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Past Exhibitions

'Jean-Michel Basquiat in his Great Jones Street Studio' by Tseng Kwong Chi

Basquiat: The Unknown Notebooks

February 28–May 29, 2016

Basquiat: The Unknown Notebooks provides an unprecedented opportunity to peek inside an artist’s mind. These eight rare notebooks can be seen up close, sequentially, and in context with some of Basquiat’s major works. Come and experience his extraordinary talent for integrating word and image.

“Every line means something.” — Jean-Michel Basquiat

Overview

Jean-Michel Basquiat (American, 1960–1988) was one of the most original and influential artists of his generation. Born and raised in Brooklyn, he rose quickly from teenage street artist to art-world celebrity in the early 1980s. Though he is best known for his vibrantly colored figure paintings, language was in many ways his most constant medium. Handwritten texts appear throughout his drawings, paintings, and mixed-media works, blurring the boundaries between writing and drawing and between drawing and painting.

Throughout the 1980s, Basquiat kept notebooks in which he sketched and recorded observations of life in New York City and of the broader culture. Basquiat: The Unknown Notebooks presents for the first time eight notebooks that Basquiat produced between 1980 and around 1987, along with a selection of related drawings, paintings, and collages. The notebooks reveal a lesser-known side of Basquiat and his artistic process and constitute an important source for understanding and appreciating his larger compositions.

Filled with descriptive texts, poems, notations, and occasional drawings, the notebooks on view here contain early versions of images that recur throughout the artist’s production: tepees, crowns, street signs, urban traffic, and skeletal, masklike faces of African Americans. A keen observer of history and the world around him, Basquiat communicated critiques of racism, capitalism, and social and economic injustice with deceptively childlike imagery and a sophisticated poetic voice. Throughout his notebooks, as in his larger works, he experimented with text as a visual element, carefully positioning words or short phrases on an otherwise empty page and consciously misspelling and repeating words and phrases for emphasis and poetic effect.

About the Notebooks

The total number of notebooks Basquiat created remains unknown, but the eight examples in the exhibition, produced between 1980 and around 1987, point to a consistent and deliberate practice that relates to the artist’s larger studio work in illuminating ways.

His choice of readily available composition books is in keeping with Basquiat’s interest in everyday objects. Even when he could have afforded more durable materials, he continued to use these inexpensive composition books, available at dime stores and corner delis. In composing the notebooks, Basquiat generally left the reverse side of each page blank. When bound, this page layout allowed the written page to function independently as a work of art.

Basquiat’s controlled penmanship and purposeful use of all capital letters give the notebook writings an ornamental appearance that sets them apart from mundane note taking or traditional sketches. While Basquiat’s notebooks often contain words and ideas also found in his larger works, the notebooks should be considered autonomous works exploring personal process rather than as preparatory studies for larger compositions.

Jean-Michel Basquiat

Born and raised in the Brooklyn neighborhoods of Park Slope, East Flatbush, and Boerum Hill, Jean-Michel Basquiat (1960–1988) was the son of a Haitian-born father and a Brooklyn-born mother of Puerto Rican descent. At an early age, he showed a talent for drawing, which his mother encouraged with visits to local museums. When he was six, she enrolled him as a Junior Member at the Brooklyn Museum.

Basquiat first gained public attention as a graffiti poet and musician while still a teenager. By age twenty, he started selling paintings in galleries throughout lower Manhattan. Collectors began buying his art, and his gallery shows quickly sold out. His work was admired for its originality, emotional depth, use of unique symbols and imagery, and formal strengths in color, composition, and drawing. Jean-Michel Basquiat’s career spanned the late 1970s through the 1980s until his death in 1988 at age twenty-seven.

Companion Exhibition

To accompany Basquiat: The Unknown Notebooks, the High has gathered a group of Basquiat’s paintings on view on the Skyway Level of the High’s Wieland Pavilion. Nearly thirty years after his death, Jean-Michel Basquiat (born Brooklyn, 1960; died Manhattan, 1988) remains one of the most iconic and influential artists of his generation. Never formally trained in art, Basquiat began his career at age sixteen when he and his friend Al Diaz began spray-painting words and phrases under the pseudonym SAMO© in and around New York City.

Enigmatic and often amusing, the tone of Basquiat’s early graffiti work is reflected in this companion exhibition. The paintings on view address the artist’s biography and demonstrate his purposeful use of childlike imagery and unconventional, cast-off materials. Among these paintings is an important collaborative work with fellow artist and celebrity Andy Warhol. This jointly realized print and painting reflects Basquiat’s deep collaborative artistic practice and the importance of dialogue, whether between artists, cultures, or histories, that inform his work.

Organization and Support

Basquiat: The Unknown Notebooks is organized by the Brooklyn Museum and curated by Dieter Buchhart, guest curator, with Tricia Laughlin Bloom, former Associate Curator of Exhibitions, Brooklyn Museum. The exhibition is organized at the High Museum of Art by Michael Rooks, Wieland Family Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art.

Special thanks to Larry Warsh, Lio Malca, and the lenders to the exhibition.

Additional support from an anonymous donor.