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The Montreal Museum of Fine Arts’ Seeing Loud: Basquiat and Music is “the first exhibition devoted to the role of music in the art of Jean-Michel Basquiat (1960–1988),” and situates his origin story in lockstep with the explosion of cultural creativity that was happening around (and through) him in 1970s and 1980s New York. After an overview of the artist as a music lover, collector, and maker, the curators lay out the exhibition’s framework, stating in a wall text that “the extent to which Basquiat’s use of music reveals his engagement with the legacy of the African diaspora and the politics of race in the United States is so central to this story.” The caption closes by claiming that “through the music in his work, Basquiat celebrated [B]lack artistry and tackled the complexities and cruelties of history, bringing to life the sounds that inspired him and the soul of his historical moment.” Put differently, the curators argue that Basquiat’s work is notably musical, and that this musicality was Basquiat’s chosen method for directly engaging with the legacy of systemic oppression faced by African diasporic peoples, particularly in the United States. While this claim is quite plausible and aligns with a number of similar inquiries into Basquiat’s aesthetics including Laurie A. Rodrigues’s analysis of Basquiat’s engagement with commodified Blackness and Anthony B. Pinn’s essay exploring Basquiat’s aesthetics in connection to Blackness and identity formation, the exhibition thesis is not properly proven. After multiple viewings of Seeing Loud, I found the engagement with Blackness and the politics of race too small (at times, invisible), the focus on Basquiat’s fame too centered, and the definition of what makes a work “musical” too malleable.
Given the importance of sound to the exhibition, the curators encourage visitors to download the Basquiat and Music app to their phones, intended to enhance guest experience through augmented reality (AR). Upon opening the app and choosing my language, a clear set of instructions was displayed on my screen, instructing me to walk through the exhibition (noting that the app would track my location within the exhibition) and look for artworks with an AR tag on the caption, point my phone’s camera at the art in question, select the corresponding image on my screen, then enjoy the “augmented content related to the artworks” that would appear in the exhibition space, on my phone, “and even around [me].” I do not wish to diminish the way that similar apps can be helpful for people with disabilities, or the way that the incorporation of AR can create more immersive, engaging experiences. But for this viewer, the app detracted from the immediacy of encountering artworks in person and the intellectual exercise of following the curatorial thesis. Instead, it constantly fractured my attention between lived and virtual space, and between multiple perceptual modalities since the app required constant attention.
Divided into sections bearing titles like “New York Beats,” “Seeing Sound,” and “Jazz,” both the catalog and exhibition guide visitors through thematic “movements” that comprise the symphony of Basquiat’s artistic practice. Each catalog section also includes a playlist so that, “like Basquiat, you can listen while you look” (15). With the curators’ mission of demonstrating Basquiat’s use of sound and music as a deep engagement with Blackness and the politics of race vis-à-vis the African diaspora in mind, I made my way through the crowded hall, looking to see loudly. What I found was an impressively large collection of works where this thesis of sound in art as commentary on racial politics was often tenuous.
Upon entering the exhibition, I was immediately taken aback by the enormity of Basquiat’s work, both in terms of the number of paintings on display and their exaggerated size. For instance, King Zulu (1986), one of the most prominently displayed pieces in the show, measures approximately six by eight feet and features figures, some of them holding instruments, against a cerulean ground. The impressive scale forced me to confront the fact that I did not know as much about Basquiat’s oeuvre as I initially imagined. This is because Basquiat’s posthumous commodification has been largely limited to a few recurring symbols—namely his famous crown, which now seems to adorn every piece of “streetwear.” He has also become a source and citation within hip-hop, whether through lyrical name checks like in Danny Brown’s “Die Like a Rockstar” (2011), thinly veiled visual references to his iconic illustration style as on the cover art for Lou From Paradise’s 2017 debut mixtape Humaniac, or Jay-Z dressing up as Basquiat for Halloween in 2014. These pop cultural conjurings of Basquiat can inadvertently create a narrow view that does not account for how prolific and diverse he was.
The exhibition features an abundance of obvious connections between sound and Basquiat’s work. These connections are most successful in the “Jazz” section of the exhibition, through Basquiat’s recurring use of jazz as artistic inspiration, and notably through assorted works referencing jazz pioneer and bebop architect, the alto saxophonist Charlie “Bird” Parker. For instance, there is the acrylic, oil stick, photocopy, and wood collage on wood panel piece Jazz (1986) which features sonic elements like Charlie Parker’s name, titles of his compositions, and the word “JAZZ.” Another clear example is Now’s The Time (1985), a nearly eight-foot plywood disc painted black with two white concentric circles to mimic a giant record, emblazoned with “NOW’S THE TIME,” a copyright symbol, and the letters “PRKR”—a voweless shortening of the musician’s last name. While Basquiat’s love of jazz is fairly well-known, it was still illuminating to see just how often he referenced jazz across multiple works.
In addition to elucidating the ways Basquiat’s paintings address the iconography or thematics of music, the exhibition explores Basquiat’s own engagement with music. One of the standout features of the exhibition is the section devoted to pages from Basquiat’s notebooks. Across several walls, we see numerous individual pages with drawings, lyrics, lists, and other text. While not all the pages are explicit in their connection to sound or music, there is a rhythm to his sketching and penmanship reminiscent of sheet music and lyric writing that gives the space on the pages and the physical space that the pages inhabit a sonic feeling. The exhibition also addresses Basquiat’s short stint as a musician in the band Gray (including a replica of the shopping cartlike instrument which he played for one of Gray’s performances), which provides an opportunity to see him not just as music adjacent, but as a practitioner. An understanding of the artist as a practitioner of music allows more space for interpretations of his artworks as musical—musicians make music.
Yet, in conflict with the exhibition’s numerous successful linkages between Basquiat’s art practice and sound, I was often left to wonder if the theme of Blackness via the sonic was truly resonant in the work. For instance, Untitled (Jazz Musicians, Guestbook of Chesa Lodia No. 1) (1986) features the names of numerous jazz musicians, some of whom are white, enclosed in irregular, overlapping red outlines. While the connection to music is obvious, the ways in which this musicality is a medium for Basquiat’s commentary on Blackness are far less apparent. Often, the catalog provided more insightful commentary than the exhibition offered. Basquiat’s Untitled (Sheriff) (1981), in the exhibition’s first gallery, was one such example. The work features a bold string of vowels and depicts a violent, bloody encounter in which an incarcerated person stabs a pistol-wielding police officer. The catalog interprets these vowels as Basquiat using the verse of a sound poem, “OAOIAIIAO,” in the tradition of the artist Kurt Schwitters’s sound poem Ursonate (1923–32), to comment on the fine line between life and death, an interpretation not levied in the gallery wall label.
Although Basquiat’s celebrity status is not exclusively allied to the context of music, it was one important point of access for his professional circles of sociability. The exhibition devotes a remarkable amount of space to the narrative of Basquiat as celebrity or celebrity-adjacent. By and large, these were white spaces and groups of people, as evidenced by the collection of more than twenty Polaroids on view that were taken by the legendary scene photographer Maripol. While Basquiat appears in a few of the photos, as do hip-hop pioneers Fab 5 Freddy and Rammellzee, many feature white celebrities like Madonna, Keith Haring, and Debbie Harry of the band Blondie. In an exhibition that aims to showcase the racially aware, diaspora-informed, socially conscious work of Basquiat, it is peculiar and disappointing that there is no critical discussion of Basquiat’s relationship to these white spaces and the hypervisibility he likely felt within them.
I found two components of the exhibition particularly haunting. First, serious discussion of Basquiat’s tragic death is noticeably absent. The final gallery features his works Eroica I and Eroica II (1988), which were completed and displayed the year of his fatal heroin overdose. Alongside a list of words, both works display a repetition of the “man dies” symbol borrowed from Henry Dreyfuss’s 1972 Symbol Sourcebook, which resembles a tripod with no head. After discussing the Beethoven symphony of the same name that served as titular (and apparently, thematic) inspiration for Basquiat, the caption focuses on the sonic analogies created by the words Basquiat wrote on the paintings. It suggests that the works “touch on [B]lackness and diasporic themes, as well as music, drugs and desire” and goes on to state that the paintings “ask us to reflect on the price of Basquiat’s fame and recognize his heroism as a champion of [B]lack artistry and the role that music played within it.” This is an oddly optimistic ask at the end of an exhibition that spent so much time highlighting Basquiat’s celebrity without interrogating its racial, cultural, social, economic aspects.
The second moment of haunting came in the form of a screen projection of the identifying “tag” from Basquiat’s collaborative graffiti project with Al Diaz, SAMO©. In the animation, a graffiti tag is sprayed on a wall. There is no hand present, as if it is written by a ghost—essentially, a forensic reconstruction. It is unclear who created the animation, which begs the question: Is this the way Basquiat actually tagged, or is the exhibition literally forcing his hand, giving him a rhythm, flow, and body that did not belong to him?
Whereas the catalog seeks to situate Basquiat’s works within larger discourses of artmaking, influence, power, and race, the wall captions are committed to showing all the works on display as explicitly sound- and race-oriented in a way that often feels forced. In other words, while I find the curators’ mission to show Basquiat’s use of sound as his direct engagement with Blackness and the politics of race an admirable, challenging, and important one, it seems that they may have painted themselves into a tricky corner: in choosing to highlight the artist’s Blackness and relationship with sound as absolutely central to his artistic practice, the curators may not be allowing Basquiat the freedom, agency, and range of Black expressivity that he is allowed in the exhibition catalog.
Finally, there is an irony in displaying works by an artist like Basquiat, whom the curators go to great lengths to present as a heroic, Black revolutionary artist intent on holding an ugly mirror up to policing and the state, and asking patrons to use an app that tracks their location, pulls focus away from the art on the wall, and seeks to “augment” reality, which seems antithetical to the narrative of Basquiat focusing on representing his (Black) reality in an unabashed, unfiltered, hyperpresent way. I don’t think this irony is intentional.
Alex Blue V
Department of Art History & Communication Studies, McGill University