“Basquiat: The Unknown Notebooks” Makes Its Final Stop in the USA

Artwork:  Untitled (Leonardo Da Vinci), 1982. Jean-Michel Basquiat (American, 1960–1988). Acrylic and oilstick on paper; 45 x 77 in. Estate of Jean-Michel Basquiat. Copyright © Estate of Jean-Michel Basquiat, all rights reserved. Licensed by Artestar, New York

Like a prophet, Jean-Michel Basquiat was ahead of his time, alternately embraced and exploited by the art world. The artist, who first became known in the late 1970s, produced more than 2,000 paintings, drawings, sculptures, and mixed-media works before his death in 1988. He also kept an unknown number of notebooks, where he recorded his private thoughts and ideas, some of which would later be realized in his finished works.

Also: Jean-Michel Basquiat Understood “Words Are All We Have”

It is into these notebooks that we can glimpse the artist’s mind at work, the process of working through ideas in images and words, of things that pass through the mind like “Higher Monkeys” “Spring Onions” and “The History Of The World” at the end of a list that began as “Rubber Monkey At A Buffet.” The pages of Basquiat’s notebooks string together like memories of a dream. Reading through these notebooks is like reading a diary of sorts. It’s a deeply private space that exists between the brain and the eyes. It is being inside and outside of your self at the exact same time.

Untitled Notebook (front cover), 1980–81. Jean-Michel Basquiat (American, 1960–1988). Mixed media on board; 9 5/8 x 7 5/8 x 1/4 in. Collection of Larry Warsh. Copyright © Estate of Jean-Michel Basquiat, all rights reserved. Licensed by Artestar, New York. Photo: Sarah DeSantis, Brooklyn Museum

Untitled Notebook (front cover), 1980–81. Jean-Michel Basquiat (American, 1960–1988). Mixed media on board; 9 5/8 x 7 5/8 x 1/4 in. Collection of Larry Warsh. Copyright © Estate of Jean-Michel Basquiat, all rights reserved. Licensed by Artestar, New York. Photo: Sarah DeSantis, Brooklyn Museum

Basquiat: The Unknown Notebooks is making its final stop on a two-year national tour at the Cleveland Museum of Art. The exhibition, which was organized by and originated at the Brooklyn Museum of Art, features eight notebooks, 140 pages of rarely seen documentary, and 50 works on paper and paintings drawn from the artist’s prolific career. The Cleveland Museum of Art also is the exclusive venue to show two large-scale landmark paintings on loan from the Broad Art Foundation, Los Angeles, along with a selection of drawings the borrowed from Cleveland-based Progressive Insurance Corporation. The exhibition is currently on view through April 23, 2017.

The Museum is also showing Downtown 81 Outtakes in the Video Project Room throughout the run of the exhibition, giving us a look at Basquiat on film. Directed by Crave face Edo Bertoglio and produced by Maripol and Glenn O’Brien, the film clips were shot in 1980-81, showing a 20 year old Basquiat playing a street artist. The film was inspired by his work made under the name SAMO© that he did in 1977 along with this friend Al Diaz. Together they would spraypaint witty aphorisms on the streets of New York. This work was a testament to his love of the written word, a love that would continue throughout his life as words found their way onto his canvases. This love is beautifully examined and preserved in the book Words Are All We Have (Hatje Cantz).

Jean-Michel Basquiat on the set of Downtown 81, 1980–81. Edo Bertoglio (Swiss, born 1951). 35 mm slide. © New York Beat Films, LLC. Courtesy Maripol. By permission of the Estate of Jean-Michel Basquiat, all rights reserved

Jean-Michel Basquiat on the set of Downtown 81, 1980–81. Edo Bertoglio (Swiss, born 1951). 35 mm slide. © New York Beat Films, LLC. Courtesy Maripol. By permission of the Estate of Jean-Michel Basquiat, all rights reserved

515I1KchmSL._SX258_BO1,204,203,200_Basquiat: The Unknown Notebooks is accompanied by a sumptuous catalogue of the same name published by Rizzoli New York. With illustrations of 160 notebook pages and numerous related works, as well as text by Henry Louis Gates, Jr., Dieter Buchhart, Franklin Sirmans, Christioher Stackhouse, and Tricia Laughlin Bloom, the book provides exceptional insights into the life and works of Basquiat.

Henry Louis Gates writes, “Reading his notebooks feels voyeuristic until you realize that Basquiat was determined from a young age to be famous. In fact, Notebook 2 was authenticated by Rene Ricard and Gray bandmate Nicholas Talor in 1981 before Basquiat was a household name. And what he possessed was irresistible to the Punk scene flourishing in New York: a buzz-machine attracting stares and intrigue by the way he shaved his hair into a Mohawk, then spouted dreadlocks, wore expensive, paint-splattered clothes, sway-danced, flirted, toyed with dealers, and gave and withheld love. Of the many passions in his life, the first was the search itself—for self. Everyday was another roller coaster.”

Al Jolson, 1981. Jean-Michel Basquiat (American, 1960–1988). Oilstick on paper; 24 x 18 in. Brooklyn Museum, Gift of Estelle Schwartz, 87.47. Copyright © Estate of Jean-Michel Basquiat, all rights reserved. Licensed by Artestar, New York. Photo: Jonathan Dorado, Brooklyn Museum

Al Jolson, 1981. Jean-Michel Basquiat (American, 1960–1988). Oilstick on paper; 24 x 18 in. Brooklyn Museum, Gift of Estelle Schwartz, 87.47. Copyright © Estate of Jean-Michel Basquiat, all rights reserved. Licensed by Artestar, New York. Photo: Jonathan Dorado, Brooklyn Museum

Born in Brooklyn on December 22, 1960, Basquiat was just 27 when he died. It is something to take this into account as the images and words pass across the page. There is an urgency to Basquiat’s calm and meticulous hand, an urgency that breaks through when he reaches the canvas to paint his realized ideas. Reading his notebooks, we enjoy the mind of the artist at work, crossing out ideas he no longer wanted to see, leaving others perfect on the page. A favorite is “Famous Negro Athletes” written above three indecipherable faces, on of which wears the crown. Under the faces, Basquiat’s punchline, “Composite Drawings.”

Taken individually, each page is its own work, but as with true greatness the sum of the parts is greater than the whole. In the notebooks we can see layers as they form, expand, and take hold. We can see how the mind observes, records, and processes a flurry of ideas in uniquely symbolic forms. The beauty of Basquiat’s notebooks is to be found in the pleasure of this portal into his singular and infinitely compelling mind.

Jean Michel Basquiat in his Great Jones Street studio, New York, 1987. Tseng Kwong Chi (Chinese-Canadian-American, born Hong Kong, 1950–1990). Chromogenic print; 50 x 50 in. Muna Tseng Dance Projects, New York & Eric Firestone Gallery, East Hampton, New York. © 1987 Muna Tseng Dance Projects, Inc. New York. www.tsengkwongchi.com

Jean Michel Basquiat in his Great Jones Street studio, New York, 1987. Tseng Kwong Chi (Chinese-Canadian-American, born Hong Kong, 1950–1990). Chromogenic print; 50 x 50 in. Muna Tseng Dance Projects, New York & Eric Firestone Gallery, East Hampton, New York. © 1987 Muna Tseng Dance Projects, Inc. New York. www.tsengkwongchi.com

Originally published July 24, 2015.

Update: February 9, 2017, with new information on the exhibition at the Cleveland Museum of Art and new images from the show.


Miss Rosen is a journalist covering art, photography, culture, and books. Her byline has appeared in L’Uomo Vogue, Whitewall, Jocks and Nerds, and L’Oeil de la Photographie. Follow her on Twitter @Miss_Rosen.