The reverberated twang of discordant keys and a slow, walking bass line sound, as an image of a black hand holding a spray can moves effortlessly across a wall, drawing lines that form letters, creating words:
“PLUSH·SAFE” HE THINK.
The looping projection—old footage of Brooklyn-born artist Jean-Michel Basquiat (1960–1988) spray painting to the soundtrack of his noise-rock band Gray— plays to a small cosmopolitan crowd who gather around Dieter Buchhart, guest curator of the exhibit Basquiat: The Unknown Notebooks at the Brooklyn Museum.
“I immediately saw something very special about these notebooks,” says Buchhart, as a youthful Basquiat continues to spray his distinct scrawl in the background, relishing his unique take on the letter ‘E’.
“Now is the time to look at Basquiat in a more distinct way, to show something more specific about the artist.”
To this end, Buchhart, with co-curator Tricia Laughlin Bloom, have put together a showing of eight rarely seen notebooks created by Basquiat between 1980 and 1987. The notebooks have been disassembled to allow the pages to be viewed in sequence; 160 framed pieces of paper filled with off-hand notes, lists, poems, and sketches line the museum’s walls, interspersed with 30 larger paintings, drawings, and mixed-media works.
“These are not simply ‘sketchbook pages’ for working out ideas, transferred to larger scale ideas. No, they are artworks in and of themselves,” says Buchhart.
The framed white pages—one simply reads “art”’—reflect the scrutinizing stares of the assembled viewers, as Buchhart preemptively addresses the ever-looming question, “But is it, really, art?” “Basquiat himself said he couldn’t understand why a dealer would charge a smaller amount for a drawing versus a higher price for a large-scale work. For him, a drawing with one word on it was just as important as a large-scale figure.”
A few heads nod, others remain tilted in a skeptical manner. I turn mine to the actual pages, to discover what is and what isn’t.
The regular appearance of three horizontal, parallel lines – ‘E’ – together with an accompanying block lettered alphabet, form an extension of Basquiat’s graffiti font. Some pages take the form of miniature walls, playing host to typical Basquiat poetic epithets.
IT TOOK THE GUILT OF FOUR GENERATIONS
OF SWEATSHOP WORKER TO GAIN
ACCESS TO THE STATESMAN
Other sheets seem less imbued with meaning, resembling something closer to mundane scratches in a notebook than inspired art on a canvas.
Perhaps most intriguing is where the profound meets the banal: a diary-esque observation from the day, a list of names, scientific facts about pigeons. Here we meet Basquiat the autodidact—an avid observer, recording in his notebooks what his eyes, ears, and mind consumed on any given day, and, decades later, sharing it all with us.
ROBERT DE NIRO
“They’re like CliffsNotes,” opines Brian Gormley, a bearded bystander, who claimed that he “once showed with Basquiat at the Mokotoff in the 80s’.” “He wanted to let you know what he was into, like a puzzle for you to decipher. Most of the things he liked were pretty cool.”
It’s hard to fault Gormley’s interpretation in the face of what appears to be a Basquiat festive playlist:
– STASH X-MAS ALBUM –
– VINCE GUARALDI TRIO –
– KIND OF BLUE –
– SKETCHES OF SPAIN –
That last blank line, though, provokes an unfulfilled curiosity. What was to be his fifth album choice? Like many of the pages on display, we’re left with a half-finished entry. Was this purposeful? Perhaps. Although considering the very nature of what constitutes a notebook, trying to decipher Basquiat’s intention here seems futile. Yet intention is a word that proves hard to disregard in the face of the prominence given to this exhibit.
“He transforms a notebook page into a painting, which is interesting,” insists Buchhart. “The quality of the notebook page plays an important role. It’s not just that he made artworks in those notebooks—he developed a relation to the texture and the quality of the notebook. You find that inside all of his artwork.”
To acknowledge this idea is to understand Basquiat as an artistic spirit so driven by creative impulse that no surface was ever safe from his touch. It’s that energy that lies at the heart of Buchhart’s fascination. “I’m a Munch scholar, and I saw the same intensity in Basquiat’s work of the 1980s, as that of Munch’s in the 1880s.”
In his essay on Basquiat, “The Defining Years: Notes on Five Key Works”, Fred Hoffman writes of this intensity as “distilling his perceptions of the outside world down to their essence and, in turn, projecting them outward through his creative acts.” These notebooks reveal glimmers of that distillation process:
I FEEL LIKE A CITIZEN IN THIS PARKING LOT COUNTY FAIR
IT’S TIME TO GREYHOUND AND COME BACK A DRIFTER
PUT IT ALL IN ONE BAG
Alongside that page, another reads:
I FEEL LIKE A CITIZEN IT’S TIME TO GO AND COME BACK A DRIFTER
If you see no distinction between Basquiat’s art and his life, these notebooks carry great value. The raw pages and the words that jump out from them are more than just artistic expression. They tell a story.
Of course, in keeping with the very abstract poetry-in-randomness with which Basquiat’s words appear on the page, autobiographical interpretation has its limitations. But an awareness of Basquiat’s tumultuous life during this period lends these pages an unmistakable sense of intimacy.
“He was very unhappy,” recalls Gormley, whose impression of Basquiat was formed at a time the young artist’s dependence on heroin was at its deepest. “New York’s a tough place and people were afraid of him. People are afraid of anything that’s new. They single you out in this tribal society for being different.”
Buchhart is careful about where he draws this interpretive line. Speaking of the notebooks, he says, “It was not something completely personal; it was about making some contribution to the arts. He was very conscious. Munch also wrote poems. There always comes a time for an artist to write his story, in a poetic way.”
LOVE IS A LIE
LOVER = LIAR
Seeing these words from a 1987 notebook, I felt a pang of hurt for the sentiment expressed. What precisely Basquiat hoped would come from these notebooks—whether composed consciously as works of art, cathartically as journal entries, or, as with most of his work, a mixture of both —is perhaps beside the point.
In a scene from Julian Scnabel’s 1996 biopic, Basquiat, the title character (Jeffrey Wright) leaves his first major art exhibit, having just been offered international representation by Warhol’s international art dealer Bruno Bischofberger (Dennis Hopper). As P. J. Harvey’s cover of “Is That All There Is” plays, the voiceover of art critic Rene Ricard (Michael Wincott), narrates:
“What is it about art anyway that we give it so much importance? Artists are respected by the poor because what they do is an honest way to get out of the slums using one’s sheer self as the medium. The money earned, proof, pure and simple, of the value of that individual, the artist. The picture a mother’s son does in jail hangs on her wall as proof that beauty is possible even in the most wretched. And this is a much different idea than the fancier notion that art is a scam and a ripoff. But you could never explain this to someone who uses God’s gift to enslave, that you have used God’s gift to be free.”