Jean-Michel Basquiat,  Untitled Notebook  (front cover), 1980–81, mixed media on board, 24.4 x 19.4 x 0.6 cm, Collection of Larry Warsh. Copyright © Estate of Jean-Michel Basquiat, all rights reserved. Licensed by Artestar, New York. Photo: Sarah DeSantis, Brooklyn Museum

Jean-Michel Basquiat, Untitled Notebook (front cover), 1980–81, mixed media on board, 24.4 x 19.4 x 0.6 cm, Collection of Larry Warsh. Copyright © Estate of Jean-Michel Basquiat, all rights reserved. Licensed by Artestar, New York. Photo: Sarah DeSantis, Brooklyn Museum

Basquiat: The Unknown Notebooks

by Celia Dottore

 

Basquiat: The Unknown Notebooks at the Brooklyn Museum in New York offers new perspectives into the mind of American artist Jean-Michel Basquiat (1960-1988). Cultural icon and epitome of cool, Basquiat’s status in the contemporary art world remains pertinent and pervasive. The mystique and magic that surrounds the artist is grounded in the intense and prolific nature of his work along with the sad reality of his premature death during the height of his artistic career.

In this exhibition, a handful of works on paper and large-scale paintings accompany one hundred and sixty pages of rare notebook sketches, observations, poetry and wordplay. Each notebook page is displayed separately allowing for a visual interplay between both text and images. The pages are simplistic and sparse in contrast to the frenetic and heavily textured surfaces of his larger drawings and paintings. They are more considered and intimate meditations.

The notebooks also provide an insight into Basquiat’s working process and the role that language and symbolism played within his life. His iconic use of imagery such as crowns, skeletons and mask-like faces directly reference popular culture. His composition of text is drawn from a variety of cultural material:

Jean-Michel never reads. He picks up books on mythology, history and anatomy, comic books or newspapers. 
He looks for words that attack him and puts them on the canvas.
 

- Jennifer Clement (1)

Deconstructed pages line the gallery with manic prose, dotted with amusing anecdotes, meaningful marks and poignant moments. Those words and images are repeated obsessively and ritualistically in later works, creating their own visual language or code with which to read his works. Evident are notions of spirituality and superstition influenced by the Haitian voodoo, taught to him by his mother, and enhanced by his heavy drug use.

Basquiat’s introspective and captivating character is displayed in the two short films that punctuate the exhibition. His presence in the space forces one to reflect on the immense creative output of such an individual with a capacity for self-destruction. He leaves behind a legacy that is powerful and unsettling.  

 Jean-Michel Basquiat,  Untitled Notebook  (page), circa 1987, wax crayon on ruled notebook paper, 24.5 x 19.4 cm, Collection of Larry Warsh. Copyright © Estate of Jean-Michel Basquiat, all rights reserved. Licensed by Artestar, New York. Photo: Sarah DeSantis, Brooklyn Museum

Jean-Michel Basquiat, Untitled Notebook (page), circa 1987, wax crayon on ruled notebook paper, 24.5 x 19.4 cm, Collection of Larry Warsh. Copyright © Estate of Jean-Michel Basquiat, all rights reserved. Licensed by Artestar, New York. Photo: Sarah DeSantis, Brooklyn Museum

 

  1. Jennifer Clement, Widow Basquiat: A Love Story, Broadway Books, New York, 2014, p55.


Celia Dottore is an artist, arts writer and curator in Adelaide, South Australia.