Exhibit Review: ‘The Unknown Notebooks’


By Samantha Spoto

Photo courtesy of ID Number THX 1139.

At the Brooklyn Museum, one exhibit–titled The Unknown Notebooks–invites visitors to peer into the thriving mind of an artist born in that very borough: Jean-Michel Basquiat.

A young Basquiat first achieved artistic recognition as part of SAMO, an anonymous (at the time) graffiti group. SAMO tagged political and social commentary on the surfaces of Manhattan buildings and subway trains during the late ‘70s and early ‘80s. After he and co-collaborator Al Diaz lost touch with each other, Basquiat began to focus on individual pieces.

He then became involved within a notable circle of artists, which included Keith Haring and Andy Warhol. Soon after, Basquiat’s paintings began to appear in galleries and museums worldwide.

For the first time, 160 pages taken from Basquiat’s intimate marble composition notebooks sit on display for viewers to read. The sheets of lined paper contain “poetry fragments, wordplay, personal observations, and sketches,” all of which appear to be preliminary thoughts from the artist’s mind. Drawings of “tepees, crowns, skeleton-like figures, and grimacing faces” reappear throughout the pages as well.

These iconic images prove to be reoccurring throughout many of Basquiat’s well known and large-scale works.

Numerous pages feature crossed-out words and phrases, a deliberate act of the artist. Basquiat is quoted as saying “I cross out words so you will see them more. The fact that they are obscured makes you want to read them.”

For example, one page reads (in all capital letters): “An evil cat in a top hat/Coming out of a sewer/With an M-80.” Just before the last line, Basquiat ran a single black marking through the incomplete phrase, “With a ‘firecr.'” The script provides a glimpse into the inner workings of Basquiat’s thought process.

Photo by Samantha Spoto.

In addition to fragmented lines that exemplify the artist’s stream of consciousness, the notebooks feature several longer works of poetry. Several poems illustrate the artist’s deep-rooted commentary about racism and classism.

Other writings provide a transparent and introspective look at Basquiat’s creative methods. One page notebook reads: “This is not in praise of poisoning myself, waiting for ideas to happen.”

In the summer of 1988, the 27-year-old Jean-Michel Basquiat died from a drug overdose in his Great Jones Street Studio in New York City. The tragedy makes viewing Basquiat’s innermost thoughts all the more chilling. To think, of all the unfilled notebooks and potential wisdom left unshared due to the time cut short.

‘The Unknown Notebooks’ will be on display at the Brooklyn Museum until Aug 23.