Jean-Michel Basquiat (American, 1960–1988) was one of the most original and influential artists of his generation. Born and raised in Brooklyn, he rose quickly from teenage street artist to art-world celebrity in the early 1980s. Though he is best known for his vibrantly colored figure paintings, language was in many ways his most constant medium. Handwritten texts appear throughout his drawings, paintings, and mixed-media works, blurring the boundaries between writing and drawing and between drawing and painting.
Throughout the 1980s, Basquiat kept notebooks in which he sketched and recorded observations of life in New York City and of the broader culture. Basquiat: The Unknown Notebooks presents for the first time eight notebooks that Basquiat produced between 1980 and around 1987, along with a selection of related drawings, paintings, and collages. The notebooks reveal a lesser-known side of Basquiat and his artistic process and constitute an important source for understanding and appreciating his larger compositions.
Filled with descriptive texts, poems, notations, and occasional drawings, the notebooks on view here contain early versions of images that recur throughout the artist’s production: tepees, crowns, street signs, urban traffic, and skeletal, masklike faces of African Americans. A keen observer of history and the world around him, Basquiat communicated critiques of racism, capitalism, and social and economic injustice with deceptively childlike imagery and a sophisticated poetic voice. Throughout his notebooks, as in his larger works, he experimented with text as a visual element, carefully positioning words or short phrases on an otherwise empty page and consciously misspelling and repeating words and phrases for emphasis and poetic effect.
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