Jean-Michel Basquiat’s cultural observations and poetic parsings brought to light in journal entries at Cleveland Museum of Art’s “The Unknown Notebooks”
By Michael C. Butz
Examples of Jean-Michel Basquiat’s masterful wordplay and the peek into his artistic process on display at the Cleveland Museum of Art’s “Basquiat: The Unknown Notebooks” are unquestionably — and rightfully — the exhibition’s main attractions. The largely untraditional works, many of them torn-out pages from composition books, offer a rarely seen roadmap of the late Neo-Expressionist’s artistic genius.
But an additional draw, adding even greater weight to these pieces, are the ways in which Basquiat creatively dissects race, culture and class — issues he contended with regularly in 1980s New York as he ascended to the top of the art world — and how his critical commentary still reverberates in present-day America.
“The Unknown Notebooks,” eight notebooks with more than 140 pages of poems and drawings as well as 50 related works on paper and large-scale paintings, runs through April 23 in CMA’s Kelvin and Eleanor Smith Foundation Exhibition Gallery. It’s the last stop for the show, which was organized by the Brooklyn Museum and stopped in Atlanta and Miami before arriving in Cleveland.
In the first half of the exhibition, viewers are surrounded by a log of Basquiat’s artistic musings and observations. Framed single-page notebook tear-outs line the walls, and long, glass-encased tables in the center of the room showcase yet more notebook compositions.
Noting the way in which his writing — largely in black and mostly in block capital lettering — mimics his artistic beginnings as a graffiti artist, and noting the carefully crafted positioning of words on his paper canvas, it becomes evident what Basquiat meant when he said he used words like brushstrokes.
He also employs scratches and crossed-out words, the visual meant to draw eyes and thoughts closer to the affected text, and his use of single words and fragments of phrases is meant to pull people in, leaving them to speculate about meanings or associations.
While these notebooks have remained under wraps all these years, this intentionality suggests they were always meant to be seen.
Images also appear in Basquiat’s notebooks. The most notable are a crude version of the crown symbol that would become synonymous with his work, the copyright symbol he used to express reclamation and ownership, and a tepee to signify a kinship he felt with Native Americans also subjected to racial inequality.
Additional autobiographical elements are on display, perhaps most significantly in a series of five untitled works that share a “Jimmy Best” theme. Though not on notebook paper, they mimic the style of such entries, and the pieces have been interpreted as suggesting a young African-American down on his luck due in part to childhood adversity, and in one, a car crash is depicted.
The son of a Haitian father and Puerto Rican mother, who grew up in a broken home in 1960s and ’70s New York, Basquiat was hit by a car when he was 7, sending him to the hospital for a month. In addition, as a high school dropout who for a time made a living by selling T-shirts and postcards on the street, Basquiat very easily could’ve pulled from his own experience to tell Jimmy Best’s story — but he also touches on a narrative that plays out to this day.
Upon entering the second half of the exhibition, viewers encounter more traditional Basquiat works — oilstick-on-paper pieces, collages and wood-mounted canvases — that demonstrate how he ultimately expressed the ideas and wordplay with which he experimented in his notebooks, thus bringing the experience full circle. Among them is a piece exclusive to the Cleveland iteration of “The Unknown Notebooks” – “Untitled” (1982), on loan from The Progressive Corporation.
These works are filled with expressive imagery representative of Basquiat as an adroit cultural observer. “Famous Negro Athletes” consists of four African-American faces over a baseball and the phrase from which the piece gets its name. That it’s unclear who the “famous” athletes are is an acknowledgment of racism inherent in the cultural equation, and the graffiti-like way in which the title is scrawled across the bottom provides a tangible edginess.
In “Famous Negro Athletes,” the illustrations and words are equally important — and equally powerful. One gets the same impression when viewing “Untitled (Titian),” “All Beef” and “Famous.” Basquiat expertly juxtaposes the give and take of words and images with the social dichotomies he examines, inviting viewers to explore the many layers of meaning in his art.
That type of dynamic is found throughout “The Unknown Notebooks,” which indeed makes it an exhibition worth knowing. Those drawn to the intersection of contemporary art and contemporary issues, as well as Basquiat fans in search of a deeper understanding of the late artist, will all take something away from this show. The pages and other works on view give a glimpse of Basquiat not only as an artist but also as a person, and it’s a mesmerizing glimpse. CV
WHAT: “Basquiat: The Unknown Notebooks”
WHEN: Through April 23
WHERE: Cleveland Museum of Art, 11150 East Blvd.
TICKETS: $10 for adults; $8 for seniors and college students; $5 for children 6 to 17; free for museum members and children under 5
MORE: “Jean-Michel Basquiat: The Radiant Child” at 7 p.m. on March 1 and March 3; “Basquiat” at 7 p.m. March 24 and 1:30 p.m. March 26. All screenings in CMA’s Morley Lecture Hall.
INFO: Visit clevelandart.org or call 216-421-7350.
Lead image: 6. EL 135.58. Untitled (Crown), 1982. Jean-Michel Basquiat (American, 1960–1988). Acrylic, ink, and paper collage on paper; 20 x 29 in. Private collection, courtesy of Lio Malca. Copyright © Estate of Jean-Michel Basquiat, all rights reserved. Licensed by Artestar, New York. Photo: Mark-Woods.com