Seeing Loud: Basquiat and Music at MMFA - Nadia Trudel

December 12th, 2022

Seeing Loud: Basquiat and Music is an ambitious exhibit. Organized in collaboration with the Musée de la musique – Philharmonie de Paris, this project is the first large-scale multidisciplinary exhibition devoted to the role of music in the work of Jean-Michel Basquiat (1960–1988).

Seeing Loud: Basquiat and Music, much like the artist himself, is impressive in its scope and variety. Tiny ink and crayon drawings on paper, poems from a lined notebook, collages, poster advertisements, graffiti, and large-scale epic paintings on canvas and plywood. Admirers of the artist will find all his signature motifs: crowns, cartoon influences, his former graffiti tag SAMO (same old shit), masks, skulls, text, brand names, anatomy, cultural references, onomatopoeia, social commentary, and diverse cultural influences. The exhibit also features his collaborations with artists like Andy Warhol and Keith Haring, promotional materials from the time, and polaroids of New York’s nightlife stars (including Basquiat and Madonna) from French artist Maripol.

The exhibit highlights the role that music played in Basquiat’s art through his references to bebop, jazz, opera, and classical music. Basquiat’s portraits often depict musicians he revered like Charlie Parker and friends of his, like Toxic, A-One, and ERO. His involvement in New York’s underground art scene included his role in founding the experimental electro/avant-garde jazz/no-wave band, Gray. As the unofficial band leader and creative director of Gray, Basquiat played the clarinet and synthesizer and performed poems on stage. Basquiat only completed and released a single audio track, entitled “Beat Bop.” Produced and composed by Basquiat and performed by Rammellzee and K-Rob, the ten minute and ten-second long song was named by Rolling Stone as one of the 100 greatest hip-hop songs of all time. Video components of the exhibit showcase Basquiat’s cameo in Blondie’s “Rapture” music video, as well as archival footage of musicians mentioned in the art or exhibition texts. Museum labels take care to point out details in his paintings as they pertain to his musical influences in order to create a feeling of cohesion, even among the chaos of Basquiat’s oeuvre.

The exhibit succeeds in showing how Basquiat’s artistic practice was influenced by his engagement in various downtown scenes. A remarkably social and collaborative artist, Basquiat was much more experimental and multidisciplinary than many may have known. It’s interesting to imagine what avenues he might have explored had his career not been cut short.

The exhibit offers a free augmented reality app designed to amplify the experience. While walking through the exhibit, visitors can point their phones at pieces on display to view “bonus materials,” including photographs and videos of subjects featured in the works, as well as ads and flyers of the time. However, after trying out the augmented reality app in the first room of the exhibit, I forgot about it altogether. While a nice addition to the experience, I personally didn’t find the bonus materials compelling enough to be worth downloading an app.

Seeing Loud: Basquiat and Music serves as a social critique, a showcase of New York’s diverse artists of the 80s, a celebration of talent within the African diaspora, a testament to the origins of hip-hop, and a love letter to a versatile, prolific, cerebral artist.

The exhibit will be running at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts until February 19th, 2023. You can visit https://www.mbam.qc.ca/en/exhibitions/jean-michel-basquiat/ for more information.

An undergraduate
feminist art & art history