Before Jean-Michel Basquiat became one of the leading art stars of the 1980s, he was a kid from Brooklyn thriving in the music and art scenes of downtown New York in the late 1970s.
“Everyone was coexisting together, musicians and artists,” says Ed Patuto, the producer of Time Decorated: The Musical Influences of Jean-Michel Basquiat, three short films that explore the artist’s relationship to bebop, no wave, and hip-hop. “You would go to a gallery, see a show, end up at [legendary East Village club] the Pyramid. Moving between platforms and genres was what people did.”
Time Decorated takes a trip through Basquiat’s musical influences and adventures from hip-hop to jazz and back again. The three films are helmed by the rapper, musician and producer Terrace Martin, the Afro-Punk director James Spooner and Dr Todd Boyd, a professor at USC’s School of Cinematic Arts.
“It’s hard to look at a Basquiat painting and not come to terms with his musical influences,” says Patuto who is also the director for audience engagement at the Broad museum in Los Angeles.
The series was produced in the middle of the pandemic as a way for the Broad museum, which has one of the largest public collections of Basquiat artwork in the US, to share with audiences online. The Broad’s founders, the businessman and philanthropist Eli Broad, who died in May, and his wife, the art collector and philanthropist Edythe, began collecting Basquiat in the 1980s, buying early works for as little as $5,000, far below the artist’s auction record of $110m set in 2017.
For the Broad’s fifth anniversary last fall, the museum had planned to exhibit all 13 paintings together for the first time, but pandemic shutdowns, which lasted more than a year at LA museums, intervened. The paintings hung in an empty gallery for months, awaiting the signal from state and local officials to allow visitors back. The Broad finally opened its doors last month.
From jazz to no wave and hip-hop
In the late 70s and early 80s, Basquiat was frequenting New York venues such as the Mudd Club where punk, no wave, avant garde experimental music, and hip-hop were mixing to create new hybrid forms. No wave itself is hard to define, an abrasive, confrontational genre, whose musicians had little in common except their rejection of the status quo. No wave was “purposefully inaccessible for mainstream consumption” explains Spooner in the second film.
Basquiat formed his own no wave band, Gray, which took its name from the book Gray’s Anatomy, which he had been given while recovering from a childhood accident, and remained a lifelong influence. Spooner draws a direct connection between the music’s volatility and Basquiat’s turbulent canvases filled with gestural brushwork, anguished figures, and crossed-out words. “Basquiat’s art looks the way no wave sounds: an untrained raw expression,” he says.
Basquiat also had roots in the burgeoning New York hip-hop scene, from his early graffiti work with Al Diaz collaborating under the name SAMO (Same Old Shit), to his sleeve design and production for Beat Bop, a 1983 single by Rammellzee and K-Rob. (In 1981, he also appeared as a DJ in Blondie’s Rapture, the first music video with a rap to appear on MTV.)
In the third film, Dr Todd Boyd likens Basquiat’s use of text to the way a DJ scratches a record, using previously recorded material to make a new sound. “When I see Basquiat crossing out text, crossing out words, it, for me, has often implied something like scratching,” he explains, “particularly what this means in terms of early hip-hop, this concept of the remix comes through quite strongly when one looks at how often Basquiat would use this device.”
If hip-hop and no wave were the musical styles that Basquiat lived through, jazz and bebop were his historical touchstones. Standing in front of Basquiat’s 1983 painting Horn Players, which depicts bebop legends Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie, Terrace Martin describes the affinities between Basquiat and the jazz icons. “One of his [Parker’s] goals in ushering in this new wave of bebop players was to put a stop to the whole ‘you gotta entertain me, you’re a Black jazz musician’ thing,” says Martin. “Basquiat was consistently aware of the racist ways in which he was being pigeonholed, so he found a lot of parallels between his treatment as an artist and that of his jazz heroes.”
Against the backdrop of a largely white art world, Basquiat looked to other Black creatives who had forged their own paths in similar circumstances. Dr Boyd connects the recurring image of the crown in Basquiat’s paintings, seen in With Strings Two (1983) in the Broad collection, to the jazz and hip-hop artists who gave themselves royal aliases. From Count Basie and Duke Ellington, to Run-DMC’s King of Rock, Black artists have often given themselves honorifics denied to them by the white cultural mainstream. (Despite Basquiat’s commercial success, Martin notes, he was dismissed by several critics, including Hilton Kramer who, in 1997, described Basquiat as “a talentless hustler, street-smart but otherwise invincibly ignorant, who used his youth, his looks, his skin color, and his abundant sex appeal” to garner fame).
In the third film, Dr Boyd links the seemingly chaotic, confrontational style of Basquiat’s paintings to the layered, intricate production of hip-hop producers like the Bomb Squad who created Public Enemy’s signature sound. “The music doesn’t necessarily go out to the listener. It expects that the listener, if the listener is going to understand, will come to the music.”
In a similar way he notes, “you can’t view Basquiat’s work passively, it requires that you actively engage with the material.”