“This is a song for the genius child. Sing it softly, for the song is wild. Sing it softly as ever you can—lest the song get out of hand. Nobody loves a genius child. Can you love an eagle, tame or wild? Wild or tame, can you love a monster, of frightening name? Nobody loves a genius child. Free [sic] him and let his soul run wild.”
This is so not me of me, but when I view images of Jean-Michel Basquiat, I can’t help but think of the Langston Hughes poem, above, that a friend read at his funeral. Basquiat was, in fact, a genius child. Prior to his untimely passing in 1988 at 27 years old, Basquiat had a prolific career. He was a self-taught artist who was first recognized for his street art under the pseudonym SAMO in the late 1970s. From there, he went on to produce around 600 paintings, 1,500 drawings, and even some sculpture and mixed media. Most of us are familiar with his work that utilized images like crowns, skeletal faces, and tepees to explore themes of social hierarchy, race, world history, and pop culture. However, he also had personal notebooks that contain his writing, text, poetry, prose, drawings, sketches, and doodles. I was fortunate to be able to download with collector Larry Warsh, who contributed the notebooks to the Brooklyn Museum.
Warsh shared that his introduction to Basquiat’s notebooks started with Rene Ricard in the early 1980s. Through Rene and Fun Gallery’s Patti Astor, he became educated and inspired by leading figurative artists Keith Haring and Jean-Michel Basquiat. Rene eventually connected Warsh with Basquiat’s Gray bandmates Nick Taylor and Michael Holman. It was here that he was presented with the notebooks. Collectors and the public at large may question the value of “incomplete” thoughts, images, and words. However, it was immediately obvious to Warsh that Basquiat’s brilliance was captured in those pages, words, and sentences. “The speed and crispness of his thoughts and the energy of his drawings were pure genius,” says Warsh. “These notebooks reveal Basquiat’s internal preparations for his onslaught onto the art world that was to follow. They are like Napoleonic battle sketches—repeated phrases like ‘FAMOUS NEGRO ATHLETES ©’ are shown to have originated in these books. In some instances, he actually applied xeroxes of the notebook pages directly to his canvases.” Though many of Basquiat’s entries appear to be stream of consciousness, they all actually have a specific format. They are predominantly written in black, block capitalized letters; they are all only on the right-hand pages; and he rarely used color. As Warsh points out, “The notebooks have inspired in me a stronger tie and understanding of contemporary art in our country. The pages give us a glimpse into the soul that was Jean-Michel Basquiat, and, in doing so, they reflect humanity and the conditions of our collective postmodern world.”
Even if you think you are already a Basquiat maven, you must see this show. After you spend time with these notebooks, Jean-Michel Basquiat will feel like an old friend.
Basquiat: The Unknown Notebooks
On View April 3–August 23, 2015
200 Eastern Parkway