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A look at artist-legend Basquiat’s previously unseen notebooks

The Brooklyn Museum rediscovers some 160 pages of sketches and poetry by the street artist turned art star

By Howard Halle
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While it may be a cliché, Jean-Michel Basquiat was the embodiment of an artist who who lived fast, died young and left a beautiful corpse. He perished at age 27 of a heroin overdose, and ascended into legend, becoming the subject of movie about his life and a household name alongside that of his friend, Andy Warhol. Before all that, there was his meteoric rise as a graffiti artist who rocketed to art-world stardom. He wasn’t some talentless fluke who managed to con the right people, either: His paintings—ferociously packed with imagery and texts, and crackling with street smart insights—have stood the test of time.

The seeming spontaneity of his work was one of its hallmarks, but in truth, they were a lot more thought out than some people might imagine. That’s one revelation of the Brooklyn Museum’s "Basquiat: The Unknown Notebooks,” which presents the Brooklyn native’s previously unseen sketches and writings, some 160 pages in all. The show also includes examples of his poetry, demonstrating that he was just as interested in the word as he was in the brush. All in all the show provides a fascinating look into the creative process of an artistic icon.

Tseng Kwong Chi (Chinese-Canadian-American, born Hong Kong, 1950–1990). Jean Michel Basquiat in his Great Jones Street studio, New York, 1987. Chromogenic print, 50 x 50 in. (127 x 127 cm).
Muna Tseng Dance Projects

Tseng Kwong Chi (Chinese-Canadian-American, born Hong Kong, 1950–1990). Jean Michel Basquiat in his Great Jones Street studio, New York, 1987. Chromogenic print, 50 x 50 in. (127 x 127 cm).

Jean-Michel Basquiat (American, 1960–1988). Untitled(Crown), 1982. Acrylic, ink, and paper collage on paper, 20 x 29 in. (50.8 x 73.66 cm).
Private Collection

Jean-Michel Basquiat (American, 1960–1988). Untitled(Crown), 1982. Acrylic, ink, and paper collage on paper, 20 x 29 in. (50.8 x 73.66 cm).

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Jean-Michel Basquiat (American, 1960–1988). Untitled, 1982–83. Oilstick, colored pencil, crayon, and gouache on paper mounted on canvas, 96 x 126 in. (243.8 x 320 cm).
Collection of Fred Hoffman. Copyright © Estate of Jean-Michel Basquiat

Jean-Michel Basquiat (American, 1960–1988). Untitled, 1982–83. Oilstick, colored pencil, crayon, and gouache on paper mounted on canvas, 96 x 126 in. (243.8 x 320 cm).

Jean-Michel Basquiat (American, 1960–1988). Untitled, 1986. Acrylic, collage, and oilstick on paper on canvas, 94 1/8 x 136 2/5 in. (239 x 346.5 cm).
Collection of Larry Warsh. Copyright © Estate of Jean-Michel Basquiat

Jean-Michel Basquiat (American, 1960–1988). Untitled, 1986. Acrylic, collage, and oilstick on paper on canvas, 94 1/8 x 136 2/5 in. (239 x 346.5 cm).

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Jean-Michel Basquiat (American, 1960–1988). Untitled (detail), 1986. Acrylic, collage, and oilstick on paper on
Collection of Larry Warsh. Copyright © Estate of Jean-Michel Basquiat

Jean-Michel Basquiat (American, 1960–1988). Untitled (detail), 1986. Acrylic, collage, and oilstick on paper on canvas, overall 94 1/10 x 136 2/5 in. (239 x 346.5 cm).

Jean-Michel Basquiat (American, 1960–1988). Untitled (alternate view), 1985. Xerox collage on wood box, overall 11 1/8 x 8 1/2 x 8 1/2 in. (28.26 x 21.59 x 21.59 cm).
Collection of Larry Warsh. Copyright © Estate of Jean-Michel Basquiat

Jean-Michel Basquiat (American, 1960–1988). Untitled (alternate view), 1985. Xerox collage on wood box, overall 11 1/8 x 8 1/2 x 8 1/2 in. (28.26 x 21.59 x 21.59 cm).

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Jean-Michel Basquiat (American, 1960–1988). Untitled, 1985. Xerox collage on wood box, 11 1/8 x 8 1/2 x 8 1/2 in. (28.26 x 21.59 x 21.59 cm).
Collection of Larry Warsh. Copyright © Estate of Jean-Michel Basquiat

Jean-Michel Basquiat (American, 1960–1988). Untitled, 1985. Xerox collage on wood box, 11 1/8 x 8 1/2 x 8 1/2 in. (28.26 x 21.59 x 21.59 cm).

Jean-Michel Basquiat (American, 1960–1988). Famous (recto and verso), 1982. Acrylic and Xerox collage on canvas mounted on wood, 72 3/4 x 39 1/8 x 21 1/2 in. (184.8 x 99.4 x 54.6 cm).
Private collection

Jean-Michel Basquiat (American, 1960–1988). Famous (recto and verso), 1982. Acrylic and Xerox collage on canvas mounted on wood, 72 3/4 x 39 1/8 x 21 1/2 in. (184.8 x 99.4 x 54.6 cm).

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Jean-Michel Basquiat (American, 1960–1988). Untitled (Ter Borch), circa 1987–88. Acrylic and oilstick on canvas, 49 1/2 x 39 1/2 in. (125.7 x 100.3 cm).
Estate of Jean-Michel Basquiat. Copyright © Estate of Jean-Michel Basquiat

Jean-Michel Basquiat (American, 1960–1988). Untitled (Ter Borch), circa 1987–88. Acrylic and oilstick on canvas, 49 1/2 x 39 1/2 in. (125.7 x 100.3 cm).

Jean-Michel Basquiat (American, 1960–1988). Untitled (Ideal), 1988. Acrylic and oilstick on canvas, 49 1/2 x 39 1/2 in. (125.7 x 100.3 cm).
Estate of Jean-Michel Basquiat. Copyright © Estate of Jean-Michel Basquiat

Jean-Michel Basquiat (American, 1960–1988). Untitled (Ideal), 1988. Acrylic and oilstick on canvas, 49 1/2 x 39 1/2 in. (125.7 x 100.3 cm).

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Jean-Michel Basquiat (American, 1960–1988). Al Jolson, 1981. Oilstick on paper, 24 x 18 in. (61 x 45.7 cm).
Brooklyn Museum

Jean-Michel Basquiat (American, 1960–1988). Al Jolson, 1981. Oilstick on paper, 24 x 18 in. (61 x 45.7 cm).

Jean-Michel Basquiat (American, 1960–1988). Untitled Notebook Page, 1980–81. Metallic ink and ink wax crayon on ruled notebook paper, 9 5/8 x 7 5/8 in. (24.5 x 19.4 cm).
Collection of Larry Warsh. Copyright © Estate of Jean-Michel Basquiat

Jean-Michel Basquiat (American, 1960–1988). Untitled Notebook Page, 1980–81. Metallic ink and ink wax crayon on ruled notebook paper, 9 5/8 x 7 5/8 in. (24.5 x 19.4 cm).

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Jean-Michel Basquiat (American, 1960–1988). Untitled (Ink drawing), 1981. Sumi ink on paper, 12 x 9 in. (30.5 x 22.9 cm).
Private collection. Copyright © Estate of Jean-Michel Basquiat

Jean-Michel Basquiat (American, 1960–1988). Untitled (Ink drawing), 1981. Sumi ink on paper, 12 x 9 in. (30.5 x 22.9 cm).

Jean-Michel Basquiat (American, 1960–1988). Untitled (Ink drawing), 1981. Sumi ink on paper, 12 x 9 in. (30.5 x 22.9 cm).
Private collection. Copyright © Estate of Jean-Michel Basquiat

Jean-Michel Basquiat (American, 1960–1988). Untitled (Ink drawing), 1981. Sumi ink on paper, 12 x 9 in. (30.5 x 22.9 cm).

See the show

"Basquiat: The Unknown Notebooks"

Art Drawing

This show presents some 160 pages culled from the artist’s notebooks—sketches but also examples of the artist’s poetry and other writings—along with related paintings and works on paper.

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