One of last year's most impressive releases slipped under a lot of people's radar – and understandably so. Untitled (18 Artists) – a tribute and response to the works of the New York artist Jean-Michel Basquiat – was a low key release, after all.
But word of mouth appreciation of it has been slowly growing, and now with new videos and a documentary about it on their way, it seems like it's starting to get its due respect. Perhaps that's appropriate.
After all, the record was part of an ongoing project, introducing not just the recording artistes involved, but young people via London youth projects to artworks and soliciting their responses. So, maybe seeing it as part of a developing process rather than a single event is more fitting.
It is a great record in itself, mind you. Both musically and conceptually, it makes absolute sense. The current London music scenes that it depicts is a seething hotbed of DIY cross-fertilisation between styles, not a million miles from Basquiat's New York – where in the aftermath of the birth of punk, hip hop and disco, downtown bohemians were consistently reworking and fusing these new formulae.
Untitled (18 Artists) amplifies this, bringing maverick individuals together to combine jazz, heavy dub, moody new wave, grime/rap and more, but always with an unmistakeably 21st century British vernacular: this is not a recreation of Basquiat's world, but a return to its first principles.
Immense individual musical personalities – deep dub high priest Mala, saxophone prodigy Nubya Garcia, the weird electro don Lord Tusk to name just three of the 18 – bounce off one another, creating untold surprises and making you feel like you're getting a glimpse into a fizzing, crackling underground.
And it's a handy reminder of just what can be achieved when grassroots music and subculture broaden their horizons and appreciate their own possibilities. In responding to visual art, and a cultural milieu, from some 40 years ago, the young producers, vocalists, jazz players and MCs on Untitled (18 Artists) are tapping into a wellspring that has turned popular music on its head multiple times through history and resulted in some of the greatest sounds of all time.
So in celebration of that, here are some more examples of where the music and gallery worlds have formed symbiotic relationships.
Pete Townshend, The Who's chief songwriter and often mouthpiece, was art college-trained and fanatical about pop-art's subversion of consumerism.
“We stand for pop‐art clothes, pop‐art music, and pop‐art behaviour,” he told the Melody Maker in 1965. “We don't change offstage. We live pop‐art”.
Though later they would become the epitome of the indulgent rock band, at first, all of the band's destructiveness and mischief were as fiercely and smartly choreographed as their look and lyrics: they were a living, breathing, fighting artwork.
They also very notably provided a template in this for Malcolm McClaren's corralling of the Sex Pistols and artist Jamie Reid into forming a huge situationist art project.
The Velvet Underground/Andy Warhol
The Velvets too were an art project in many ways. By placing the fledgling experimental rock band in the context of his Exploding Plastic Inevitable extended performance happenings, encouraging their sonic exploration, and providing virtuosic branding for them, Andy Warhol turned them into something which defined visual cool for generations thereafter.
Grace Jones/Keith Haring
Grace Jones, of course, was a visual artist in her own right: acutely aware of her own appearance. She, to this day, treats herself as a human sculpture and her life is performance art. But she has also always known how to find the right people to work with, and this video with Basquiat's contemporary Keith Haring painting a vast skirt for Jones is as great an integration of music and art as you could hope to find.
Everything about it is as 1980s as you can get – but where so much in that decade was facile and flashy, this is packed with both aesthetic sophistication and gutsy, very human celebration. Andy Warhol gets a cameo too!
Laurie Anderson, among her many other skills, is adept at using pop culture as a canvas, and presenting academic and avant-garde ideas with levity and wit. Famously she took a reference to an 1885 operatic aria and the Iran hostage crisis, over innovative electronic composition drawn out over eight and a half minutes, to number two in the UK singles charts with O Superman in 1982.
And on this shorter, but equally hypnotic, segment of the larger America performance which contains O Superman, she conjures a startlingly visual mental picture of the imagination of visionary architect Buckminster Fuller.
This is the relationship between musician and artist at the most intense imaginable. As well as working together – most notably on the film Drawing Restraint 9 – Bjork and avant-garde filmmaker Matthew Barney were in a relationship for 13 years and have a daughter, and their breakup was documented on Bjork's harrowing 2015 Vulnicura album.
But for all the conflict, and all the darkness of their work, just as with her other visual collaborators, from Alexander McQueen to Michel Gondry to Doon Kanda, Bjork has been able to absorb elements into her own vast and ever-growing vision.
Manic Street Preachers
The members of Welsh band Manic Street Preachers have always been fiercely cerebral – priding themselves on being representatives for working class autodidacts – and that includes many intersections of their work with the art world.
They have famously used Jenny Saville's fearsomely physical painting as artwork for two of their releases, resulting in the case of the 2009 Journal For Plague Lovers album being pulled from supermarket shelves.
And lyrically, their songs have covered the life and work of war photographer Kevin Carter (in, err, “Kevin Carter”), as well as painters Willem De Kooning (“Interiors”) and Yves Klein (“International Blue”)
Much of Detroit techno have taken inspiration from visionary writers, thinkers and film makers. It's not for nothing, for example, that Carl Craig called his greatest album More Songs About Food And Revolutionary Art.
But one producer in particular has taken a visual obsession to extremes. Jeff Mills' love of modernist architecture like Mies Van Der Rohe and Oscar Niemeyer led him in the 2000s to move to Chicago to study architecture himself, also opening a boutique there with his wife Yoko Uozumi of modernist-inspired apparel. And the clean, clear lines and abstractions of those architects can be heard in his work, through to the present day.
Beyonce, of course, is another artist who is acutely aware of the visual aspect of music, and has become successively more sophisticated in her reference to artworks with each passing year. Often this is deeply subversive, exposing how blackness and whiteness are constituted and valued, both aesthetically and culturally.
Her reference to white marble in the visual quotation of Michaelangelo in the Mine video is a perfect example, as, of course, her Louvre appearance with Jay-Z in their Apeshit video.
But often, too, it's pure celebration, as in her frequent tributes to Frida Kahlo, for photoshoots and a fancy dress for a Haloween party in 2014. As it is, the party takes us full circle – for Jay-Z also dressed up as Basquiat.
Cover Image: Fabrice Bourgelle
Writer | Joe Muggs
Joe Muggs is a writer, DJ and curator of many years standing, covering both mainstream and underground. His book 'Bass, Mids, Tops', covering decades of UK bass music, is out now via Strange Attractor / MIT Press, and you can subscribe to his newsletter at tinyletter.com/joemuggs