Basquiat’s unseen notebooks come to Brooklyn

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The journals, never shown before, reveal the artist’s deliberate use of words and images

Jean-Michel Basquiat, Untitled, 1986. Photo: Collection of Larry Warsh. Copyright © Estate of Jean-Michel Basquiat, all rights reserved. Licensed by Artestar, New York. By Gavin Ashworth, Brooklyn Museum

Eight notebooks used by the artist Jean-Michel Basquiat that have never before been shown in public are due to go on view at the Brooklyn Museum in April. “Basquiat: The Unknown Notebooks” (3 April-23 August 2015) includes 160 unbound pages from journals the artist filled with sketches and notes between 1980 and 1987. The notebooks come from the collection of Larry Warsh, and another 30 drawings and paintings from other collections will be shown as well.

Tricia Laughlin Bloom, who co-organised the show with the scholar Dieter Buchhart, says the exhibition reveals a side of the artist that tends to be glossed over by the traditional narrative. “So much attention is given to him as a Neo-expressionist painter, but there’s another piece, and something else was driving him, which was his social conscience, his love of language, and his desire to get a message across,” she says. “One of his strategies is to compress a lot of meaning into a single image or word, and the notebooks really bring that out.”

In his journals, Basquiat would sketch only on the right-hand page, leaving the left side blank. Sometimes, he would write down only a single word. “It was a very conscious decision,” Bloom says. “Everybody has grocery lists and wish lists, but he treated these very carefully. He wanted to give the words some space.”

Basquiat used the notebooks to test many of the forms that later made their way into his paintings. In the earliest notebooks, from 1980 and 1981, he drew pictures of skulls, crowns and tepees, all of which can be found in later works. “It feels like you’re looking at his thought process in the notebooks,” Bloom says. “In some instances, the notebook entries function as independent works of poetry or conceptual art; and in others they relate directly to larger works in terms of subject and formal strategies.”

Overall, the journals reveal the artist’s wide-ranging interests, though his allusions are not always obvious. “Like many artists, I think he enjoyed mixing the factual with the non-factual,” Bloom says. “He has these extended surreal narratives, and it’s a bit of a puzzle to pin down if he’s referencing something specific, or if he’s speaking more generally.”

Correction, 3 November 2014: The name of the collector who owns the notebooks, Larry Warsh, was misspelled as Walsh in the original version of this article.

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