At the height of his career in the early 1980s, New York City-based artist Jean-Michel Basquiat was something of a celebrity, basking in the praise of critics and the warmth of the limelight while he was still alive. Dressed in Armani suits, Basquiat would frequent Mr. Chow’s in Midtown New York with the likes of Andy Warhol and Keith Haring. And though he would die too soon—at 27 from a heroin overdose—Basquiat had already created a huge oeuvre of work: 917 drawings, 171 paintings, 85 prints, and 25 sketchbooks.
Basquiat often drew on his Caribbean heritage (his father was Haitian, his mother Puerto Rican) for inspiration, as well as the complex musical culture in Brooklyn that surrounded him in the 1970s and ’80s. This fall at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, art lovers can get a taste of the musical landscape that influenced Basquiat, hear some of his original music, and view more than 100 works by the artist at Seeing Loud: Basquiat and Music. The exhibition will run October 15–February 19, 2023, and will be included with the museum admission price.
To call Basquiat an audiophile is almost an understatement. At the time of his death, the painter had amassed more than 3,000 records: jazz, hip-hop, bebop, classical, opera. Some of his favorite artists included Donna Summers, Miles Davis, and Beethoven. For Basquiat, music served as inspiration for his paintings and also helped connect him to American culture, the broader African diaspora, and his own identity.
“More than merely a soundtrack to his life, music was manifest in his art as sign, symbol, and sound,” Mary-Dailey Desmarais, chief curator of the MMFA and cocurator of the exhibition, said in a release. “Music was a means of Basquiat’s engagement with diasporic histories, including his own Haitian heritage, and with the politics of race in the United States. Through the music in his art, Basquiat called out, confronted, and condemned the history of slavery and racial prejudice in America, and his work resonates strongly in our current historical moment.”
Seeing Loud, which includes paintings, drawings, film footage, sound clips, and archival documents, begins with an exploration of the music that shaped the young artist. There will also be items documenting his time in the Andy Warhol–sponsored, four-member experimental band Gray, named after Gray’s Anatomy. Basquiat played the guitar, synth, and clarinet in the band, and the four would take their tunes to venues like Max’s Kansas City and the Mudd Club. Basquiat described their style as “music that isn’t really music.” By examining both his visual and auditory work, as well as some of his favorite songs, the exhibit hopes that visitors will be able to see how contemporary music influenced one of pop culture’s most beloved artists, and vice versa.
However, if you can’t make it to Montreal, there’s also another Basquiat exhibition on display in New York City, titled Jean-Michel Basquiat: King Pleasure, right now until August 5, which has been curated by his sisters and features 200 never-before-seen works. The Broad museum in Los Angeles has its entire collection of Basquiat’s work in a special installation, and at the Orlando Museum of Art, there are 25 paintings available to view, although the FBI is currently investigating their authenticity.