Basquiat curator Eleanor Nairne on Boom for Real at the Barbican

  • 20 September 2017

Curator of one of the most anticipated exhibitions of the year, Eleanor Nairne tells us about the dedication and discoveries that led to Basquiat: Boom for Real.

Basquiat: Boom For Real, installation view. Barbican Art Gallery, 21 September 2017 – 28 January 2018 © Tristan Fewings / Getty Images. Artworks © The Estate of Jean-Michel Basquiat. Licensed by Artestar

The first large-scale exhibition in the UK of the work of Jean-Michel Basquiat, Boom for Real at London's Barbican brings together more than 100 pieces by the artist who shook up 1980s New York – and whose influence still permeates popular culture long after his death in 1988, aged just 27.

Co-curated by Eleanor Nairne and Dieter Buchhart, the show is in part supported by an Art Fund Jonathan Ruffer curatorial grant, which allowed Nairne to visit the Andy Warhol archive in Pittsburgh and learn more about the mythologised but often over-simplified relationship between Warhol and Basquiat. As well as many works never before seen in public – much of Basquiat's output is in private collections and sells for record-breaking prices – Boom for Real includes correspondence between the two artists, photographs and even a catalogue Basquiat gave Warhol in 1984, signed 'to my best friend'.

We spoke to Nairne about Basquiat's SoHo scene, his love of jazz, and the mammoth task of decoding his reference-heavy work.

It's noted in the exhibition material that this is the first time Basquiat's relationship to music, film and TV has really been examined. How have you drawn that out of the story, and into the layout of the show?

Basquiat is often talked about as a genius, and I suppose one of the complexities of being bracketed under that term is that geniuses are often considered unique – so there’s not often a detailed acknowledgement of how Basquiat was interacting with the rest of the downtown New York scene in the late 1970s and 80s.

If I told you that I’ve looked at every major cinema release, every major exhibition at all of the leading museums, commercial galleries… it sounds mad but actually from a research perspective, the incredible thing about when you’re focusing in on just one decade – and not even a whole city, really you’re looking at SoHo and the Lower East Side, it’s a tiny network of streets – you have this amazing potential to become quite forensic.

Basquiat: Boom For Real, installation view, Barbican Art Gallery, 21 September 2017 – 28 January 2018 © Tristan Fewings / Getty Images. Artwork: Jean-Michel Basquiat, Ishtar, 1983, collection Ludwig, Ludwig Forum für Internationale Kunst, Aachen © The Estate of Jean-Michel Basquiat, licensed by Artestar, New York. Photo: Carl Brunn

The other thing was looking at his source material. From 1982 on, the level of referencing within the work just explodes. There was a very basic task at hand in saying, well, how much have these whirlpools of references been unpicked? And actually it was less than you might have imagined. So we were tracing everything from Fats Waller lyrics to bebop liner notes, to rare books about the early history of Warner Brothers, to key historic figures in African American cultural history, to athletics. We did something that you can really only do in a digital age, which is delve into those and then be able to trace back what some of the origins had to have been.

Mostly they come from three places. They come from books, he had an extraordinary library; they come from what we call the screen, because he had a kind of home video setup which was incredibly prescient for that time, but he was also a total cinephile; and they come from music, either from the record player or the boombox.

I’m very conscious that Basquiat is often treated as if it’s a kind of given that a person would appreciate why his work is incredibly valuable, in all the different ways that we think of that term – and I don’t think it always is a given, I can totally sympathise with why somebody might look at one of these paintings and feel dumbfounded. Because in a way they’re about encoded speech, they’re about frustrated expression, and he’s deliberately wanting to encrypt ideas and information. He wants these to be very active fields for the viewer, and that means you need a guide. So we wanted to do as much of that as we could; to give people cues to get entry points into the work.

When you're looking at an artist who draws on such a wealth of source material, what are the challenges as a curator? Do you feel like you can't possibly discover everything? Do you have to set some limits for yourself as to how far you go?

You try to be as exhaustive as you can but some bits of the riddle will escape you. And that's why I’m really excited about the audience coming, because I'm sure there are at least three clues to the crossword that they will be able to give me.

In terms of the challenges: yeah, they’re enormous. Each tiny element yields so many possible different directions. It gets easier over the years because you begin to have an instinct. I was looking the other day at a work that is littered with this phrase, ‘half nelson’. Half nelson is a wrestling move; it’s thought to come from Horatio Nelson... I was then able to trace that the work was actually made while Basquiat was here in the UK installing at the ICA, so he was on Pall Mall a few hundred metres away from Nelson’s column… but I kind of had some instinct that I was missing something, and then you have the ‘Eureka!’ moment when you realise that 'Half Nelson' was also a track released by Miles Davis.

He threw in red herrings, too; sometimes he’s using a word precisely because it doesn’t have a fixed meaning.

Jean-Michel Basquiat dancing at the Mudd Club, 1979 © Nicholas Taylor

Basquiat has been very influential on a lot of musicians; but how about his own musical influences? Could you give us a sense of the music he would have been absorbing at the time?

He was eclectic – and he says that, he owned it! He would write lists that had everybody from Blondie to Donna Summer on them, and his father in an interview famously recalled that as a teenager he used to drive him mad with the amount of Elton John he listened to. I sometimes feel like I need to rectify the story of history where people only want to associate him with the cool no-wave scene or the nascent hip-hop scene – ‘actually guys, he was listening to Elton John.’

But it's true, he loved eclecticism. And New York was a real musical melting pot at that time. It’s easy for us now to posthumously siphon off the reggae scene from the late no-wave scene, from the rumblings of the end of punk, but of course they were all operating within ten blocks of each other so in reality they kind of belonged the same thing.

In terms of the music that features in his work, though, it's almost exclusively jazz, and within jazz it’s almost exclusively bebop. He is sometimes quoted as saying he thinks he would die if he went a day without listening to Charlie Parker. We know he kept this case of copies of the Ross Russell biography of Parker that he would distribute to friends if they hadn’t come across it before.

And when you look at the history of the bebop pioneers, they’re kind of intellectual iconoclasts, they rip up the rulebook and reinvent it sonically. In that sense, one can kind of see why Basquiat might have felt an affinity to their practices – to ideas around aleatory notes and impromptu virtuoso performance. All those kinds of musical concepts have quite a strong affinity to the way in which he’s working, and maybe also the way in which he’s wanting to be seen.

Finally: what are your personal highlights of the exhibition?

'Jawbone of an Ass' is definitely a highlight. One of the things I love about it is that Andy Warhol had given Basquiat some advice that he should be hanging on to one or two pieces from an exhibition that were his favourite pieces, and not allowing everything to be sold each time. We know that 'Jawbone' was one of the works he chose to hold on to. And in terms of interpretation, almost nothing had been written about it, to the extent that even the title had been treated as a piece of Basquiat’s absurdist humour when actually it’s a quotation from the bible, from Samson. When I first realised that it was a real goosebumps moment.

We also have this whole body of postcards that he made in the period around 1979, after [his graffiti project] SAMO, with a really incredible artist called Jennifer Stein. They're just these punky little collaborations, they’re like tiny little Rauschenberg combines, and they’re so full of irreverent energy and sort of irresistible – and also kind of hilarious in terms of how they made them. They’d make them on a single sheet of A4, they'd divide it, Xerox them – Xerography was a very groundbreaking technology at the time, and very expensive. They’d spend the best part of their profit on the colour and then sell them for a dollar on the streets. To be able to show both the original masters and a whole series of the Xerox postcards is definitely a real highlight.

Basquiat: Boom for Real is at the Barbican, London, 21 September to 28 January. Entry is £12 with a National Art Pass.