Seeing Loud Basquiat and Music Montreal Museum of Fine Arts exhibition

The music behind the art is the focus of the new Basquiat exhibition at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts

“The goal of Seeing Loud is to give life to this nexus of music, art and club culture that was the backdrop against which Jean-Michel Basquiat made his art — to immerse people in that time, and to stay authentic to that time.”

Jean-Michel Basquiat expressed more philosophies with graffiti, on canvases, in sketches, notes and writing and through music than a great many artists working for decades will ever manage to convey.

“Most young kings get their heads cut off,” he famously observed.

Dead at age 27 from a heroin overdose in the summer of 1988, Basquiat was a New York City art scene icon and a brilliant mind, driven to seek infamy. There is no right or wrong about how he lived or how he died. And in any case, he bequeathed the next generations much more to think about than his tragedy.

Another Basquiat quote perhaps better exemplifies the spirit of a brand new Montreal Museum of Fine Arts exhibition, Seeing Loud: Basquiat and Music, a collaboration with Musée de la musique at the Philharmonie de Paris. 

“It’s not who you are that holds you back. It’s who you think you’re not.”

Jean-Michel Basquiat Montreal Museum of Fine Arts Seeing Loud
Basquiat DJing for Eric Goode’s birthday party at Area, 1984. Photo by © Ben Buchanan

Basquiat’s love for jazz music and his involvement in the New York City no wave, new wave and hip hop scenes are well documented. But he is often misconceived as an artist simply inspired by sounds, or as a troubled pop culture figure dabbling in the rock star lifestyle. 

Neither portrayal is accurate. As the curators of Seeing Loud will attempt to demonstrate, Basquiat, in his work, was as much about music as vivid design, captivating imagery and social commentary. The artist and his work were of music.

“Music was much more than simply a soundtrack to Basquiat’s life,” said Mary-Dailey Desmarais, Chief Curator of MMFA and co-curator of Seeing Loud

“I’m really interested in taking art historical subjects that we think we know so well and bringing to light a different aspect (to tell) new stories and uncovering new histories related to an artist’s work. 

The band Gray performing at Hurrah, 1979. Photo by © Nicholas Taylor

To characterize Basquiat’s oeuvre as somehow only music-adjacent is to misunderstand both his vision and his politics. 

“(Jean-Michel Basquiat) was a musical performer. He produced music. He worked with musicians and he was deeply inspired by them. He also identified with them and wanted to celebrate music, particularly Black musicians.

“He is someone who was vocal about the absence of Black figures (represented) in the history of Black art and he sought to rectify that. He really championed, in his work, Black creative expression. Through his music, you can recognize his engagement with the African diaspora and the politics of race in the United States,” Desmarais explained.

Desmarais, 41, who grew up in New York, earned her Ph.D. in 19th and 20th century American and European art from Yale. While minoring in African Studies, she was mentored by the late art historian Robert Farris Thomspon, whose book Flash of the Spirit, about the transmigration of cultural forms through the Middle Passage, so impacted Basquiat that he commissioned Farris to write an essay for a 1985 exhibition.  

“Through his work, (Basquiat) really captured the complexities and cruelties of American history,” Desmarais continued.

“He was able to bring to life not just the sounds, but the musicians who inspired him. And he really captured the soul of his time by bringing together, through music, much broader issues that were deeply meaningful and pertinent then, and continue to be to this day.”

King Zulu Jean-Michel Basquiat
Jean-Michel Basquiat “King Zulu,” 1986. MACBA Collection, Barcelona, Government of Catalonia long-term loan © Estate of Jean-Michel Basquiat. Licensed by Artestar, New York

To immerse its audience in the essence of Basquiat’s artistic intertwinement with music as a driving force, Seeing Loud was conceived to be much more than a white box exhibition. 

Desmarais noted that while the museum has collected over 100 of the artist’s original works, these are not limited only to paintings but include his notebooks, sketches and other personal artifacts from Basquiat’s life.

Moreover, each space in the exhibition displays audio-visual elements. Rare material and film footage of the band Gray, Basquiat’s music project with filmmaker Michael Holman and other figures from the NYC culture scene (actor Vincent Gallo among them) will be projected. 

Jean-Michel Basquiat October Cult MTL magazine Montreal Museum of Fine Arts
Cover photo © Ben Buchanan (Basquiat with his 1985 installation “Klaunstance” at Area, 1985)

The show also includes original flyers Basquiat designed for bands and to promote art shows and events

“Although he’s often associated with jazz and hip hop, he really loved the no wave scene. So you’ll see those kinds of flyers but also we’ve got video footage of concerts by the bands Basquiat was listening to,” described Desmarais.

“When you walk in, in the same room you’ll see paintings, flyers and projections of concerts, almost like you’re in the concert. You’ll hear no wave music.”

Working alongside Desmarais to develop Seeing Loud were Austrian curator and Basquiat expert Dieter Buchhart and Parisian author, jazz historian and founder of the record label jazz&people, Vincent Bessières. 

Bessières was engaged by Musée de la musique to spearhead research and logistics for the exhibition’s musical aspects. In 2010, he was part of the Musée’s critically adored We Want Miles Miles Davis: The Face of a Legend exhibition. 

Having previously worked on shows that included elements of Basquiat’s work, Bessières said he was beyond humbled to now have an opportunity to delve into this lesser-explored aspect of the artist’s genius. 

“If anything, working on an exhibition like this is an opportunity to remember that (any) body of work is often much more complex than one might imagine at first glance,” Bessières shared by email. 

“Despite the brevity of his life, the work of Basquiat is of a rare density. His production was extremely prolific, diverse and manifold. This project was an opportunity to measure this in a very intimate way, by being in contact with the works and the witnesses to the work.”

Bessières’s experience as a jazz journalist, he said, taught him the importance of oral history and the value of first-hand accounts. It’s one thing to read information or analysis in a book, he noted. “It’s another to hear witnesses tell the story of an era and dig up unsuspected memories.”

Seeing Loud: Basquiat and Music opens at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts on Oct. 15

Along the way, he encountered family and friends of Basquiat whose stories lent him a richer understanding of the way in which jazz and other genres touched the young artist, and how, in turn, Basquiat took his own approach to their advancement. 

“Even when one believes to have covered everything and understood its foundations, one realizes that things are more complex, more ramified, more elaborate than imagined. The work eludes classification, and it raises themes that are extremely current,” Bessières said.

“One also realizes that genius goes fast. Basquiat’s work has never ceased to evolve and even if one can find constants, in reality, from one year to the next, his production changes — in subjects, techniques, materials, themes, media used, formats. He is an artist in movement.”

In a shrewd flip that juxtaposes Basquiat’s contemporary relevance against its own roots, visitors have the option to interact with an app showcasing certain works in their original settings, galleries and other locales from NYC’s bygone eras. 

“The goal (of the whole exhibition) is really to give life to this nexus of music, art and club culture that really was the backdrop against which Basquiat made his art — to immerse people in that time, and to stay authentic to that time,” Desmarais said. 

“We wanted it to relate some of the messiness and the spirit of experimentation that was alive and well at that moment.” 

There’s no disputing Jean-Michel Basquiat’s permanent status as a young king. But Seeing Loud is ready to challenge the idea of who we think he was not. ■

This article was originally published in the October 2022 issue of Cult MTL.

Seeing Loud: Basquiat and Music runs from Oct. 15, 2022 to Feb. 19, 2023, at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts (1380 Sherbrooke W.)

For more Montreal arts coverage, please visit the Arts & Life section.