Very personal and private notes from legendary (self-taught) artist, Jean-Michel Basquiat were the focus of the exhibition, The Unknown Notebooks in 2016 at the Pérez Art Museum in Miami, Florida. The exhibition contained pages of “rarely seen” poetry, sketches, works on paper, paintings and commentary from Jean-Michel Basquiat.

Basquiat is an art icon of cult status whose work explored genetic memories of royalty, social division, commercialism, fame, poverty, and the inner conflicts of the individual. This was ironic as Basquiat was the first and youngest Black artist to ascend to his level of recognition at the peak of the commercial art market. A complex person who communicated layers of information through his art work, Jean-Michel had much to say during his time in the limelight.

To me it seemed that he condensed a magnitude of his thoughts into raw representations of internal truths that he had became aware of. The struggle between good and evil, on all fronts, and the envelopment of darkness that permeated reality was evident in his work. I’ve always looked at him as an honest storyteller. Artists such as Purvis Young of Overtown in Miami have walked similar paths in documenting societal struggle.

(Above: image from a wall of enlarged film strips and Right: “Basquiat at four years, 1965 Copyright © Estate of Jean-Michel Basquiat, all rights reserved” from The Unknown Notebooks exhibition at the Pérez Museum Miami, FL)

We spoke with Director, Franklin Sirmans and Curator, María Elena Ortiz from the Perez Art Museum — one of the last stops for The Unknown Notebooks exhibition in 2016.

The disassemblage of the notebooks spoke clearly about the art market that Basquiat had chosen to become a part of. However disturbing, we were able to take a look into the mind of this historic black artist through the numerous pages that were included in the exhibition.

(Left: display image from The Unknown Notebooks at the Perez Art Museum, 2016)

(Below: pages from The Unknown Notebooks exhibition at the Perez Museum in 2016, Miami, FL)

The Unknown Notebooks exhibit spawned a range of emotions from indignation, to admiration and then sadness. Childhood photos and imagery tugged at my emotions while viewing the exhibit. I looked at video clips of Jean-Michel and remembered that we were from the same NYC during the 80s — immersed in art and creating our own world to escape family drama and the coldness around us, among other things. At first, I focussed on the material surrounding the actual pages from Basquiat’s notebooks which were framed and arranged in the main exhibition area. People began to ask who had the right to rip out the pages from these notebooks? Then we began to read the pages …

Jean-Michel was born in Brooklyn on December 22, 1960. His father, Gérard Basquiat was Haitian, born in Port Au Prince and his mother, Matilde Basquiat was Puerto Rican, born in New York City. It was reported that Jean-Michel could read and write by age four and was fluent in french, english and spanish by the age of 11. His mother took him to art museums and nurtured Jean-Michel’s talent as an artist. His parents separated in the late 1960s after which Jean-Michel and his siblings were cared for by their father. His mother was admitted to a mental institution when Jean-Michel was 13 and spent time in and out of the hospital from then on.

Jean-Michel left home at 15, slept on park benches and was arrested before being taken back home. It was reported that his father put him out after he left school after which point Jean-Michel began earning a living selling T-shirts and his own postcards. He started working under the name SAMO — his tags appearing around town. While working at Unique Clothing Warehouse in NYC, the company’s founder, Harvey Russack offered Jean-Michel a job. Shortly afterward, Jean-Michel made local cable television appearances on the show TV Party, hosted by Glenn Obrien. He also started a rock group, performing at CBGBs and the Mudd Club, among other venues. After his appearance in O’Brien’s independent film, Downtown 81, Basquiat met Andy Warhol. In the early 1980s, Basquiat was represented by the Annina Nosei gallery, presenting his first solo show in 1981 and appearing in Artforum magazine that same year, establishing Jean-Michel Basquiat as an “art star”. Basquiat also exhibited in Europe and in the U.S. with the Gagosian gallery.

Basquiat worked in the style of Neo-expressionism, mixing abstraction and figuration and using varying media including drawing, painting, using logos, numbers, pictograms, symbols and other imagery. He often drew inspiration from the book, Gray’s Anatomy that his mother had given him to pass the time while in the hospital recovering from being hit by a car when he was seven. Basquiat’s works are known for a raw style with childlike characteristics.

In 1985 Basquiat appeared on the cover of the New York Times Magazine section for the feature article, New Art, New Money. After his death in 1988 his work was being sold at auction for in excess of $100 million. The Unknown Notebooks exhibition helped me to rediscover Jean-Michel’s beauty and pain. He is felt as a kindred spirit and we grieve his fall into the meat grinder — the fame of the arts industry and the pit of drug addiction. (Left: image from The Radiant Child, short film by Tamra Davis)

(History Of The Black People, by Jean-Michel Basquiat)

(Below: Bird On Money (1981), 228.5 x 167.5 cm by Jean-Michel Basquiat)

(Below: All Colored Cast (Part III) (1982), 152.5 x 152.5 cm by Jean-Michel Basquiat)

(Below: Scull (1981), 175.9 x 207 cm by Jean-Michel Basquiat)

(Below: Leonardo da Vinci’s Greatest Hits (1982), 198 x 213.4 cm by Jean-Michel Basquiat)

(Below: Philistines (1982), 312.5 x 183 cm by Jean-Michel Basquiat)

(Below: Fishing (1981), 172.7 x 198.1 cm by Jean-Michel Basquiat)

(Below: St. Joe Louis Surrounded Snake (1982), 101.5 x 101.5 cm by Jean-Michel Basquiat)

(Below: Self Portrait (1982), 239 x 193 cm by Jean-Michel Basquiat)

(Below: additional pages from The Unknown Notebooks
exhibition at the Perez Museum in 2016, Miami, FL)

The exhibition also contained films and videos that brought back the NYC of the 80s. We all had those ‘old man’ coats from thrift stores in lower Manhattan … (Below: video clips from The Unknown Notebooks exhibition at the Pérez Museum Miami, FL including clips from the film, The Radiant Child by Tamra Davis)

from dy7, Miami / NYC