Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
March 3, 2016
Dieter Buchhart and Tricia Laughlin Bloom, eds. Basquiat: The Unknown Notebooks Exh. cat. New York: Skira Rizzoli, 2015. 246 pp. Cloth $50.00 (9780847845828)
Exhibition schedule: Brooklyn Museum, New York, April 3–August 23, 2015
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Basquiat: The Unknown Notebooks. Installation view. Photo by Jonathan Dorado. Courtesy of the Brooklyn Museum.

Basquiat: The Unknown Notebooks, organized by guest curator Dieter Buchhart and former Associate Curator of Exhibitions Tricia Laughlin Bloom, is an important milestone for the Brooklyn Museum: its opening marks ten years since the museum’s survey of Jean-Michel Basquiat in 2005. The exhibition includes 160 pages from 8 notebooks borrowed from the collection of Larry Warsh and around 30 accompanying paintings and drawings. It is worth noting that the artist has not lacked in shows in recent years. In addition to the Brooklyn Museum exhibition, of recent note was the retrospective, also organized by Buchhart, at the Art Gallery of Ontario in winter of 2015, as well as a well-received show at Gagosian Gallery, New York, in 2013. Nevertheless, this exhibition promises a fresh perspective on the artist, offering the first large-scale, public display of the notebooks as well as new insights into Basquiat’s use of text across mediums.

The layout of Basquiat: The Unknown Notebooks is largely effective. Upon entering the show’s first small room, the viewer is drawn in by two sizable screens projecting images of the artist spray-painting his famous SAMO© graffiti. The scenes are from the film Downtown 81 (2001) and accompanied by a soundtrack from Basquiat’s “noise” band Gray. They remind the viewer of the big personality and animating genius behind the small-scale works that make up most of the show. Once in the main gallery, notebook pages are laid out in cases along the walls. Above those pages are occasional quotes from the artist as well as periodic short curatorial notes on themes such as Basquiat’s use of lists or his attention to racism in American culture. Breaking up the display of the notebooks are other drawings by the artist. For instance, the series Untitled (Crayon Drawings) (1982) employs the same spare style of writing as found in the notebooks and contains the artist’s signature wordplay. Two walls have been placed in the center of the gallery, which in addition to displaying notebook pages include space for works like All Beef (1983), a freestanding piece that can be viewed from both sides. Though these walls break up the flow of the gallery space, the artwork they display adds visual interest to the experience overall.

In the exhibition catalogue, Buchhart insists that the notebook pages are stand-alone objects, and viewing them does make it clear that Basquiat’s writings are not simply studies for larger works. The show also suggests, perhaps more convincingly, that the notebooks can be understood as a carefully cultivated set of concerns and strategies that the artist revisits repeatedly over the course of his short career—these include words (like the Spanish word “FALSO,” which surfaces in drawings and paintings as well as the notebooks) and turns of phrase that he edits from notebook to notebook. For instance, from 1980 to 1981, Basquiat wrote three different versions of a scene about a drunken man falling down in a plaza. What endures in all three is the textual fragment, LEAPSICKNESS/THE LAW OF LIQUIDS, an exquisitely concise phrase that captures the arc of public addiction: that is, what goes up must come down. This display of the artist’s editorial process is one of the show’s strongest features.

Seeing these repetitions and revisions across the notebooks also allows the viewer to think about the development of Basquiat’s use of text to convey a precise meaning rather than simply as a decorative device. While previous exhibitions and publications have explored some of the ways in which Basquiat used text in his art making, this exhibition recasts him as a poet, or at the very least a writer, which gives the viewer a crucial window into his process. For an artist who was both young and self-taught, this insight into the labor involved in his creative choices does important work to demystify his quick (and some say undeserved) rise to fame.

In addition to phrases that repeat from notebook to notebook, the show also highlights Basquiat’s enduring attention to the ornamental quality of words. Mentioned several times in the catalogue is the curator Klaus Kertess’s suggestion that the artist “used words like brushstrokes.” In his notebooks, Basquiat tended to write on only the right page (leaving the left blank), and almost always centered the text (with the exception of friend’s phone numbers, grocery lists, etc.) rather than engaging the full page. There are also variations in style within the notebooks themselves. For example, in several notebooks, the text looks less like small-scale versions of Basquiat’s graffiti and more like the language that appears in his more famous paintings: uneven, childlike, and often written with crayon rather than pen.

The curators nicely juxtapose the pages on display with larger paintings that show some of the same strategies that the artist developed in his notebooks. For example, Untitled (Ter Borch) (ca. 1987–88), in reference to a painting by Gerard ter Borch, looks like a scaled-up notebook page. Basquiat has replaced the Dutch Golden Age painter’s lush imagery on the same theme with a spare two lines of text combined with a white outline of a square over a green monochrome background. In other works, the artist either adheres notebook pages to canvas or reproduces notebook-scale text alongside imagery from popular culture, particularly advertising. The best example of this in the show is Untitled (1986), a complex painting that combines densely rendered text, musical references, pop culture iconography (like the Batman insignia), as well as the “hobo code” the artist sometimes used in his later career. Seeing this painting alongside the notebooks suggests that Basquiat conceived of language as its own symbolic system but was also keenly aware of its broader circulation within American visual and consumer culture.

The exhibition catalogue will be of particular interest to Basquiat scholars, as it beautifully reproduces the notebook pages in full-color plates. Additionally, the catalogue essays, including one by Buchhart, offer some useful contextualization, linking the artist to other black cultural producers as well as Western artists who employed text (including surprisingly productive comparisons to Joseph Beuys and Leonardo da Vinci as well as more standard parallels with Lawrence Weiner or Basquiat’s hip-hop contemporaries). However, I found the last essay, by Christopher Stackhouse (“Basquiat’s Poetics”), to be the most compelling because it alone engages Basquiat through an explicitly literary lens, linking him to the legacy of Beat poetry. Because Basquiat’s painting commands such attention and because there has been such limited public access to the notebooks, this area constitutes a large gap in the scholarship. I hope that both the show and the catalogue create a foundation for further exploration of this topic.

One small note on the layout of the exhibition: though most audience members will want to engage the rows of notebook pages in their entirety, the sheer number of framed drawings in serial format will prove a challenge for some viewers. Additionally, viewers do not encounter the notebooks in chronological order in the gallery. Without chronology as an ordering principle, nor the ability to order the pages thematically (which would entail reordering them entirely), the curators instead employed the occasional wall text to gesture to broader themes in the work. While this curatorial decision works on the whole, there are moments when further explanation or a tighter link between note and artwork would have been helpful. One such example is when a quote from Fred Brathwaite (Fab Five Freddy) about the rhythm of Basquiat’s writing is displayed above a series of two very non-rhythmic paintings titled To Repel Ghosts (1986).

And finally, though the scholar in me is always glad for additional materials with which to flesh out the history of this artist’s production, the question remains whether the notebooks should be displayed at all. That is, even after his death, curators and scholars continue to mine as much material from the young artist as they can. It seems nothing that Basquiat touched, not even his everyday, process-based “scratchings” (in the artist’s lexicon), is safe from the archival impulse. Additionally, the impression of this over-capitalization of a young, late artist is only reinforced by the final stop of the show—a store stocked with notebook-themed items as well as shirts and skateboards emblazoned with Basquiat’s familiar iconography. Given that during his prime years the artist was at the center of both a critique of capital and in the throws of a real, lucrative fame, I suppose the choice is as appropriate as it is unsettling.

Christina Knight
Consortium for Faculty Diversity Postdoctoral Fellow, Bowdoin College

Please send comments about this review to editor.caareviews@collegeart.org.