ExhibitionsBasquiat: The Unknown Notebooks
Past Exhibition

Basquiat: The Unknown Notebooks

February 28 – May 29, 2016

Basquiat: The Unknown Notebooks provides an unprecedented opportunity to peek inside an artist’s mind. These eight rare notebooks can be seen up close, sequentially, and in context with some of Basquiat’s major works. Come and experience his extraordinary talent for integrating word and image.

Untitled Notebook #1 (Cover), 1980–1981

Jean-Michel Basquiat
Mixed media on board
Collection of Larry WarshBasquiat used ordinary composition notebooks, with marbled black-and-white paperboard covers and blue-lined paper bound through the fold. He used these notebooks to draw and write in his own signature style. He generally left some of the pages blank and rarely used the left-hand side. The pages he did use include everything from subjects that appear in his more elaborate paintings, such as crowns and human figures, to everyday information such as lists, names, and telephone numbers.

Notebook Front 1169x1480.jpg

Untitled Notebook #1, 1980–1981

Jean-Michel Basquiat
Ink marker, wax crayon, and ink on ruled notebook paper
Collection of Larry WarshA number of Basquiat’s notebook entries take the form of lists. He included phrases, facts, and observations that appear to be drawn from many different sources and the artist’s own imagining, as in the list that appears on the first page of this notebook from 1980–1981. Seemingly disconnected words, characters, and themes may appear within a single entry and in several instances fragments of narratives repeat within the pages of a notebook and from one notebook to another. Working through juxtaposition and repetition, and carefully arranging and manipulating his texts for graphic effect, Basquiat designed narrative collages of ideas.

List 1152x1480.jpg

Untitled Notebook #2, 1980–1981

Jean-Michel Basquiat
Ink marker, wax crayon, and ink on ruled notebook paper
Collection of Larry WarshBasquiat used language poetically, choosing words for their descriptive as well as lyric qualities and combining his own words with texts appropriated from his surroundings. Attuned to the rhythm and musical qualities of words, Basquiat emphasized repetition and experimentation, testing letters and words for both their sounds and constellations of meaning.

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Al Jolson, 1981

Jean-Michel Basquiat
Oil stick on paper
Brooklyn Museum, Gift of Estelle Schwartz, 87.47The black person is the protagonist in most of my paintings. I realized that I didn’t see many paintings with black people in them.—Jean-Michel Basquiat

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Untitled Notebook #3, 1980–1981

Jean-Michel Basquiat
Ink marker, wax crayon, and ink on ruled notebook paper
Collection of Larry WarshNative American subjects recur in Basquiat’s notebooks and other works, as in the images of tepees found in the notebooks from 1980 to 1981. Acutely aware of histories of racial inequality, Basquiat identified with Native Americans and referenced indigenous cultures throughout his production. The simplified form of the tepee often represents Native Americans in Basquiat’s work.

Teepee 1131x1480.jpg

Untitled Notebook #5, ca. 1987

Jean-Michel Basquiat
Wax crayon on ruled notebook paper
Collection of Larry WarshThe copyright symbol first appeared in Basquiat’s work following the tag SAMO© that he used with collaborator Al Diaz in their early graffiti writing in Lower Manhattan. Basquiat continued to use the symbol throughout his personal notebook texts and larger compositions as a gesture of reclaiming words and ideas for his own use and as a commentary on consumer culture.The © symbol can be seen on numerous pages in this notebook from around 1987. In the narrative poem A Prayer, for example, Basquiat alludes to the biblical story of Creation with the phrase “It was good” in quotation marks, followed by a copyright symbol. The combination is jarring set against the references to nicotine and asbestos.

Prayer 1147x1480.jpg

Untitled Notebook #5, ca. 1987

Jean-Michel Basquiat
Wax crayon on ruled notebook paper
Collection of Larry WarshI cross out words so you will see them more. The fact that they are obscured makes you want to read them.—Jean-Michel Basquiat

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Untitled (Cadmium), 1984

Jean-Michel Basquiat
Oil, oil stick, and acrylic on canvas
High Museum of Art, Atlanta, purchase in honor of Lynne Browne, President of the Members Guild, 1992–1993, with funds from Alfred Austell Thornton in memory of Leila Austell Thornton and Albert Edward Thornton, Sr., and Sarah Miller Venable and William Hoyt Venable, 1993.3Jean Michel Basquiat drew his cryptic visual vocabulary from numerous sources ranging from ancient Egyptian art to books to the symbols of the Depression-era hobo code. Images of the Sacred Heart, a Catholic symbol of pain and suffering, symbolize personal anguish and the artist’s Haitian heritage. Basquiat continually juxtaposed such emblems in different combinations as if they were phrases of a personal language, like a visual diary.

1993.3 Basquiat Crop O2 1336x1480.jpg

Untitled, 1980

Jean-Michel Basquiat
Mixed media on paper
Private collectionThe text in this drawing features the fictional character Jimmy Best, who first appeared as a subject in Basquiat’s early street writing as well as in several works the artist produced between 1980 and 1981. Jimmy Best is often interpreted as being a young African American down on his luck (on his back) struggling to overcome his delinquent past (his “childhood files”).

Jimmy Best 1109x1480.jpg

Every line means something. —  Jean

Michel Basquiat


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.
About the Notebooks
The total number of notebooks Basquiat created remains unknown, but the eight examples in the exhibition, produced between 1980 and around 1987, point to a consistent and deliberate practice that relates to the artist’s larger studio work in illuminating ways.
His choice of readily available composition books is in keeping with Basquiat’s interest in everyday objects. Even when he could have afforded more durable materials, he continued to use these inexpensive composition books, available at dime stores and corner delis. In composing the notebooks, Basquiat generally left the reverse side of each page blank. When bound, this page layout allowed the written page to function independently as a work of art.

Basquiat’s controlled penmanship and purposeful use of all capital letters give the notebook writings an ornamental appearance that sets them apart from mundane note taking or traditional sketches. While Basquiat’s notebooks often contain words and ideas also found in his larger works, the notebooks should be considered autonomous works exploring personal process rather than as preparatory studies for larger compositions.
Jean-Michel Basquiat
Born and raised in the Brooklyn neighborhoods of Park Slope, East Flatbush, and Boerum Hill, Jean-Michel Basquiat (1960–1988) was the son of a Haitian-born father and a Brooklyn-born mother of Puerto Rican descent. At an early age, he showed a talent for drawing, which his mother encouraged with visits to local museums. When he was six, she enrolled him as a Junior Member at the Brooklyn Museum.
Basquiat first gained public attention as a graffiti poet and musician while still a teenager. By age twenty, he started selling paintings in galleries throughout lower Manhattan. Collectors began buying his art, and his gallery shows quickly sold out. His work was admired for its originality, emotional depth, use of unique symbols and imagery, and formal strengths in color, composition, and drawing. Jean-Michel Basquiat’s career spanned the late 1970s through the 1980s until his death in 1988 at age twenty-seven.
Companion Exhibition
To accompany Basquiat: The Unknown Notebooks, the High has gathered a group of Basquiat’s paintings on view on the Skyway Level of the High’s Wieland Pavilion. Nearly thirty years after his death, Jean-Michel Basquiat (born Brooklyn, 1960; died Manhattan, 1988) remains one of the most iconic and influential artists of his generation. Never formally trained in art, Basquiat began his career at age sixteen when he and his friend Al Diaz began spray-painting words and phrases under the pseudonym SAMO© in and around New York City.
Enigmatic and often amusing, the tone of Basquiat’s early graffiti work is reflected in this companion exhibition. The paintings on view address the artist’s biography and demonstrate his purposeful use of childlike imagery and unconventional, cast-off materials. Among these paintings is an important collaborative work with fellow artist and celebrity Andy Warhol. This jointly realized print and painting reflects Basquiat’s deep collaborative artistic practice and the importance of dialogue, whether between artists, cultures, or histories, that inform his work.