Friday January 20, 2017
Tags for: The Cleveland Museum of Art Presents Basquiat: The Unknown Notebooks
  • Press Release

The Cleveland Museum of Art Presents Basquiat: The Unknown Notebooks

exterior of the CMA building

Exhibition Opens with a Free Community Day, Jan. 22

Cleveland, OH (January 20, 2017)– Brooklyn-born artist Jean-Michel Basquiat filled notebooks with poetry, wordplay, sketches and personal observations ranging from street life and popular culture to themes of race, class and world history. Basquiat: The Unknown Notebooks is the first major exhibition featuring eight of these notebooks with over 140 pages of rarely seen documents, along with 50 related works on paper and large-scale paintings. Basquiat: The Unknown Notebooks also features works exclusive to this venue including two large-scale, landmark paintings on loan from the Broad Art Foundation, Los Angeles, as well as an exquisite example of Basquiat’s drawings, borrowed from the Cleveland-based Progressive Insurance Corporation. Basquiat: The Unknown Notebooks is organized by the Brooklyn Museum, and is on view in the Kelvin and Eleanor Smith Foundation Exhibition Gallery at the Cleveland Museum of Art. Opening January 22 with a free community day from 10–5, the exhibition is on view through April 23, 2017. Cleveland is the final venue and offers the last opportunity to view Basquiat: The Unknown Notebooks

A self-taught artist with wide-ranging interests, Basquiat was influenced by comics, advertising, popular culture, African American history and everyday life. Language and words are integral to Basquiat’s notebooks and the large-scale figurative paintings for which he is best known. Handwritten texts run throughout his diverse production, blurring the lines between writing and drawing, and between drawing and painting. While the total number of notebooks created by Basquiat remains unknown, the ones presented here reflect the originality of Basquiat’s thinking and the diversity of his subjects. Basquiat: The Unknown Notebooks emphasizes the distinct interplay of text and images in Basquiat’s art, providing unprecedented insight into the importance of language in the artist’s process. 

“We are pleased to begin a new year with an exciting exhibition featuring the work of Jean-Michel Basquiat, one of the best-known artists of his generation,” said William Griswold, director of the Cleveland Museum of Art. “The exhibition provides an in-depth look into Basquiat’s artistic process, and gives visitors the opportunity to see this influential artist’s intimate thoughts and rarest work.” 

Basquiat had a prolific career, producing some 600 paintings, 1,500 drawings and a small group of sculptures and mixed-media work before his death in 1988 at the age of 27. His life and meteoric rise to fame has become legendary, both within the art world and in popular culture—mythologized in films and referenced by hip-hop and rap artists. Basquiat first came to public attention in the late 1970s for the aphorisms he spray-painted around lower Manhattan under the pseudonym SAMO©. In 1978 Basquiat moved to Manhattan, lived on the streets and with friends, famous and not, and sold handmade postcards. Basquiat exhibited his art publicly for the first time in 1980 at the popular, multi-artist Times Square Show, and his career as a studio artist and international celebrity followed a rapid trajectory from that point onward.

“This exhibition provides a rare opportunity to understand better how Basquiat used the pages of his notebooks to find new ideas and ways of expression. At the same time one realizes that he conceived some of them as works of art in their own right, illustrating his talent in processing what surrounded him and incorporating it into his unique artistic language,” said Reto Thüring, curator of contemporary art.

Basquiat followed a specific format for his notebook texts, which were written mostly in black ink in block capital lettering similar to that of his street graffiti. Writing only on the right-hand pages, leaving the reverse sides blank, he used color sparingly in the notebooks, with a few exceptions. Early sketches of subjects that recur in later works, such as tepees, skeletal faces and crowns, appear in the earliest notebooks from 1980–81. The notebook writings range from extended narrative poems and wordplay to observations of New York’s street life, along with lists of celebrities and incidental notes from the artist’s personal life. As in his paintings, fragments of found texts appear throughout the notebooks, incorporating street signage, news stories and references from literature and the Old Testament. Other pages reflect Basquiat’s overriding interest in highlighting racial discrimination and acknowledging the important contributions of African Americans and other people of color, as well as his interests in music, world history and popular culture. 

Basquiat: The Unknown Notebooks will also include the film A Conversation with Jean-Michel Basquiat that will play continuously in the exhibition throughout the run of the show. Directed and produced by Tamra Davis (American, born 1962), this film is based on Davis’s candid interview with the artist near the end of his life. In the video Basquiat speaks on such issues as his childhood, feelings of alienation and current art world success.

The eight notebooks in the exhibition and several other works come from the collection of Larry Warsh, a New York-based publisher and early collector of Basquiat works, who previously served as a member of the Basquiat authentication committee.

Visitors have the opportunity to see the exhibition for free during the Basquiat: The Unknown Notebooks Opening Day Celebration on Sunday, January 22, from 10–5. The museum will offer art activities, refreshments and a special pop-up exhibition in the atrium with artwork created by students in Kent State University’s Leading for Social Justice course.

Highlights in Basquiat: The Unknown Notebooks


Untitled (Crown), 1982. Jean-Michel Basquiat (American, 1960–1988). Acrylic, ink, and paper collage on paper; 20 x 29 in. Private collection, courtesy of Lio Malca. Copyright © Estate of Jean-Michel Basquiat, all rights reserved. Licensed by Artestar, New York. Photo: 

One of his most characteristic symbols, Basquiat frequently employed the crown throughout his early work. Invoking the notion of royalty (and the inherent elitism and exclusion brought with it) in graffiti and his paintings, Basquiat suggests that he himself might be the next in line to rule. 

Al Jolson

Al Jolson, 1981. Jean-Michel Basquiat (American, 1960–1988). Oilstick on paper; 24 x 18 in. Brooklyn Museum, Gift of Estelle Schwartz, 87.47. Copyright © Estate of Jean-Michel Basquiat, all rights reserved. Licensed by Artestar, New York. Photo: Jonathan Dorado, Brooklyn Museum 

Basquiat’s work directly questions the role that race plays within our society. This example features a roughly hewn face rendered in black oilstick under the name “Al Jolson,” a white American entertainer who gained renown in the early 20th century for his outré performances in blackface. 

all beef

All Beef, 1983. Jean-Michel Basquiat (American, 1960–1988). Oil, acrylic, oilstick, and nail on canvas mounted on wood; 72 3/4 x 39 1/8 x 21 1/2 in. Private collection, courtesy of Lio Malca. Copyright © Estate of Jean-Michel Basquiat, all rights reserved. Licensed by Artestar, New York. Photo:


This upright painting is characteristic of Basquiat’s works that defy the traditional conventions of painting. Basquiat heavily revised many of his works as they were being created, leaving a trace of their own making. Each side of the painting acts as a foil for the other with color, decisive line, and sharply crossed-out text.

Untitled Notebook (front cover)

Untitled Notebook (front cover), 1980–81. Jean-Michel Basquiat (American, 1960–1988). Mixed media on board; 9 5/8 x 7 5/8 x 1/4 in. Collection of Larry Warsh. Copyright © Estate of Jean-Michel Basquiat, all rights reserved. Licensed by Artestar, New York. Photo: Sarah DeSantis, Brooklyn Museum

The eight examples of notebooks on view in Basquiat: The Unknown Notebooks, produced between 1980 and about 1987, point to a consistent and deliberate practice that relates to the artist’s larger studio work in illuminating ways.

Basquiat’s choice of readily available composition books keeps within the artist’s interest of everyday objects. Even when he could have afforded more durable materials, he continued to use the inexpensive composition book, available at dime stores and corner delis. In composing these notebooks, Basquiat generally left the reverse side of each page blank. This format creates a clean, open space facing each text and allows each page to function independently.

Basquiat’s controlled penmanship and conscious use of all capital letters give the notebook writings an ornamental appearance that sets them apart from mundane note taking or traditional sketches. Best understood as autonomous works of art rather than preparatory studies for larger compositions, the notebooks often contain words and ideas that are not found in Basquiat’s larger works.


Tickets for Basquiat: The Unknown Notebooks are $10 for adults; seniors and college students $8; children ages 6–17 $5; children 5 and under free. Museum members free; member guests $5.

Exhibition Catalogue

The exhibition is accompanied by a 72-page, fully illustrated catalogue, Basquiat: The Unknown Notebooks, published by the Brooklyn Museum and Skira Rizzoli. This catalogue shines new light on Basquiat’s career and critical place in contemporary art history, and includes essays by Dieter Buchhart, guest curator of Basquiat: The Unknown Notebooks at the Brooklyn Museum; Henry Louis Gates, Jr., Alphonse Fletcher University Professor and Director of the W. E. B. Du Bois Institute for African and African American Research at Harvard University; Franklin Sirmans, Department Head and Curator of Contemporary Art at the Los Angeles County Museum and a co-curator of the Brooklyn Museum’s acclaimed 2005 exhibition Basquiat; and Christopher Stackhouse, a Brooklyn-based writer and visual artist. The catalogue can be purchased for $34.95 at the Cleveland Museum of Art’s store, or online by visiting 

SEE IT FIRST, SEE IT FREE! Member Preview Days

Fri/Jan 20, 5:00–9:00 

Sat/Jan 21, 10:00–5:00 

Become a member and be the first to see Basquiat: The Unknown Notebooks for FREE. Members of the Cleveland Museum of Art receive discounted or free admission to the museum’s special events and exhibitions.


Basquiat: The Unknown Notebooks Opening Day Celebration 

Sunday, January 22, 10:00–5:00, Ames Family Atrium 

Be the first to see the exhibition with FREE admission all day, and enjoy art activities, refreshments and a special pop-up exhibition with artwork created by students in Kent State University’s Leading for Social Justice course.

Free admission to Basquiat: The Unknown Notebooks, 10:00–5:00

Leading for Social Justice pop-up exhibition, 10:00–5:00

Art activities, 11:00–4:00 

Refreshments, 2:00–4:00

For the past five years, students in the Kent State Educational Administration program’s Leading for Social Justice course have partnered with local artists to create works of art exploring issues they face in their teaching practice. The inequities past students have addressed in their artworks include race, ethnicity, socioeconomic status and sexual orientation. This year, the students used the notebooks of Jean-Michel Basquiat as inspiration for their own artmaking and these works will be on view in the atrium during the opening weekend of Basquiat: The Unknown Notebooks, January 20–22.

MIX: Expression 

Thursday, February 9, 6:00–10:00 

Explore the power of words and art in this special Thursday MIX––we’re opening the museum up on a special night just for MIX attendees. Share your poems, stories and more at an open mic in the galleries, and check out the new special exhibition Basquiat: The Unknown Notebooks. 

MIX is an 18 and over event. $10 in advance, $15 at the door. CMA members FREE. 

Admission to Basquiat: The Unknown Notebooks is included in the price of the MIX ticket.


Downtown 81 Outtakes 

Now through April 23, 2017

Video Project Room | Gallery 224b


In 1977, at the age of 17, Basquiat began collaborating with his friend Al Diaz as SAMO©, spray-painting aphorisms around lower Manhattan. With poetic and critical messages such as SAMO© AS AN END TO MINDWASH RELIGION, NOWHERE POLITICS, AND BOGUS PHILOSOPHY, the tag SAMO© became a familiar part of the culture of lower Manhattan in the late 1970s.

These film clips were shot in 1980–81 during the filming of New York Beat (released in 2000 as Downtown 81). The film was loosely based on the downtown art scene, with Basquiat playing a street artist. The soundtrack for these short outtakes is music by Gray, the noise band that Basquiat formed in 1979 with Michael Holman, Shannon Dawson, Vincent Gallo, Wayne Clifford, and Nicholas Taylor.

This film is part of the exhibition Basquiat: The Unknown Notebooks, January 22 through April 23, in the Smith Foundation Exhibition Gallery, lower level.

Downtown 81 Outtakes, 2001

Film, color, sound; 3 min., 35 sec.

Directed by Edo Bertoglio (Swiss, born 1961)

Produced by Maripol and Glenn O’Brien

Written by Glenn O’Brien

Soundtrack by Gray

Courtesy of Maripol

Jean-Michel Basquiat: The Radiant Child

Wednesday, March 1, 7:00, Friday, March 3, 7:00

Morley Lecture Hall

Directed by Tamra Davis. New York City’s late, celebrated African American painter who is the subject of a current CMA exhibition is profiled by one of his friends in this revelatory documentary. (USA, 2010, color, Blu-ray, 93 min.)

Admission is $9; CMA members, seniors 65 & over, and students $7


Friday, March 24, 7:00, Sunday, March 26, 1:30

Morley Lecture Hall 

Directed by Julian Schnabel. With Jeffrey Wright, David Bowie, Dennis Hopper, Gary Oldman, et al. Painter and moviemaker Julian Schnabel dramatizes the life and meteoric rise of fellow New York City Neo-expressionist artist Jean-Michel Basquiat in this acclaimed biographical film with an all-star cast. (USA, 1996, color, 35mm, 108 min.) 

Special admission $11; CMA members, seniors 65 & over, students $8; no vouchers or passes.

Basquiat: The Unknown Notebooks is organized by the Brooklyn Museum and is curated by Dieter Buchhart, guest curator, with Tricia Laughlin Bloom, former Associate Curator of Exhibitions, Brooklyn Museum. Special thanks to Larry Warsh and Lio Malca.



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