I’ve always viewed Jean-Michel Basquiat as this kind of enigmatic artist whose work is so guarded and laden with emotional and sociopolitical messages that render him hard to appreciate and understand. All that changed with a glimpse into the inner workings of his brain, via the Basquiat: The Unknown Notebooks exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum.
Excerpts from 8 of his journals are juxtaposed with early and later works that hail from Basquiat’s own estate and from the proud private collectors who, after picking up the artist’s works at the beginning of his career, now find themselves with pieces worth millions. Though, as I noted previously, I failed to ever understand the hype around the much publicized artist. I always felt that there was a kind of mainstream, commercialized aspect to his artwork that distracted from his genius; the artist rose to even greater fame and fortune after his death, and his trademark scrawl and crown even emblazon T-shirts offered by Japanese outfitter Uniqlo. This expertly curated show transformed the image of Basquiat in my head from wrongfully idolized Warhol protégé to tragically misguided but brilliant conceptualist whose art was not merely the result of schizophrenic bouts of creativity but actually had and has something to say. His wild but curt prose dispersed throughout his works speaks to an obsession with poverty, white supremacy, and a fascination with any act that referenced but transcended the mundane. Basquiat’s notebooks– in which his delicately devised thoughts are spread out and sporadic– provide the foundation for his so-called ‘trippy’ paintings, where his thoughts jump and jumble, finally uniting to create some kind of unique whole. In doing so, the notebooks give the viewer (myself included) a chance to experience his world at its origins, an introduction to the chaos that has long captivated art critics and collectors but has oft alienated much of the public.
Jean-Michel Basquiat is a household name in the art world, a valuable household name, but nonetheless something of a mystery. For many, that makes his work all the more enticing, but should you find yourself wishing to discover a little more, I highly recommend attending this show, which closes August 23rd. A little third-party guidance certainly helped increase my enjoyment of Basquiat’s work, but hold off on buying the exhibition catalogue available in the gift shop or online; the curators writing about the pieces fail to draw realistic conclusions regarding the intentions of the late artist himself. Their written claims feel too far stretched, although thankfully they are not present or voiced in and by the show itself. Go see it!