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On Basquiat’s Playlist

From lines and symbols that act like musical staves, to lyrics and references to musical icons, Basquiat drew on music as a powerful source of inspiration.

He was also a musician himself, performing as part of the band Gray with Michael Holman, Vincent Gallo and Nicholas Taylor (among others), and engaging with the early hip-hop movement with Fab 5 Freddy, Toxic and Rammellzee.

But music was also integral to Basquiat’s creative process, seeping into the canvas itself as more than just something to listen to in the studio.

Basquiat dances to Duke Ellington’s ‘Riding on a Blue Note’ in his studio

While in residence at the Annina Nosei Gallery in March 1982, Basquiat listened to Ravel’s Bolero on repeat – a piece of music as insistent as it is dramatic. Likewise in February 1985 as Basquiat was working towards his exhibition at the Whitney, writer Robert Farris Thompson recalls a visit to his studio: ‘Basquiat activated an LP of free, Afro-Cuban, and other kinds of jazz. Then he resumed work on an unfinished collage […] He did this with a riffing insistence, matching the music. Digits in shifting sequences, 2222, 444, 5555, further musicalized the canvas, like the chanted numerals of the Philip Glass and Robert Wilson opera Einstein [on] the Beach. Four styles of jazz – free, mambo-inflected, hard bop, and, at the end, fabulous early bop with sudden stops – accompanied the making of that collage.’

With more than 3,000 records in his collection, his appetite for music was insatiable. From Prince to David Byrne to Donna Summer and Bach, we listen to a sample of the music that might have been on Basquiat’s playlist.

The Basquiat: Boom For Real exhibition catalogue is available to purchase online or in our Art Gallery shop.

Basquiat: Boom For Real takes place from 21 September–28 January 2018.

Lead: Jean-Michel Basquiat painting, 1983, Photo copyright Roland Hagenberg.
Photo: © Marcus J Leith