JEAN-MICHEL BASQUIAT was, famously, a graffitist who became a painter. He wasn’t the only one to make the transition in that electric moment of the early 1980s, but his path was distinctly different from that of his contemporaries — and not only because he achieved worldwide renown and art-historical status with blinding speed. The other graffiti artists who made it into the galleries — Crash, Daze, Lady Pink, Futura 2000, et al. — were painters to begin with, muralists who covered the sides of trains with all-over designs in brilliant colors, often but not always incorporating their tags as major elements. Basquiat, however, was a writer. As SAMO, he dealt in words, artfully executed with marker or spray can, to be sure, but nevertheless words intended to convey meaning, slantwise — that is to say, poetry.
Eight of his notebooks, from the collection of Larry Warsh, will go on display next month at the Brooklyn Museum. The four most crowded with entries date from 1980 to 1981, when Basquiat was working furiously in a wide variety of media: writing and painting on every surface that came to hand, from walls to sweatshirts to refrigerator doors; playing with his band, Gray; appearing on Glenn O’Brien’s public access show “TV Party”; and making the color-Xerox postcards with which he first announced himself to the art world. In those days, it was perhaps not entirely clear to him what direction he would take, but painting was on the ascent. (Three of the other notebooks, speculatively dated 1981-84, 1983 and 1985, only contain a few written pages; the last is thought to be from 1987, a year before his death at 27.)
In an unpublished essay in 1992, the late writer and artist Rene Ricard wrote: “Had he reached artistic maturity at a slightly earlier (or later) time, Jean-Michel Basquiat would have manifested as a poet.” Which slightly misses the point. That Basquiat was already a poet is manifest in these notebooks:
KAYO IN THE LUNA PARK
FREEZE FRAME ON A DRUNK IN THE PIAZZA
THAT’S WHAT WE HAVE FOR PIGEONS
LUMBERING ON ASPHALT FACEDOWN
LEAPSICKNESS THE LAW OF LIQUIDS.
You can hear in those lines an echo of the Beats and the Black Arts Movement, and you can also hear the stabbing rhythm that carries over from his writing on walls to his paintings, which are about language before they are about anything else. As his friend Fred Brathwaite, a.k.a. Fab 5 Freddy, once said about the words on Basquiat’s paintings, “You can hear Jean-Michel thinking”:
THERE’S A SONG ON THE RADIO
WHERE THEY SAY WAVY HAIR INSTEAD OF BLACK
SO IT WAS SUNG BY SOME WHITEGIRLS
20 YEARS LATER.
THE NOTEBOOKS’ JUMBLE of entries variously sound like song lyrics, slogans, mantras, fragments of scenarios, of “routines” like those of William S. Burroughs — like everybody in those years, Basquiat’s constantly sounding like Burroughs: “really old shoes take trains with the minerals taped to their stomachs —”. Among their many other qualities, the notebooks are faithful artifacts of their time. (They reminded me of nothing as much as my own notebooks from that era.)
Basquiat, who dropped out of high school, was an avid autodidact, picking up images, words and music everywhere he went, absorbing and applying them, sometimes immediately. He’d glom diagrams from girlfriends’ schoolbooks, ingredients from the sides of packages, signage from the streets (who remembers now when “Flats Fixed” was a phrase you’d read every 10 minutes, walking around?). And, for that matter, in a work from 1987, the skeleton of “Moby-Dick” as revealed in its chapter titles, simply listed minus articles — “Loomings, Carpet-Bag, Spouter-Inn, Counterpane, Breakfast, Street, Chapel. . . . ” — which has an insistent rhythm that Basquiat makes his own, that sounds like him.
He kept his notebooks like a poet would, rather than like his tagging peers, whose notebooks often consisted of endless elaborations on a single tag. Even so, the words aren’t just written; they are sketched. The letters are shapely; their placement on the page matters. (By contrast, the addresses and phone numbers here and there are scrawled.) Basquiat was always a poet and a painter simultaneously, by instinct. In Edo Bertoglio’s film “Downtown 81,” he writes the words ORIGIN OF COTTON on a gray building on East 10th Street, the Con Ed smokestacks looming in the distance. The words and their setting combine to form a powerful and irreducible poetic image. Each letter is perfectly formed and consistent with its partners; he ends the phrase precisely at a seam in the wall.
The poetry in the notebooks, fragmentary as it is, constitutes the raw material he would break down further for the paintings, in which phrases are replaced with words: single words, lists, scatterings, agglomerations. These are more efficient, and allow for more ambiguity. He liked to see words at play, populating the surface of a painting like signs on a busy street, their visual rhythm syncopated with their verbal percussion. The words form a diary and a map and a vast inventory of names and dates and lists and historical connections. Sometimes he sketched complex matters with remarkable economy — as in the 1983 painting that sets out the passage from Africa to slave ship to “Undiscovered Genius of the Mississippi Delta” as a kind of textbook page run riot — and sometimes he addressed more elusive matters in huge open-ended rebus-like structures. The notebooks were his laboratory and outflow, predictive less of the specific contents of paintings than of their overall gestalt. It is all flour from the same mill. Reading them puts you in the world of the paintings through sound alone:
THIS BUM NAMED BALTIMORE
THIS A VAGRANT NAMED CHICAGO
ALOT OF BOWERY BUMS USED TO BE EXECUTIVES
Read more at: http://tmagazine.blogs.nytimes.com/2015/03/05/jean-michel-basquiat-noteb...