I spotted three middle-aged American gallery girls in London having the same problem I was, finding the entrance to the Basquiat exhibition at the Barbican. We tried to enter a cinema, crossed the street, crossed back over, and then finally realized the entrance was buried deep in the underpass. Then somehow we managed to get lost separately once inside and then meet again at the ticket counter, that is how large the center is.
This was a Thursday in mid-December and perhaps the record crowds had already come and gone, but the staff was still left creating a three staff for every one visitor ratio. There was even a staff worker opening doors, which made me feel like I should have given him 20p.
When I entered the exhibition, the space felt wrong and the image greeting me felt wrong. The space consisted of two floors with small cubicles along the sides of the upper floor and a larger ground floor in the center and a staircase next to a cinema projection screen in the middle. Projected onto the screen, you had a silent film on loop of Basquiat not painting or speaking but rather what could only be described as prancing around in place. This central image had to remain mute as the smaller rooms had his voice audible in the form of interviews, spoken poetry (four corners of the earth on repeat), or films.
I wanted to go straight to the paintings on the ground floor but was told to go up the stairs, then I wanted to turn right, away from the crowds, but was told to start from the left. Patrolled and restricted, I had to start the exhibition in chronological order. It soon became apparent that I was being given a biographical account almost like how Obama wrote his autobiography before he ran for president: if we knew his story, we’d vote for him. The approach seemed similar in manner, that somehow if the visitor was introduced to Basquiat’s biography and contextualized in his time, we’d be convinced of his merit. I thought back to the Cy Twombly exhibition at the Centre Pompidou earlier in the year and remembered just rooms and rooms of his paintings. That is what I wanted here but was given something else.
Not that biography isn’t important, I stood looking at the painting above and thinking so this is how/ when Madonna became the number 1 cartoon breakfast cereal, but a sense of speed was lost (a defining quality) as the result of the slow pace of learning his biography and those cubicles were like rest stops I didn’t want to take.
When I did finally get to the large-scale paintings, I wondered who has all of his work, Leonardo DiCaprio? Once you look at the paintings, you notice how clear the colors are and the lines of the text clean. You are given the feeling of first stroke was the last stroke, winning at the first punch.
After the exhibition, I left seeing the gardens of the Barbican to lazy chance, and it didn’t cross my path. I looked for the restrooms but found none. In the end, I left with a carrot muffin having only found the cafe.