'To dismiss Basquiat when alive and celebrate him dead are aspects of the same necessity to disarm his language. Order and power fear only one thing: the banality of greatness. Basquiat gave us a glimpse of greatness. Jeanette, unafraid, respected the mystery of it.' - Francesco Clemente.
If someone told you to name a New York-based painter, any painter, from the latter half of the 20th century, there's a highly probable chance that Jean Michel Basquiat's name would spring to mind. On the lips of galleries and the art world's elite since his untimely death in 1988, it would be silly to deny the cold fact that everyone wants a piece of his pie - the savoury pastry in question being a Basquiat painting. However, this pie is more expensive than caviar, coming in at $85M on average. Even if you're not in the earning bracket to make such an investment outright (and let's face it, who is?), galleries, institutions and the like have pounced at the idea of curating retrospectives of the artist's life and work over the years - many predictably dedicated to the infamous 'rags to riches' story that comes with Basquiat's notorious elusiveness and his critique of high society's toffee-nosed snobbery; at the time of writing, the Louis Vuitton Foundation's Basquiat x Warhol: Painting Four Hands continues to impress. And if exhibitions aren't your thing, there are countless books, films, catalogues and even diary entries by those who knew him best, all of which - to some merit - catapult the artist's life into the 21st century.
When you consider how much is out there, the task at hand is not what to write based on what's there, but rather, what to publish that isn't. Alas, photographer Jeannette Montgomery Barron found this no problem when she unveiled her secret stash of Polaroids of a young Basquiat sharing a quiet moment with his friend, the equally famed artist Andy Warhol, away from the prying and hungry press. Taken between '84 and '85, these modest black and white photographs are the subject of Barron's new book, taking just Basquiat's initials for the title, which also turn out to be Barron's own. Elegant and refined, JMB is one for the collectors as much as it is for those who wish to know more about the artist behind the canvas and features 24 large format images, plus six contact sheets and a previously unseen artwork by Basquiat, all for just £45.
'The other books I've seen on Basquiat have largely been exhibition catalogues or surveys of his work', Barron told me when I spoke to her ahead of the launch. So what makes this collection unique? 'I'm not sure if I've ever seen a book of portraits of him by one photographer', offers Barron. 'The photographs reflect an intimacy of a moment in time when Jean-Michel was at the height of his career. And the photographs of Andy and Jean-Michel reflect a time when they were great friends and collaborators. It was a fleeting moment.'
However, Barron's own legacy isn't one to overlook either; her camera has cosied up with some of the city's most celebrated artists. Musicians, filmmakers, painters, fashion designers, publishers, actors, models and writers are the subjects Barron is most attracted to, and in particular, how these nomads worked together, played together, made their own rules and changed our culture, as we know it, forever, together. If you're a name from New York City's underground playground in the 1980s, then there's a strong likelihood you've stood at the end of her lens.
Answering 'Why Basquiat? Why now?' Barron's nonchalant answer is a matter of fact that many refused to admit during the course of the artist's short career. 'In the 1980s, Jean-Michel was one of the few black artists in a world of white artists. He had a tragic end to his life at a very young age, at a time when many people no longer considered his work to be great. Basically, he had a seven-year career. He has become a mythic figure, and his work continues to inspire other young artists.' As for his continuing popularity, her response is as straightforward as any. 'More and more people have come to realise what a great artist he was.'
It all started when Barron was invited by Bruno Bischofberger to photograph Basquiat at his Great Jones Street studio, New York City. This moment was inevitably followed by another, meaning there were two full sittings in total. With only a birdcage, a chair, and an unfinished painting as props, Jeannette shot three rolls of 120 film, 36 images – layering light and shadows in her signature black and white. In Francesco Clemente's introductory note to JMB, Barron's not-so-secretive tricks are alluded to with great respect. 'Jeannette Montgomery Barron is an elegant woman and an elegant photographer. She conveys the widest range of expressivity with the minimum amount of means. The secret of her good luck is that she travels light'.
Providing a wry and honest commentary into the artist's curious world, JMB is a calm and tender portrayal of two of the world's biggest starlets amidst the dizziness of 1980s New York. You may think you've seen it all, but Barron is telling you to look again.
JMB by Jeannette Montgomery Barron, with an introduction by Francesco Clemente, is published by NJG and retails for £45. In addition, there is a strictly limited signed copy available for £595.