«Boom for Real – Jean-Michel Basquiat at the Barbican»

Von Julieta Schildknecht


The first large-scale exhibition in the UK of American artist Jean-Michel Basquiat. Interview with Dieter Buchhart, Curator, London.

We met at the beautiful exhibition almost two weeks ago at Basquiat’s exhibition preview and I  was quite impressed with the quality of the exhibition and I believe it is one of the best lately presenting the real scope of Basquiat’s work. Could you please make a brief introduction to our readers?

– It’s the first big Basquiat exhibition in the UK and in London. Quite a few of the presented works have not been exhibited since the artist’s death. The idea was, on the one hand, to allow a broad public to experience the works of Basquiat first hand. On the other hand, the show focuses for the first time on his interdisciplinary and multimedia approach. He was not just an actor, he was not just a DJ and doing noise music, he also reflected on and worked with the screen and incorporated dance into his artistic practice. Of course his drawings and paintings are phenomenal and we have excellent examples in the exhibition. But what we did was look at his influence on the downtown New York scene and vice versa. What was his position in the scene, what did the collaboration with Andy Warhol mean to him, what role did his first major exhibition participation in the New York New Wave show play? We were able to reassemble a large portion of his works from that important exhibition. Of course the question of his identity is discussed and we also spotlight his artistic music practice. It’s a big show where we touch on aspects of Basquiat’s oeuvre and practice which have not been reflected on before.


Being an independent Curator working with other artists, what made you decide to work on this show?

– I’ve done 12 Edvard Munch exhibitions, 10 to 11 shows on Jean-Michel Basquiat, several on Keith Haring . One of my focuses is art from the 1980’s but I have also worked on exhibitions by Georges Braque and have worked together with excellent contemporary artists. I felt that, because London has not had a major show by Basquiat – there was a small show during his life time in London and at the end of 90’s an even smaller Basquiat show at the Serpentine Gallery – that it would be a great idea. I thought such an important cultural city in the world urgently needed a show from this artist.


Are you coming from the same generation as Basquiat? Did you ever meet him?

– I am a bit younger than him.


Did you go to New York at that time when he was still alive?

– No, a little bit later.


Where is your fascination for Basquiat’s work coming from?

– I studied Edvard Much in much depth, in fact I wrote my PhD thesis on him. I saw the same intensity in the works by Munch from the 1880’s and in the works of Basquiat. I have seen Munch’s work since the 80’s and I was fascinated. There was something hard to read about the work. It’s energy and his views on the light he used fascinated me from early on.


Do you see any parallel between todays artists or street artists and Basquiat?

– Yes, there are many parallels. Less street art but more like Rashid Johnson and Glenn Ligon, or Oscar Murillo. I met many people who have great respect for Basquiat, Ernesto Neto for example. Christopher Wool, when I walked with him through my Basquiat show in Paris many years ago, he told me he knew Basquiat and had great respect for him.


From your perspective where are your favourite expressions in Basquiat’s work?

– His line and his words but I don’t see him as a Neo-Expressionist. I see him as a conceptual based artist who, by taking from everything that surrounded him and forming it into a collage in a copy paste style, created a new room for thinking. What he does is very similar to the way we work today with computers. Having all these browser windows open and then closing them one by one. In the moment you close them you actually notice connections and get new ideas. That’s what happens in Basquiat’s art. He opens up new spaces for thinking. This is his very conceptual process.


You have been working closely with Basquiat’s family and they were at the opening, preview and press view, right?

– Yes, I have been working with them since many years on several shows and I’m incredibly grateful that they’ve always been very supportive. I worked with Basquiat’s father until he sadly passed away 3 years ago, and now I have the pleasure of working with his sisters and his Step-Mother.


How did you meet them?

– I met Basquiat’s father due to projects I was working on 10 years ago.


How are you working with them? Are these projects part of a Foundation?

– They have an Estate, The Estate of Jean-Michel Basquiat. We have constant dialogs, we discuss our ideas and then decide about our projects.


How about the originality of Basquiat’s paintings? As far as we know, collectors buy his paintings without thinking much but become concerned when prints are offered due to its origin.

– The provenience is of course very important. There is still a lot of oral history related to Basquiat today. Many of his former dealers and contemporaries – Larry Gagosian, Bruno Bischofberger, Annina Nosei, Mary Boone, Diego Cortez – are still around, as well as many of his assistants. They are part of Basquiat’s oral history. They can give you testimonies and you can discuss with them about the originality of Basquiat’s work.


It is a controversial issue no?

– It always is. The artist is not alive and even then there is a certain issue because some artists actually forget about what they have produced.


Have you met Basquiat’s friends?

– Many of them.


Were they collaborating when you prepared this exhibition?

– With me, yes absolutely. Some more, some less.


Who are the most present from Basquiat’s older friends?

– There are many. For example Suzanne Mallouk, Michael Holman, Joe La Placa – it was actually him and Jane Alison from the Barbican who initiated the exhibition project.


Are they all artists, still artists or not anymore?

– Actually most of them are artists or were artists.


What is still there, does his studio still exist?

– The buildings are there, on Great Jones Street and Crosby Street, but the studios no longer exist.


The houses exist?

– Right. One is a Japanese restaurant. The other one… I cannot even recall what happened to that one. It’s not like the Keith Haring Foundation. Haring’s former studio is used as the Foundation’s headquarters. When you enter the building, you see a mural painted by him. This isn’t the case with Basquiat’s Estate.


Where is Basquiat’s work mainly kept?

– In the New York area.


Is it accessible?

– No, it isn’t. It’s not shown.


Because of the myth and the legend, is there any interest to keep that aura related to Basquiat?

– No, for the family it’s about the work.


Will there ever be a Basquiat museum?

– I think it’s too late for this possibility. One would have had to do it earlier.


How about merchandise?

– There is a lot of merchandise made.


Mainly in New York or else where?

– No, worldwide.


All generated from New York?

– It has to be approved by the Estate of Jean-Michel Basquiat.


How are you getting involved with books that are being published about the artist? Are you also curating those books?

– Of course, yes.


How are you curating them? There are at least 2 more to come, right?

– I am working on several, actually. Usually I have and idea, I find offers, organize images…


Which book will be your next book about Basquiat?

– I have an idea about a painting and a series of paintings but I can’t talk about the project yet.


Not yet?

– It is still too early to talk about the book but I think it will be ready next year.


Is this your main work at the moment? Or do you work with other projects at the same time?

– I have other projects I’m working on right now as well. For example a Keith Haring exhibition for the Albertina opening in March 2018 and a show in New York about the use of words and textual components in artistic practices ranging from Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque to Basquiat, which is opening in October. There are a lot of things going on.


Do you focus on a few artists and generate the surroundings based on different artists scope of work? Are you using Basquiat as one the inspiring sources?

– Yes, because he is such a good artist.


Could you please explain the process?

– I get fascinated by a word in his work or an element…


Could you point out one?

– For the Barbican it was how he started out with poetic graffiti and how he ended up in a gallery or art space. We wanted to show the transition and how he was embedded in the art scene of downtown New York.


Basquiat was quite marginalised, right? He was producing work with some close friends people who could understand him and he became an icon because of the way he looked like?

– You are right, Basquiat quickly became a star in the art scene but at the end of the 80’s, after his death, him and his work were neglected for quite some time. In the past 7 to 10 years people have started to understand how important his work is.


Just after he passed away or after Gagosian started showing his work?

– After he passed away. It is quite often the case that an artist receives a different recognition from the next generation than his own.


Why is Basquiat painting while watching TV?

– It was an inspiration for him.


Was it an inspiration or a way of spacing out?

– An inspiration! He would watch an Alfred Hitchcock movie and incorporate aspects of that movie into his drawings.


Which other movies would he watch besides Hitchcock?

– Basquiat had a huge collection of movies, but it doesn’t exist any longer. I think he watched early Wim Wenders movies and The Little Rascals, for instance. He watched TV series as well as Disney movies. I would say he watched pretty much what the average person watches but then he had his favourites like Hitchcock and Wenders.


Was he working all night long?

– He often started late at night and worked the whole day through.


How long did he take to finish a painting or how much time did he need to produce a painting?

Weeks, months or years?

– There are some paintings he worked on for several months and there are others which were ready within hours.


Was Basquiat part of the establishment, wasn’t part of the establishment or became part of the establishment?

He was definitely against it and at the same time part of it, both!


Can you explain it please?

– His works are mainly about the african-american male experience, a subject matter which he used as a way of confronting the everyday racism he faced. By bringing up the topic of colonialism, slavery, and racism he was of course going against the establishment. However, the establishment accepted and supported him. Therefore, he was also part of the establishment. It is an interesting position that he took.


When you created the exhibition, if one pays attention, you positioned all different symbols not only through titles but through very specific art pieces. Why did you decide to conduct or build the exhibition like that?

– I always look at the art piece. I always build a story from the artwork, not from the myth.

– (…….)

I am listening…


– You can either follow a myth, a process which doesn’t mean anything or you can look at the artwork itself because that’s what is left from an artist. In the end what he produces is what counts. It’s what is left and that’s where my mission begins.


How about with Basquiat?

– His works are usually highly complex and I want to understand them, I want to read them. Reading is a kind of transcription process and in this process one realizes that there is more to the work than one could ever imagine. It is a never ending process.


The way the show has been built makes Basquiat’s work quite comprehensive.

– Indeed!


There are however two female icons being lets say pointed-out in Basquiat’s exhibition: one is an obvious figure Madonna (his girlfriend) and the other one is Anna Wintour. Both created their niches in the music field and fashion business. Both strong controversial myths. Both became part of the establishment. Anna Wintour’s letter tells Basquiat that his proposal for the magazine’s cover will not be accepted by Vogue/ Condè Nast. My question is: when you structured this exhibition how did you see both figures as part of Basquiat’s exhibition?

– There were many women in Basquiat’s life and they followed many different paths. Yes, his cover was declined but then again the way he worked was not accommodating to fashion brands in general. When one invited Basquiat, one could not expect anything fashionable. He was going as an artist against the establishment. Basquiat had an ambiguous way of deciding when he worked and when he fought.


The 80’s in New York was a time of ambiguities…

– Yes!


You would be cool only if you would question or be against the establishment. The way one would dress up had to be weird, you had to be exquisite, you had to be quirky, right?

– Well, today the youth is also trying to be cool and individual and special. I think it is all part of growing up. A way to find one’s place in society.


Isn’t this also related to media and communication then? It is all quite different nowadays.

– But I think that Basquiat foresaw it, our modern communication forms can be found in his artwork.


Isn’t the African influence in his artwork a bit naive?

– Actually, no! First of all Basquiat was of puerto-rican heritage. He grew up in New York – a New Yorker! – and lived in Brooklyn in a middle class brownstone house and had access to a good education. He started getting interested in the African diaspora in 1983.


Did Basquiat follow the Black Panthers and the entire Black Power movement

– The Black Power movement was not his… Basquiat new about it but declined to go when it was suggested to him. . Therefore, he was not very popular with the Black Power movement. He actually didn’t like the idea of being instrumentalised in this regard for a certain movement. Therefore he was never part of the movement.


Did he learn drawing? Could he be considered a naive artist?

– No, he definitely is not a naive artist.


Why not?

– Because his line is so distinct and inimitable. His line is not a naive line. If you are untrained (and he was half untrained) it doesn’t mean that you are naive.


He was self-taught, right?

– He was self-taught but not naive! A naive painter can be naive by choice. Like Henri Rousseau who was naive but by his own choosing.


Why did he decide to be a painter?

– At first he wanted to be a cartoonist then he decided to become an artist. I wouldn’t call him a painter because he made works in different mediums. He literally revolutionized the art scene with what he produced.


And in very short period meaning 10 years?

– Yes.


Was he recycling his work? Because there are strong elements of recycling in his work, right?

– Yes, that’s true, you are right. He had drawings all over his place and what he often did was take a drawing, photocopy it, and integrate it in a totally different piece. For example a collage. He was definitely re-using his own work.


Was his work autobiographical? What kind of reproduction was it?

– It was a Xerox copy or a drawing of a drawing. I would say he was recontextualising his own work over and over again.


In other words confronting himself as a human being?

– Sure.


Was there any kind of passion involved in what he was doing? The moments he would express himself in his own way?

– Passion yes but not uncontrolled passion. I think that most artists have passion, just like great researchers and scientists. They are passionate about what they are doing.


Red! there is a lot of red in his artwork!

– I understand now what you mean, the colour has not much to do with passion.


His main colours: black, red and yellow.

– Thinking of your observation, some works are pretty blue.


The paintings?

– I mean the drawings. But yellow, black, and red? If there is some affinity there… He also uses some green.


What was the purpose of showing some of his special cloth pieces?

– That was early on, that was part of his practice. He made a postcard series and then T-shirts. You know, Basquiat did not only take from what was surrounding him. In the beginning he also painted on everything that surrounded him.


Van Gogh was also like this, right?

– Paul Gaugin…


He would paint on everything he had. Was it like Van Gogh due to lack of financial resources?

– With Basquiat, in the beginning of his career, it was due to the lack of money but also due to his urge to keep himself active. Similar to Keith Haring.


Was Basquiat homeless?

– He was staying with friends while he didn’t have his own apartment.


He left his parents and decided to hit the road?

– Don’t forget that at that time there were books about this nomadic lifestyle. It was considered cool and romantic to live like that. A very different time compared to today.


The postcards being exhibited are a symbol of the 80’s in New York. Many artists at that time were offering their books and postcards which were handprinted with stencils all made in very short time. The artists would speak about that work on the streets and sell it for little money to buy food. Those artists would hang out late night on the sidewalks of downtown New York and spend the entire night there.

– Certainly he was part of that time and this is what “Boom for Real” is showing: the common ground of this movement was the use of multimedia, performance, and dance. All of this was presented as an option at that time. The exhibition is not postulating that Basquiat invented those manifestations but it shows how he integrated them all into his work.


And the films?

– Yes, in an interview in 1985 as an answer to a question “What do you think you will do in a couple of years from now?”, he answered that he would certainly do films. He was aware of the changes and was aware of the different possibilities an artist has.


Why did you decide to have Basquiat as part of your work?

– Because I think he is one of the great artists.


Artists meaning modern artist, contemporary artist? Artist in which sense?

– He is an artist of the 80’s who is amazingly relevant today that’s what makes him so interesting.


You said you started having contact to his work when you were young? How old were you then?

– I was a teenager.


Around 15, 16 years old and how did you “bump” into Basquiat’s work?

– I saw originals at the end of 80’s but my feeling is that I saw an exhibition in the mid 80’s but I’m not sure where it was anymore.


In Austria?

– In Salzburg. But there weren’t many shows so it might have been in Germany. In the 90’s there was a show in the Whitney Museum of American Art which I saw.


Why did you decide to become a curator?

– I grew up with art surrounding me.


Your parents?

– Yes my father… I loved art since childhood.


Did you study history of art?

– No! I have a degree in Biochemistry and Immunology. I thought I knew already everything about art. I definitely did not!!


Then you decided to study art?

– Then I decided I wanted to write a book about Munch but realized I was missing the tools to analyze his works and then I studied Art History.


In Austria?

– Yes. I finished my science studies with a PhD and also did a PhD in Art History.


What was your PhD subject?

– It was Edvard Munch and my first PhD was about Art and Science. It was about paper



You have chosen a lot of artwork on paper in Basquiat’s show.

– Yes but Basquiat makes drawings. All his paintings are about drawings. The drawing is his

media. That’s why there are many drawings in the show.


Who are you, who is the sound curator Dieter Buchhart? How would you describe yourself?

– An art lover who loves to study art and loves to think about it. I think it keeps your brain young.


What do you think of the art market?

– That is less about thinking. That is more about commodities.


Are you becoming in this case more specialized in commodities?

– No, I am specialized in the art world itself.


But you have the commodity names… You work with top artists, right?

– This is what people read about but I have been doing a lot of projects with young artists. Since the 90’s I’ve been doing projects with local young artists and working as a journalist I have done a lot of interviews.. I am very interested in emerging artists, I also collect, and I am very fascinated by the overlap in Art and Science, Art and Nature. The image of a person nowadays is not the person you are, it is just a filter, how this person is filtered by the media. Thats how it is.


Or translated?

– Yes, or translated. That’s is fair enough. There is a lot of interest in Basquiat’s work nowadays.


But you also like art history?

– I grew up with German Expressionism, with Renaissance art, and so on. I truly believe that what is made by an artist is all based on what was there before. Speaking from the perspective of an art historian, I see we need this knowledge to be able to talk about contemporary art, to know what was before. Being an art historian helps you with the knowledge to talk about art without having to be an artist. Let’s talk about collage. I met a young artist many years ago and she told me that she had discovered collage. She had no idea about Kurt Schwitters and she had no idea about art. If one is working with words must know that Picasso and Braque had been doing that at the beginning of the 20th century.


Do you think that the young artists have not enough knowledge?

– I didn’t say that. What I say is, as a curator and as someone doing exhibitions as well as writing about art, it is good to have this historical knowledge. That is my argument for why I am doing these shows, because I consider them influential on young artists and the art field now. I do shows with artists which I consider to still be relevant in our time. That’s my point of view. If Ido a Braque exhibition, it is because I think it will shape our way of looking and that it still relates to our time now, through the filter of the artist. Through the artist’s perspective viewers can experience something to relate to and think about.


If we are thinking of the artist’s filters, lets talk about the beautiful homage Bansky made for Basquiat. He painted two different subjects and it is street art, right?

– Yes, but Bansky is in many ways a conceptual artist. He does sell work at the flea market or buys works at antique shops, paints something on them and then returns them. This is very conceptual. I have great respect for what he is doing. The pieces by the Barbican are not Basquiat reloaded, but shows his criticism of the city of London removing graffiti from the walls all the time. But of course it is also an homage to Basquiat, showing his artistic respect for a fellow great artist.


What happens to those two paintings, are they still there?

– I hope so.


Are you going to take them with you to Basquiat’s next exhibition?

– No, they stay where they are or they get washed out…


Or detached from the wall?

– No, I don’t think so. Let’s talk about Keith Haring. When you think of his subway drawings if they were removed from the walls he would see it as stealing because they were made for the citizens of New York and not for private collectors. It is a very interesting question: what it means if you displace an artwork from the place it was intended for. It’s very ambiguous….


and ambitious…

– …because it would be important to preserve it. Bansky’s work became a monument that would be hard for us to loose. It tells a lot about our time. The policeman controlling the painters painting. It’s actually a very clever work.



– A very beautiful work.


You photographed it of course?

– Yes! It is an amazing work.


There were other people doing street art at the time Keith Haring was doing his drawings.

– Of course. They were embedded, there were hundreds of them. However history is a strange thing. First of all it always repeats like a spiral always repeating but in a new level…


Ascending in spiral?

– Yes.


Is it a renewal or is it a recycle?

– It is a bit like recycle but not in the arts but in history… just think of our current political moment, maybe historical moment? One never knows at the time what will become part of history. I wrote an essay about the UBS art collection, a very fascinating collection, and while researching I came upon a great art world anecdote: At a dinner party of a prominent Parisian gallerist at the end of the 19th century, the host asked the most highly regarded people in the art field of his day to guess which contemporary artist was going to be considered important in 100 years time. We of course think of Claude Monet, Edgar Degas, the Impressionists and Post-Impressionists. I forget which artists these men named, but none of them even come close to the fame and recognition that Monet or a Degas receive from us.


Good that you mentioned this case. What matters more the person behind the artwork or the artwork?

– I think that if it’s the person behind the artwork that is more important, then in the long run the art work and the artist will be forgotten.


But isn’t Basquiat the person behind the artwork who is more important?

– I think that his artistic practice is what convinces me and not his person. I am a traditional art historian that doesn’t look at the person but at the piece. Of course the person behind the art piece interests me but the art piece is what counts.


Yes, but Barbican is selling exhibition postcards with Basquiat’s portraits. One with his good friend Andy Warhol, another one wearing a rugby helmet, another showing his dreadlocks…

– Yes, but first of all it doesn’t mean that every piece he ever did will have the same importance. The postcards in the exhibition are art pieces. The postcards in the shop are not my choice.


If the gallery decided for his portraits it proves the artist is important, right?

– That is against my belief but I am not involved with this matter. I am a specialist. I am not working on his legacy, my work is about his art and the people will decide where in history Basquiat’s place is. What will happen in 100 years from now I don’t know. He might be one of the greatest but he might also be considered one of the less important artists. One never knows. Who knows what will happen with Gerhard Richter in a 100 years from now?


The time frame for the exhibition, how did it work? Do you leave time to the side to work on the space? I asking this because of the way you structured the exhibition.

– No, no, no. Its a new angle at looking at Basquiat which has not been done yet. I have been exhibiting him for 12 years. I did the big show in the Beyeler Fondation and the Musée d’art Moderne de la Ville de Paris, a show at the Guggenheim Bilbao, an exhibition juxtaposing him with Egon Schiele and Cy Twombly, a show of his notebooks, a show of his collaborations with Andy Warhol and Francesco Clemente. There were many angles to be approached. I have really been immersing myself in his work. There will be another big show of Basquiat next year in Paris and it will have a totally different perspective.


Is the space important for you?

– The space, the time, and the place (geographical) are important to me.


Appart from Heidegger we are going to ask you something else regarding the space. The feasible space which is…

– Yes, Merleau-Ponty…


No, lets talk about the two floors in the Barbican space.

– It all connects. In this building it’s all open, you can look from one work to the other. You can see with the video without listening to the sound, everything connects in this space. It is a great space for a show like the one we are exhibiting. Great for a multimedia show, great for an interdisciplinary viewing of the works of Basquiat. The Barbican space is the right one for Basquiat’s exhibition.


You extrapolated time-frames and you went into the subjects or how did you structured the exhibition?

– It developed more out of the idea of making a show about the downtown scene and I insisted on the idea that it is better to do a Basquiat show but with a focus on the downtown scene. The Barbican is the ideal location for this exhibition, since we are showing Basquiat’s multimedia works and films, then the London Symphony Orchestra’s concert, all that and his works on paper and paintings.


And Barbican was build during the 80’s…

– Yes, a super brutalist difficult building to work with but it is the time in a way.


How long did you take to prepare the exhibition?

– We started about 3 years ago, that’s when Joe initiated it with Jane, and then Joe brought me on board and later Eleanor joined the team.


How long did you take with installing the exhibition?

– Three weeks but we have been working one and a half years on the set-up. It is a very accurately planned show, every work has been debated and carefully placed. I think the viewers are able to feel that while visiting the show. It is a very well thought out and planned exhibition. It has not been intuitively hung the moment you step in the gallery.


How many works you have hanging?

– Around a hundred works.


How many drawings?

– Approximately 40/45 paintings and 60 drawings.


Are you happy with the exhibition?

– We ended up more or less with the works we wanted to have. We wanted to have some real highlights and some unseen works…


Good reviews so far?

– Excellent reviews, which is important. I also have to point out that Eleanor did a really good job researching, quite a few new connections and sources came to light. We are presenting a new view of Basquiat’s work which is also important: looking at artwork from different angles for different people.


If you had Basquiat as an young artist, how would you curate his work?

– I would very much try to involve him if he would like to and if not I would listen to him. I would hear him talking, look at his work…


But he was quite shy, right?

– Shy? No, not shy. He wasn’t very involved in setting a show so much.


Did he like talking? The rare interview where he doesn’t talk much

– Look at the interview in Glenn O’Brien’s “TV Party”. It depends on how he felt. You know I don’t think an artist has to talk that much about his/her art. Nowadays the trend goes more towards “let art speak”, some explanation is needed but let the viewers feel the artwork themselves and then contextualize. It is a very complex scene.


Thank you so much Dieter Buchhart and Congratulations!


«Boom for Real»

Jean-Michel Basquiat at the Barbican

London, 21.September – 28th January 2018

Curator: Dieter Buchhart & Eleanor Nairne

Interview with Dieter Buchhart, Basquiat expert,

during Frieze Masters Preview 4.10.2017