration for the pioneers of Bebop, a type of avant-garde jazz led by Charlie Parker. He references and celebrates Parker numerous times in his work. For instance, in his piece Horn Players, many of the words Basquiat has written on the canvas relate specifically to Parker. On the top right, Ornithology, the study of birds, is the title of a famous composition by Parker, who named the tune in reference to his own nickname “Bird.”
Considering him a veritable champion of Black excellence, Basquiat's admiration of Parker's improvisation and artistic depth translates in many of his pieces. “Basquiat once said, ‘I don't see enough Black people on the walls here,’” Desmarais explains. “He set out to celebrate Black creative expression and examples of Black excellence that he found in jazz musicians.”
Seeing Loud: Basquiat and Music is displayed at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts until 19 February 2023.