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Basquiat: The Unknown Notebooks at the High Museum of Art

The High Museum of Art’s current exhibition, Basquiat: The Unknown Notebooks, presents the viewer with a “portrait of the artist as a poet.” Although the art world has been well aware of the importance and influence of language, writing, poetry, and experimental literary tactics on Jean-Michel Basquiat’s work for some time (the artist’s notebooks are hardly “unknown”), the presentation of his notebooks as the main focus of an exhibition on the artist has not been done before. Positioned as the archival source and space of research for many of his paintings, the notebooks function as a key to the intertextual cosmos of his personal iconography, and allow the viewer intimate access to the great expanse of Basquiat’s intellect, his extensive knowledge of poetic methods and global art histories, and his endless appetite for accumulating, consuming, and transforming fragments of contemporary culture.

Jean-Michel Basquiat. Untitled Notebook Page, 1980-1981. Ink on ruled notebooks paper. 9 5/8 x 7 5/8 inches. Collection of Larry Warsh. Estate of Jean-Michel Basquiat, all rights reserved. Licensed by Artestar, New York. Photo courtesy of Sarah DeSantis, Brooklyn Museum.

Jean-Michel Basquiat. Untitled Notebook Page, 1980-1981; ink on ruled notebook paper; 9 5/8 x 7 5/8 in. Collection of Larry Warsh. Estate of Jean-Michel Basquiat, all rights reserved. Licensed by Artestar, New York. Courtesy of Sarah DeSantis, Brooklyn Museum.

Moreover, while the notebooks offer—on the surface—a warm welcome into the ecology of Basquiat’s creative practice and lay the foundation for a closeness to the content and character of his work in important ways, these notebooks also resist the accommodation of his practice into the mainstream of canonical white male artists that form the generational parameters of appropriation art and American Neo-Expressionist painting that Basquiat is often associated with (Andy Warhol, Julian Schnabel, and David Salle, to name a few). Resisting categorization, these notebooks act as testimony to the artist’s pointed critique of the representational politics of the Black artist and his “voice” in Western, Eurocentric culture.

Jean-Michel Basquiat. Untitled Notebook Page, 1980-1981. Ink on ruled notebooks paper. 9 5/8 x 7 5/8 inches. Collection of Larry Warsh. Estate of Jean-Michel Basquiat, all rights reserved. Licensed by Artestar, New York. Photo courtesy of Sarah DeSantis, Brooklyn Museum.

Jean-Michel Basquiat. Untitled Notebook Page, 1980-1981; ink on ruled notebook paper; 9 5/8 x 7 5/8 in. Collection of Larry Warsh. Estate of Jean-Michel Basquiat, all rights reserved. Licensed by Artestar, New York. Courtesy of Sarah DeSantis, Brooklyn Museum.

While the exhibition does include over thirty paintings, drawings, and mixed-media works—in part to emphasize the fluidity in content and style between notebook and artwork—the impact of Basquiat’s works on canvas pale in comparison when juxtaposed to the powerful present-ness that language enacts on the delicate white sheets of his composition books. Framed and hung like icons across the white walls of the galleries, the simplicity and starkness of Basquiat’s handwriting makes visible his sharp wit and the poetic elegance of his juxtapositions tautly shaped within each written line. Oscillating between the banal organizational structure of a list and the open field of stream-of-consciousness poetics, the found fragments and collaged phrases prick the ear with their subversive meanings, interrupted only by decisive breaks on the clear space of the white page. Popping and snapping in one rhythmic attack after another, Basquiat turns the limits imposed by the even lines of the ruled paper into a score, and allow viewers to explore the text as poem and song simultaneously.

Jean-Michel Basquiat. Untitled Notebook Page, 1980-1981. Wax crayon on ruled notebook paper. 9 5/8 x 7 5/8 inches. Collection of Larry Warsh. Estate of Jean-Michel Basquiat, all rights reserved. Licensed by Artestar, New York. Photo courtesy of Sarah DeSantis, Brooklyn Museum.

Jean-Michel Basquiat. Untitled Notebook Page, 1980-1981; wax crayon on ruled notebook paper; 9 5/8 x 7 5/8 in. Collection of Larry Warsh. Estate of Jean-Michel Basquiat, all rights reserved. Licensed by Artestar, New York. Courtesy of Sarah DeSantis, Brooklyn Museum.

Yet it is the substance of the words that gives Basquiat’s formal choices their political power. The manner with which the artist juxtaposes the corporate consumer languages of advanced capitalism (“AN ADVERTISEMENT FOR SODA”) with images of violence to the body (“THE GIANT GORILLA LYING ON THE PAVEMENT,” and the ominously crossed-out line “IN A FRONTAL ATTACK”), and the artist’s own marginalization and exclusion from White America (“THE DREAM WILL NEVER DIE ACCEPT THE REALITY OF LIVING IN THE STATES”) emphasizes the contradictions inherent in Basquiat’s own experience as an outsider working at/for the center of a predominantly White art world. This sense of exploitation echoes uncomfortably in Basquiat’s frequent use of the teepee motif, a reference to Native American culture that points to Basquiat’s identification and solidarity with indigenous communities robbed by Westerners of their profitable land, crops, and knowledge for commercial gains. The artist worked tirelessly to expose the dynamic achievements and traumatic histories of African Americans to a wider audience, and these notebooks give shape to the rage that enacts itself across the span of Basquiat’s visual oeuvre.

Jean-Michel Basquiat. Untitled Notebook (front cover), 1980-1981. Mixed media on board. 9 5/8 x 7 5/8 inches. Collection of Larry Warsh. Estate of Jean-Michel Basquiat, all rights reserved. Licensed by Artestar, New York. Photo courtesy of Sarah DeSantis, Brooklyn Museum.

Jean-Michel Basquiat. Untitled Notebook (front cover), 1980-1981; mixed media on board; 9 5/8 x 7 5/8 in. Collection of Larry Warsh. Estate of Jean-Michel Basquiat, all rights reserved. Licensed by Artestar, New York. Courtesy of Sarah DeSantis, Brooklyn Museum.

While the exhibition expanded my understanding of Basquiat’s practice, I left with some doubts about the consequence of exposing the artist’s personal materials to the public. Similar to recent exhibitions of “great” (that is, male and dead) artists of the 20th century, the curatorial impulse to ascribe meaning to ephemera and materials that were often supposed to remain private belies a common institutional strategy to create and promote the idea of an ex post facto singular artistic “voice” that was seamlessly spoken through an artist’s life and art.[1] Especially for Basquiat, whose talent was greedily mined by the art-industrial complex, is this an exhibition that shows the expanse of his intellect and transformative power, or one that merely confirms and underscores the powerful processes of commodification at work in our culture?

Basquiat: The Unknown Notebooks is on view at the High Museum of Art through May 29, 2016.

 

 

[1] The presentation of unpublished and private materials of an artist is a prominent feature of solo exhibitions and retrospectives, particularly in the recent past. Some problematic examples include the 2007 retrospective of Allan Kaprow’s happenings and performances, Allan Kaprow—Art as Life, at the Museo di Arte Contemporanea di Villa Groce in Genoa, Italy; and the 2001 retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, De Kooning: A Retrospective, which presented unfinished paintings and prints by the artist. I am also thinking about more expansive group exhibitions that point to the “archival impulse” at work in contemporary art, such as Archive Fever: Uses of the Document in Contemporary Art, staged in 2008 at the International Center for Photography by curator Okwui Enwezor, and the 2012 exhibition The Artist as Archivist in the Internet Age at 319 Scholes.

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