Currently on view at the Brooklyn Museum is Basquiat The Unknown Notebooks, the first major exhibition of the writings and sketches from Jean-Michel-Basquiat’s’ rarely seen personal archives. Without a doubt one of the most influential artists of 1980’s Neo-Expressionism, Basquiat worked with music, poetry, and graffiti before finally arriving at painting. Tagging the walls of downtown New York, Basquiat and his friend Al Diaz presented socially conscious graffiti under the tag name SAMO. Straying from the visual attributes of popular graffiti, these tags were often full of sayings, quotes and poems in plain script that replaced graffiti’s showmanship with intellectual thought. Navigating viewers into the personal thoughts of Basquiat with two video documentations and many rarely seen paintings,The Unknown Notebooks is a satisfying mixture of both seeing and reading.
Basquiat’s cultural plurality and vivid paintings begin with the socially investigative phrases, symbols and thoughts on these carefully curated pages. Each of the 160 pages in the exhibition hold a single composition, with blank pages framing the words to a strong effect. Intent on speaking with political and socio-economic strength, corporate symbols, quotations, crowns, skeletons and teepees hang above words, and at the end of sentences, altering these everyday phrases, while visual techniques, suggesting dichotomies in familiar linguistic comprehension, open more room for unique interpretation.
Accompanying the notebooks are a series of paintings that possess a freedom and fearlessness directly related to the artist’s graffiti background. Words fill the canvas from top to bottom, transforming text into texture and letters back into gestural marks. Acting as much as a carrier of language as a layer of paint, Basquiat’s words successfully imported graffiti’s aesthetic energy and social awareness into the white cubes of the art world. The anonymous foundations of his early craft embrace this energetic freedom, vandalism, and self-expression that have come to define youth culture. A contributing figure in the impact of the practice in contemporary art proper, Basquiat’s dedicated approach to symbols and lettering transform this anonymous art form into a new format inside his burgeoning artistic repertoire.
The Unknown Notebooks reveals the underlying elements that made expression a larger concern for Basquiat than fitting into the previously determined aesthetic standards of high art. The primitive and socially aware foundations that have defined his work, and kept its impact almost thirty years later are here at Brooklyn Museum in an almost elemental form, on display through August 23rd.
“Basquiat: The Unknown Notebooks” at Brooklyn Museum [Exhibition Site]
“Review: Jean-Michel Basquiat’s ‘Unknown Notebooks’ at the Brooklyn Museum” [New York Times]
“‘Basquiat: The Unknown Notebooks’ Gives a Window Into Basquiat’s Mind At Its Most Relaxed” [Forbes]