Inner workings: the notebooks of Jean-Michel Basquiat are unveiled at the Brooklyn Museum

A seminal new exhibition
Jean-Michel Basquiat is the subject of a seminal new exhibition at New York's Brooklyn Museum.
(Image credit: Tseng Kwong Chi)

As far as New York artists go, Jean-Michel Basquiat is about as authentically New York as it gets. The Brooklyn-born icon is the subject of a seminal new exhibition, Basquiat: The Unknown Notebooks, which places the pages of eight of the artist's notebooks on display for the very first time. Taking place at the Brooklyn Museum, an institution that a young Basquiat was a junior member of and visited frequently himself, the exhibition showcases 160 unbound notebook pages featuring fully conceived artworks, alongside 30 drawings, paintings and mixed-media works from private collections and the artist's estate.

With around 600 paintings, 1,500 drawings and other sculpture and mixed media creations to his name, Basquiat was prolific to say the least. A poet as much as an artist, his pieces heavily focused on the visual word, with ideas of racism, colonialism and the street permeating repeatedly throughout. The notebooks are no different and are regarded as veritable works of art in themselves.

Basquiat favoured the composition notebooks that were used ubiquitously by American students. The eight notebooks on display are from the collection of Larry Warsh, a New York-based publisher and early collector of Basquiat works. Dating from 1979 to 1987/88, they were carefully unbound in the 1990s, but have never been exhibited until now. Displayed chronologically in order of development, the notebook pages allow viewers to observe and consider Basquiat's enigmatic style on a highly intimate level.

'What this show is going to tell you is that the notebooks are not sketchbooks. They are artworks by themselves, just on a smaller scale,' says guest curator Dieter Buchhart, a Basquiat scholar who worked with the Brooklyn Museum's associate curator, Tricia Laughlin Bloom, to put together the show. 'Just one word on one page would be as important to [Basquiat] as a large scale painting or drawing.'

Written only on the right-hand pages of the notebooks, mostly in block capital lettering in black ink, the small-scale works often feature ideas and concepts that would go on to appear in Basquiat's larger pieces, like 'Famous Negro Athletes' (1981) and 'Untitled (Crown)' (1982) which are also on display. His articulation of the letter 'E' as three horizontal strokes, a feature that also consistently appears in larger, more intricate works, is further proof that the notebooks contain finessed executions of the artist's visual language. From narrative wordplay and extended narrative poems to observations of New York street life, sketches of teepees, crowns and skeleton faces that later became the most recognisable aspects of his work, the notebook writings have it all.

Basquiat's private sketchbooks

The Unknown Notebooks showcases exactly that - pages from Basquiat's private sketchbooks, alongside 30 of his drawings, paintings and mixed-media works. Courtesy of the Brooklyn Museum

(Image credit: Jonathan Dorado)

Notebook pages

Displayed chronologically, there are in total 160 unbound notebook pages on display

(Image credit: Jean-Michel Basquiat)

The larger pieces on show

One of the larger pieces on show -  'Untitled (The Crown)' of 1982

(Image credit: Jean-Michel Basquiat)

One word on one page

'Just one word on one page would be as important to [Basquiat] as a large-scale painting or drawing,' says the museum's associate curator Tricia Laughlin Bloom

(Image credit: Jean-Michel Basquiat)

The Brooklyn-born icon

The Brooklyn-born icon

(Image credit: Jean-Michel Basquiat)

The inner workings

Carefully unbound in the 1990s, the pages allow viewers to observe the inner workings of Basquiat's creative mind on a highly intimate level

(Image credit: Jean-Michel Basquiat)

The pages come from eight notebooks

The pages come from eight notebooks, which form part of the collection of Larry Warsh, a New York-based publisher and early collector of Basquiat works. Courtesy of the Brooklyn Museum

(Image credit: Jonathan Dorado)

Basquiat Brooklyn

'I cross out words so you will see them more. The fact they are obscured makes you want to read them.' - Jean-Michel Basquiat. Courtesy of the Brooklyn Museum

(Image credit: Jonathan Dorado)

A metal wall in downtown

Included in the exhibition is a video showing Basquiat at work, tagging a metal wall in downtown New York in 1981. Courtesy of the Brooklyn Museum

(Image credit: Jonathan Dorado)

The visual word

A poet as much as an artist, Basquiat focused on the visual word as a mode of painterly expression in itself - an idea which is reflected heavily in the works on show

(Image credit: Jean-Michel Basquiat)

Themes of racism and colonialism

Themes of racism and colonialism run powerfully throughout a number of Basquiat's works. Pictured is a sketched portrait of the entertainer Al Jolson, the 1920s entertainer known for his 'blackface' minstrel performances

(Image credit: Jean-Michel Basquiat)

A face

A face - half-skull, half-man - stares out of one of Basquiat's pages

(Image credit: Basquiat)

Composition notebooks

One of the composition notebooks favoured by Basquiat

(Image credit: Basquiat)

Scrawls, scribbles and sketches

Scrawls, scribbles and sketches here sit side-by-side with some more practical information (though the trademark Basquiat wit is there in his designation of '2nd' class)

(Image credit: Basquiat )

Wordplay and narrative poems

Wordplay and narrative poems play as much a part in the exhibition as more figurative sketches

(Image credit: Jean-Michel Basquiat)

Words and images combine

Here, words and images combine, affording viewers and insight into Basquiat's at his most enigmatic

(Image credit: Basquiat)

The sketches is his recognisable

Also evident throughout the sketches is his recognisable, simplified letter 'E', articulated as three horizontal strokes

(Image credit: Basquiat)

Inner workings

'Believe it or not, I can actually draw' - Jean-Michel Basquiat

(Image credit: Jean-Michel Basquiat)

The Brooklyn Museum

One of Basquiat's teepees, a motif repeated throughout his career

(Image credit: Basquiat)

Michel Basquiat are unveiled at the Brooklyn Museum

Jean-Michel Basquiat - about as authentically New York as it gets - pictured here in 1981

(Image credit: Jean-Michel Basquiat)


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Pei-Ru Keh is the US Editor at Wallpaper*. Born and raised in Singapore, she has been a New Yorker since 2013. Pei-Ru has held various titles at Wallpaper* since she joined in 2007. She currently reports on design, art, architecture, fashion, beauty and lifestyle happenings in the United States, both in print and digitally. Pei-Ru has taken a key role in championing diversity and representation within Wallpaper's content pillars and actively seeks out stories that reflect a wide range of perspectives. She lives in Brooklyn with her husband and two children, and is currently learning how to drive.