As far as New York artists go, Jean-Michel Basquiat is about as authentically New York as it gets. The Brooklyn-born icon is the subject of a seminal new exhibition, Basquiat: The Unknown Notebooks, which places the pages of eight of the artist’s notebooks on display for the very first time. Taking place at the Brooklyn Museum, an institution that a young Basquiat was a junior member of and visited frequently himself, the exhibition showcases 160 unbound notebook pages featuring fully conceived artworks, alongside 30 drawings, paintings and mixed-media works from private collections and the artist’s estate.
With around 600 paintings, 1,500 drawings and other sculpture and mixed media creations to his name, Basquiat was prolific to say the least. A poet as much as an artist, his pieces heavily focused on the visual word, with ideas of racism, colonialism and the street permeating repeatedly throughout. The notebooks are no different and are regarded as veritable works of art in themselves.
Basquiat favoured the composition notebooks that were used ubiquitously by American students. The eight notebooks on display are from the collection of Larry Warsh, a New York-based publisher and early collector of Basquiat works. Dating from 1979 to 1987/88, they were carefully unbound in the 1990s, but have never been exhibited until now. Displayed chronologically in order of development, the notebook pages allow viewers to observe and consider Basquiat’s enigmatic style on a highly intimate level.
‘What this show is going to tell you is that the notebooks are not sketchbooks. They are artworks by themselves, just on a smaller scale,’ says guest curator Dieter Buchhart, a Basquiat scholar who worked with the Brooklyn Museum’s associate curator, Tricia Laughlin Bloom, to put together the show. ‘Just one word on one page would be as important to [Basquiat] as a large scale painting or drawing.’
Written only on the right-hand pages of the notebooks, mostly in block capital lettering in black ink, the small-scale works often feature ideas and concepts that would go on to appear in Basquiat’s larger pieces, like ‘Famous Negro Athletes’ (1981) and ‘Untitled (Crown)’ (1982) which are also on display. His articulation of the letter ‘E’ as three horizontal strokes, a feature that also consistently appears in larger, more intricate works, is further proof that the notebooks contain finessed executions of the artist’s visual language. From narrative wordplay and extended narrative poems to observations of New York street life, sketches of teepees, crowns and skeleton faces that later became the most recognisable aspects of his work, the notebook writings have it all.