As lines continue to blur in fields of art and technology (and everything else) it is easier to see street art as an online/on-street diary -- a forum for speech making, a laboratory for testing ideas, a publishing platform for the dispersing of truths and lies and theories and maxims and slogans and aphorisms. A timely new exhibition of personal notebooks by the artist Jean-Michel Basquiat further affirms the direct relationship between the personal and the public voice of one New York expressionist, revealing lesser-known aspects of him as an artist and individual.
A teenage poet on New York's streets, Basquiat used his own brand of graffiti to pursue his own brand of fame. His text was intended in part as a visual element but unlike graffiti writers who produced ever more expressive tags during that heated moment in New York graffiti history, Basquiat also sought an audience who may be hip to his cerebral wordplay of poetry that puzzled and enticed -- a foxy style of William Burroughs-inspired automatic writing he adapted for his own uses. Basquiat: The Unknown Notebooks. Brooklyn Museum. April 2015. (photo © Jaime Rojo)
In "Basquiat: The Unknown Notebooks," now running at the Brooklyn Museum until August 23, the genius of his fragmenting logic is revealed as a direct relationship between his private journals and his prolific and personally published aerosol missives on the streets of Manhattan's Soho and Lower East Side neighborhoods in the late 1970s and 1980s.
These notebooks were for capturing ideas and concepts, preparing them, transmuting them, revising them, pounding them into refrains. In the same way his text (and glyphic) pieces on the street were not necessarily finished products each time; imparted on the run and often in haste, these unpolished missives didn't require such preciousness.
The art collector Larry Warsh lends these eight notebooks that span 1981-1987, 160 pages in all, for you to scan and contemplate. New to most audiences, they also feel familiar. While they do not provide a play-by-play account of his daily affairs, they do provide insight into his state of mind, interests, and creative process. Knowing his reputation for being very aware of his public perception, you may wonder how private these were in his mind -- if he was at least partially writing for a greater audience here sometimes as well.
But these are definitely his voice. Even in lengthier poetry pieces, Basquiats' reductive approach to writing produces the same clipped cadences that appeared on walls and gallery paintings, a process of addition and subtraction that he could eventually pare down to one word that would command a canvas:
A two-sided, free standing piece from 1982 midway through the gallery space gives a bittersweet focus to one of his aspirations, as well as to his application of photocopies of his own work in multiples on the canvas -- a replication/repetition technique from commercial wild posting that was popularized on walls and lamp posts by graffiti writer/street artists like Revs and Cost in New York in the '90s.
"I think this show points out that the conceptual and poetic side of JMB's work is central to and integrated with his more overtly visual and expressionistic paintings," says Tricia Laughlin Bloom, who worked in collaboration with Dieter Bucchart, Guest Curator in organizing this exhibition.. "He enjoyed exploring the play between text as visual sign or symbol and the layers of historical, sociological, personal meaning that words activate. Some of the very restrained word drawings and notebook entries are intensely expressionistic, for instance, without the use of gesture or color."
The notebooks are part of a larger offering of paintings, drawings, and moving images in this well balanced show that keeps the focus on the writer and painter of text while placing it in the greater context of all his work. Included here are drawings of his fictional character Jimmy Best, for example, who appeared in early SAMO© street writings and elsewhere as an ongoing and developing narrative that hinted at his self image.
Most riveting for the new generation of writers may be the film clips shot in 1980-81 during the filming of "New York Beat" (released in 2000 as "Downtown 81"). Not true documentary footage, it nevertheless captures the artist outside mark-making in a determined, self-aware, sometimes hesitating manner across walls with letters and lines of simple black aerosol.
Moving into "the City" from his middle class Brooklyn home as a teenager in the late '70s, you have to wonder how or if his street practice with friend Al Diaz had been influenced by the students and workers who wrote slogans, epigrams, maxims, in black aerosol letters during the Paris uprisings of 1968. Quick passages on the street then like "Sous les paves, la plage" (under the paving stones, the beach) also played with text and sometimes cryptic meaning in ways similar to his on city walls and in these notebooks. Neatly penned, his was a deliberate meditation and experiment with words -- a process that allowed you to see the deletions and additions, fully part of the finished product.
"We were presented with the rare opportunity to exhibit Basquiat's notebooks, which offer fascinating access to his thoughts and process," says Sharon Matt Atkins, Vice Director for Exhibitions and Collections Management, when talking about the decision to mount "Notebooks."
Of course its not the first time street artists have been featured meaningfully here at the Brooklyn Museum. Under the guidance of Director Arnold L. Lehman the museum has shown a serious and committed interest in highlighting the contributions of artists whose practice comes directly from the streets of New York and its graffiti/street art traditions; including the huge Basquiat show a decade ago, the "Graffiti" show in 2006, the more recent Keith Haring show, Swoon's "Submerged Motherlands" last year, Olek's display at the annual Artist's Ball, and the upcoming Faile exhibit this July, which will also feature their collaboration with Bäst. For Matt Atkins, this show is in perfect alignment.
"The Brooklyn Museum has had a commitment to showing artists whose work embraces contemporary culture. Basquiat seamlessly synthesized the world around him in his art, including elements culled from the streets, music, literature, history, and more," she says.
It has been 27 years since Basquiat died at the age of 27. Somehow you can imagine that mathematical equation appearing here on one of the larger canvases; dense with symbols, sentence fragments, lists and formulas. Sifting through the tenuously connected word constellation it occurs to you that people like Basquiat and Burroughs and the Beats were forebears of the post-Gutenberg dislocation of text from its moorings -- one that we all swim in - with passages and words and texts floating to us and past us from multiple screens of varying sizes throughout each day.
As this stream of messages blurs from the intensely personal to the public spheres, this show confirms how the art-making process for the street has always been rich with storytelling, even if not evident at first. A show of this moment, seeing these notebooks first hand will complete a cycle for many.
We had an opportunity to speak further with one of the curators, Tricia Laughlin Bloom, about "Basquiat: The Unknown Notebooks."
Often we think of the work we see on the street as part of a continuum, a conversation back and forth between the artist and the passerby. How does this exhibition illustrate the continuum that extends from private neatly penned journals to public aerosol missives?
Going through the exhibition you find a lot of similarity between the voice he used in his street writing and in his notebooks, that also extends to his word paintings. Fragments of SAMO text recur in larger scale works that we have included, and many of his notebook passages read like they could have been SAMO texts.
Can you describe the dynamic between yourself and the guest curator Dieter Buchhart and how it informed some of your joint decisions for presenting the work?
Dieter brought the initial checklist together as Guest Curator, and we shaped it together from there. We both felt it was important that the show be about the notebooks -- that the paintings and drawings should be carefully selected to compliment the notebooks and not overwhelm, and to highlight Basquiat the poet and thinker and visual artist. Getting the right number of works and the precise balance was a long process, and many conversations.
How has preparing this exhibition changed or affected your perception of his work in the intervening ten years since the "Basquiat" exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum, if at all?
I was always a fan, and I loved the 2005 show, but I feel I understand him better and my admiration has deepened after the opportunity to work with the notebooks. It's more intimate in scale and the whole experience feels more personal.
"Basquiat: The Unknown Notebooks" is organized by Dieter Buchhart, Guest Curator, with Tricia Laughlin Bloom, former Associate Curator of Exhibitions, Brooklyn Museum and current Curator of American art at the Newark Museum.
With special thanks to Tricia Laughlin Bloom, Sharon Matt Atkins, and Sally Williams.
"Basquiat: The Unknown Notebooks" at the Brooklyn Museum opens on April 3, 2015 to the general public. Click HERE for further details.
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