Call it the $110.5m question: has the work of Jean-Michel Basquiat — who set the auction record for work by an American artist at Sotheby’s in New York in May — been devalued by its use in fashion? Sure, the original works are worth a fortune, but what about their original meaning? What about the art?
The retrospective that opens this week at the Barbican in London, Boom for Real, features more than 100 works by the artist, who died of a heroin and cocaine overdose at his New York studio in 1988. Visitors can expect a broad overview of Basquiat’s explosive neo-expressionist style and his intensely felt discourse on race in the 20th century. Some images will be more familiar than others, having been licensed for everything from Valentino womenswear two decades ago to more recent Reebok trainers, Forever 21 sweatshirts, cashmere knits by Lucien Pellat-Finet and leather jackets by Eleven Paris. “Those sneakers didn’t seem like the best representation of the work,” says documentary photographer Paige Powell, who was Basquiat’s lover and first gallerist. “The art looked too muddled, and I don’t like the shoe design.”
Should any of it be up for grabs by designers? It’s complicated. Powell owns several vintage Stephen Sprouse garments covered in Basquiat prints, which she loves. “They knew each other, and the designs are true to the spirit of his work,” she explains. “When things are executed well with art on garments, it can be magical. Jean-Michel actually gave me one of his handmade T-shirts when we were on holiday in Hawaii in 1984. He used to sell them on the streets and was proud of them.” Paige points to a collection by Alice + Olivia as another successful use of his imagery. Designer Stacey Bendet produced the pieces last year after dinner with Tamra Davis, who directed Basquiat documentary The Radiant Child. “Tamra helped me get in touch with his foundation,” says Bendet. “I used some paintings just because I loved them, but I incorporated other elements of his work like his notebooks and elements of his poetry that I felt told a complete story.”
“Each opportunity for licensing is evaluated on a case-by-case basis,” says David Stark, president of Artestar, which handles Basquiat’s archive. “But no works are off limits.” Licenses were issued in 2014 to watchmaker Komono. They took elements from Basquiat works for straps, and used his distinctive crown emblem for watch faces.
The merchandise might be appealing, but does it do the artwork justice? Basquiat’s work is notably different from that of Keith Haring, who was, working at the same time in the same city. Haring’s line was graphic, deliriously up-tempo and conceived to be disseminated into product, and US brand Coach just used Haring’s dancing figures in their SS18 show. His Pop Shop, open between 1986 and 2005 in SoHo, sold Haring-adorned apparel, toys and posters and might well be considered his masterpiece. As he said at the time: “It’s about participation on a big level.” Basquiat’s themes are generally heavier, his imagery more complex. But the connotations they come with — the story of the handsome, hip black outlaw — give them glamour.
Designer Agnès Troublé bought a self-portrait by Basquiat back in 1983, and it ended up as one of the best-selling artist’s T-shirt designs in her Agnès b fashion line. “I know how artists think,” she says, “and I would always want the artist to be happy with what I do. I would never crop or alter an image in any way.”
Superstar gallerist Jeffrey Deitch, who worked closely with Haring when he was developing his Pop Shop, believes devoutly in the power of merchandise.
“You used to be able to get a major work of art for $10,000,” he explains. “You could save up and buy one. Now there are only about 10 people who are able to buy Basquiat paintings and they collect them as trophies. But anyone can buy a T-shirt from Uniqlo with the image of a painting on.”
There are interesting parallels between Basquiat and Robert Mapplethorpe, who switched from documenting the edgy-as-hell S&M gay underground of Manhattan to creating luminescent society portraits and pictures of calla lilies for wads of cash and global recognition. The appearance of Mapplethorpe’s imagery all over Raf Simons’s spring 2017 collection was somehow apposite more than appropriation. Basquiat too was a willing participant in co-opting his own work. He was nothing if not a 1980s entity — painting in Armani suits and modelling for Comme des Garçons.
If Basquiat craved mainstream success, his work now represents slightly problematic shorthand for “cool”. He went from a world of nightclubs and scrawling his ‘SAMO’ slogans on city walls, to being the exotic dreadlocked darling for Warhol et al. The term “neo-primitive” was used of his canvas style, but has racist overtones too. And the fashion world that has appropriated Basquiat’s imagery is, let’s face it, Caucasian to the core. When Urban Decay launched Basquiat-themed make-up this year, they chose white actress Ruby Rose as the face. Beyond debates about racial politics and merchandise, the paintings at the Barbican are still remarkable. “I think the power of Basquiat’s work transcends anything it is used for,” says Jeffrey Deitch. “It articulates a vision for a generation and it encompasses a historical and social message.”
One wonders what Basquiat would have thought about it all. “He would have been ecstatic to see his work worn by street kids and society personalities,” believes Paige Powell. And yes, he probably would have done. While he might not have been into his polemic being filtered down into a watch strap, he would have liked the fame. And more than that, he’d have loved the money.
Photographs: Jennifer Von Holstein and the Estate of Jean-Michel Basquiat