When is a Jean-Michel Basquiat show not a Jean-Michel Basquiat show? When it dares to peel back the thick layer of folklore that’s been polished to a sheen in the 32 years since the artist’s death. That’s what “Writing the Future: Basquiat and the Hip-Hop Generation” at the Museum of Fine Arts was made to do: rescue the tragic, brilliant, magnetic young artist from the fable of his rocket-fueled solo flight through the New York art world of the 1980s, where he piled up wealth and fame (and a lot of criticism) before crash-landing, dead of a drug overdose at just 27 years old. And rescue him it does. Every room is a revelation; it changes history by making it whole. It already feels like the most important exhibition on Basquiat you’ll ever see, and he’s just one artist among the show’s dozen.
In the standard story, Basquiat’s peers are Keith Haring and Julian Schnabel, fellow art-world darlings commanding gobs of money from Wall Street collectors who bought works as fast as they were made. And sure — that’s true. What’s also true is that Basquiat came of age in the richness of shared culture and community, friendship and like-mindedness, a fellow traveler on the same track as a cluster of white-hot creative kids who shared his Black and Latino roots, his voracious interests, his rebellious spirit, and, in several cases, his talent. You might know Fab 5 Freddy, whose ample gifts — graffiti, rap, b-boy swagger — landed him a gig as the host of “Yo! MTV Raps”, where he helped push a vibrant subculture into the mainstream during the 1980s and ’90s. But Rammellzee, ERO, A-One, Futura, Lee Quiñones, or Lady Pink? Maybe you haven’t heard of them. But you’re about to. And once you do, Basquiat never looks the same.
There’s always a set of expectations around a Basquiat exhibition: great big canvases bristling with graphic entropy, figures that seethe, raging chaos and political fire. “Now’s the Time,” at Toronto’s Art Gallery of Ontario, which I saw in 2015, checked all the boxes: It was monolithic, wall after wall of the young Black expressionist savant who, as the legend went, came out of nowhere and crashed like a runaway train through the art scene’s crisp white walls.
Infusing that myth with nuance and depth is something “Writing the Future” does well. Its mission is context and more context, large and small. I’d rarely call the MFA’s subterranean Gund Gallery an advantage, but curators Liz Munsell and Greg Tate do more than make it work: At the bottom of the stairs, clips from “Style Wars,” the 1983 hip-hop documentary, depict graffiti-festooned trains and big-haired kids armed with spray cans perched on the rusty trestles of a crumbling 1970s New York. (The gallery is outfitted with green I-beams, made to ape a subway platform, lending the scene a certain goofy charm.) The film is a portrait of apocalyptic ebullience, possibility bubbling up from the ruins, all set to the languid groove of “Beat Bop,” the hip-hop track Basquiat produced. It’s the world he and his community lived and breathed, helping to seed a cultural strain that dominates the world today.
Munsell and Tate bite off a lot here, and I think that’s the point. The show is enigmatic, loud, a little scattered, and above all a lovingly faithful simulation of the joyful chaos of another time. It’s wildly evocative and transporting — holistic, immersive, experiential, and far greater than the sum of its 120-plus parts. Music from a Tate-curated playlist — featuring everything from Bad Brains to Whodini, the Slits to Public Enemy, Charles Mingus, Run-D.M.C., and Roxy Music — drifts through every space, the soundtrack for a fertile, endlessly generative 1980s creative scene. It’s theme music for that exhilarating moment, when the tenets of hip-hop — graffiti, breakdance, turntablism, b-boy posture — worked their way from youthful Black and Latino scenes into the culture at large, merging with punk’s sound and aesthetic into a gloriously sprawling mess. That’s a story mostly left untold, at least within museum walls. It’s exactly why “Writing the Future” is so important.
The backdrop is New York City as it emerged from the brink of bankruptcy in the 1970s, the result of spiraling poverty and crime hollowing out swaths of lower Manhattan as landlords walked away from their buildings, and their property taxes. The city was stuck with billions in unpaid taxes, not to mention the buildings themselves. Untended, they became homes to squatters, or were sold by the city on the cheap. But space was plentiful and rents were low, both necessary ingredients for a youth culture revolution. Which is exactly what happened, one on top of the other.
“Writing the Future” embraces the spirit of the moment, its irresistibly upbeat soundtrack obliterating art-viewing and art-making as quietly contemplative things. In the first room, made to evoke the DIY galleries of the East Village — a hub of the “post-graffiti” movement, when artists moved from the street to the gallery walls — works by Basquiat, Quiñones, and Futura are displayed with the original “Fun Fridge,” scrawled and tagged over the years by these artists and more. The next room delivers for Basquiat purists, with four big paintings as absurdly famous as the artist himself. It’s tempting to think of these works as mollification for the artist-packed, celebrity-studded sound-and-video jamdown to come. But think again: This is Basquiat in the thick of his community. There’s A-One, a graffiti writer in Rammellzee’s crew in “Anthony Clarke”; there’s ERO, who showed with Basquiat at Fun Gallery at age 15; “Six Crimee,” an anonymous tribute to the painter’s artistic kin; and “Hollywood Africans,” Basquiat’s big bright-yellow canvas and cartoon-style social critique, with him and Rammellzee and Toxic, another member of the extended family, feeling like fish out of water on a trip to Los Angeles.
There’s so much myth-busting here, and just as much to learn about slotting people into categories for the tidy tales history demanded for so long. The biggest gallery, called “Writers,” is an exercise in cross-pollinated truth-telling: Jenny Holzer, long revered for her semi-threatening conceptual aphorisms, in collaboration with A-One; Haring, the poster boy for Pop-Art activism, making work with Fab 5 Freddy, LA2, and a clutch of unnamed others. Nearby, Madonna sings “Dress You Up” for Haring’s 26th birthday in 1984. A big screen shows the video for Blondie’s 1981 song “Rapture,” which ends with Debbie Harry rapping, marking the genre’s debut into mainstream music. (At the end of the video, she walks down the street past Fab 5 Freddyand Quiñones making cameos as graffiti writers; Basquiat played DJ.) It’s worth noting, too, that the show’s big spray-paint portrait of Harry by Quiñones was done on steel panels bought and paid for by Claes Oldenburg, whose 1960s “happenings” were a prior generation’s version of artistic liberty.
Why did so many artists see so much in the nascent hip-hop scene when the art establishment didn’t? I don’t know, but it’s not hard to guess at the reason. (If your guess includes racism, I doubt you’re wrong.) After an initial surge in commercial interest, post-graffiti wasn’t taken to the next level by American museums. The gatekeepers shifted easily from dismissive to disdainful. When Basquiat died, Robert Hughes, the chief critic for Time magazine and likely America’s most influential writer on art at the time, published a memorial piece titled “Requiem for a Featherweight.” It is as contemptuous as it sounds. Hip-hop may have energized and shaped a generation of youth — if there’s an argument it was any less transformative than rock ’n’ roll, I’m not buying it — but an establishment culture rooted in lockstep Modernism still ruled. That rejection might help explain why the hip-hop movement’s early exuberance, so full of promise, splintered into factions — the buoyant optimism of conscious rap, the fury of its gangsta cousin. Despite that brief, glorious convergence, one of these things could never be like the other. America wouldn’t let it. Which brings us to Rammellzee.
When I walked the galleries with Munsell recently, she was careful to point out that Basquiat’s pieces outnumber every other artist in the show. But Rammellzee isn’t far behind. He’s the dark foil to Basquiat’s Radiant Child, a collaborator and a nemesis. (Basquiat produced “Beat Bop,” but it’s Rammellzee’s raps that make it great; the two sparred over the recording for years.) Rammellzee’s spectacular 12-panel drawing stretches along one wall, 20 feet longer or more, depicting a war he knew was coming. His philosophy, Gothic Futurism, connected graffiti writers to a battle for free expression against authoritarian control; his jagged letters, carried by the trains, literally become weapons. At the far end of the drawing, towering with menace, are his “beat boys” — foot soldiers for the revolution.
In the show’s final gallery, Rammellzee is armored for battle: A 180-pound suit fitted with missiles and able to shoot fire from its wrists and ankles dominates, all but swallowing Basquiat’s “Famous Moon King,” a shimmering, cosmic canvas of earthly bodies lost in space. Rammellzee made dozens of these suits, imagining a sci-fi, hip-hop apocalypse, and performed in them despite their bulk. This was not the stuff of happily-ever-afters, whatever that bright and shining moment of youthful liberation seemed to say.
Another thing: Five of the show’s 12 artists are no longer alive — they would be in their 60s by now — and Rammellzee is one of them. Nearby sits a mirrored pyramid, glittering in a bath of red light. Rammellzee made it to contain his ashes, and asked that it be present whenever his work was shown. The MFA won’t say if he’s in there — confidentiality — but I like to think he’s with us, still looking to the future. Look how far we’ve come, he might say. But nowhere near far enough.
WRITING THE FUTURE: JEAN-MICHEL BASQUIAT AND THE HIP-HOP GENERATION
Through May 16, 2021. At Museum of Fine Arts, 465 Huntington Ave. 617-267-9300, www.mfa.org