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"Basquiat: The Unknown Notebooks"

By Rosalie Baijer

Jean-Michel Basquiat was an American neo-expressionist (and originally graffiti) artist of Haitian and Puerto Rican descent. Born in Brooklyn, he started as a teenage street artist and ended as an influential world artist. "Basquiat: The Unknown Notebooks" is where we can view his never shown, drafts and notebooks, revealing the development of his visual lanquage, personal story and his world view.

Jean-Michel Basquiat (American, 1960–1988). Untitled Notebook(front cover), 1980–81. Mixed media on board, 9 5/8 x 7 5/8 x 1/4 in. (24.4 x 19.4 x .6 cm). Collection of Larry Warsh.


Who would have thought that rough drafts would be so interesting and inspiring? The fact is, these draft aren't just drafts. The handwritten texts and images are an honest and clear glance at impulsiveness and inspiration. They show the street life and conflicts of a teenager in 70's and 80's Brooklyn. The works refer to Basquiat's own personal story at the history of a black artist. "Famous Negro Athletes," his drawing from 1981, four portraits of black faces, is an example of how Basquiat manipulates his text to bring out the moving and telling of his writing. He is repeating the letter E in Atheletes, and this is how he creates his own language. He highlights the contributions of African Americans and exposes the racism in American Culture in a lot of his works. "The black person is the protagonist in most of my paintings. I realized that I didn't see many paintings with black people in them," he wrote.

Jean-Michel Basquiat (American, 1960–1988). Untitled Notebook Page, circa 1987. Wax crayon on ruled notebook paper, 9 5/8 x 7 5/8 in. (24.5 x 19.4 cm). Collection of Larry Warsh.

In the late seventies he started as a graffiti artist and in the early eighties he made very 'explosive' works on canvas. His first solo exhibition in 1982 was an instant success. He worked with his hero, Andy Warhol, on shared paintings and you can see Warol's inspiration in the works. In his notebooks, most of his work is dark, showing scary faces. He imaged people of color and wrote texts about discrimination. In his larger works he uses many colors, but the drafts were more gloomy, mysterious and angry. The words, text and images in his works were mostly representing street life in New York City. They were all about black people, money, dollars and ghosts. He crossed out words and assaulted power structures and systems of racism.

Jean-Michel Basquiat (American, 1960–1988). Untitled (detail),1986. Acrylic, collage, and oilstick on paper on canvas, overall 94 1/10 x 136 2/5 in. (239 x 346.5 cm). Collection of Larry Warsh.

"I crossed out words so you will them more. The fact that they are obscured makes you want to read them more," wrote Basquiat. And it's true. His notebooks and drafts are full of blank pages with one or three words, often crossed out. And all you want to do is read the crossed out words.

The truth about this exhibition is: You have to know Basquiat's story to understand his art and know what he wants to say with it. With an explanation, you'll notice a lot of references to his love for pop culture, jazz music, his heros and fame. He wanted to be a star himself. His texts and drawings look like a technical code or method. Some of his works are sketches of medical textbooks, how-to-manuals and science textbooks. You can also see that Basquiat identified with Native Americans. He refers in a lot of his works to native-born culture with clear forms of the Teepee and the crown, signs of power and dignity.

Basquiat is said to be the first African-American painter who garnered worldwide fame. In the New York art scene in the eighties, artists were not paid much but their work was resold for incredible amounts. He frequently used drugs. Reviled and loved in the art world, Basquiat came to an end by an overdose at a very young age. The notebooks show his thoughts and emotions. In my eyes they present his craziest thoughts, full of darkness and anger. These ideas are not found in his big works, so this unusual art exhibition becomes something of a personal diary.

Jean-Michel Basquiat (American, 1960–1988). Untitled Notebook Page, circa 1987. Wax crayon on ruled notebook paper, 9 5/8 x 7 5/8 in. (24.4 x 19.4 cm). Collection of Larry Warsh.

Although his work can seem evil, there is also an almost childlike joy. It looks the rapidly painted, almost chaotic, and this impression is reinforced by its multiplicity of symbols. While this often at first glance appears impulsive, there is indeed a thoughtful line. His notebooks explain this. His childlike style with elements from his own reality, longing for freedom, are very expressive and colorful. In his notebooks he used mostly black ink, writing on the right-hand pages and leaving the reverse sides blank. It is special to savor the differences between an artist's major pieces and the drafts from his notebooks.

Jean-Michel Basquiat (American, 1960–1988). Untitled NotebookPage, 1980–81. Wax crayon on ruled notebook paper, 9 5/8 x 7 5/8 in. (24.5 x 19.4 cm). Collection of Larry Warsh.

This exhibition illuminates Basquiat's talent to merge words with images and to bring them together into extraordinary creations. When you leave the exhibition, you're acquainted with the real Basquiat.





You can see the exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum, 200 Eastern Parkway , Brooklyn, NY 11238-6052, from April 3to August 23, 2015. For more information visit: General admission is $16.

Rosalie Baijer, from Holland, is an Assistant Editor of Curator's Choice.


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