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Basquiat’s Notebooks

Words and knowledge, scratched and sampled
Dieter Buchhart, Curator and guest author
December 16, 2016

Jean-Michel Basquiat in His Great Jones Street Studio, New York, 1987. Tseng Kwong Chi (Chinese-Canadian-American, born Hong Kong, 1950–1990). Chromogenic print; 127 x 127 cm. Muna Tseng Dance Projects, New York & Eric Firestone Gallery, East Hampton, New York. © 1987 Muna Tseng Dance Projects, Inc., New York. www.tsengkwongchi.com

A pen glides across the surface of a piece of paper. Lines can form letters, which in turn, when arranged in a sequence, become words. They are signs that can be randomly combined but only result in meaning when they follow certain rules of language. And yet Jean-Michel Basquiat interrupts the flow of his line by starting each letter anew as he writes words, phrases, and texts in block-capital letters. His line follows the rules of writing and is subject to a context of meaning. The line itself remains a graphic element, however, that is randomly variable, with the letter E frequently appearing as [a stack of three horizontal lines with no vertical connector]. The implicit repetition of letters and letter combinations is rhythmic, often ornamental.

The curator Klaus Kertess wrote of Basquiat: “In the beginning of his creation, there was the word. He loved words for their sense, for their sound, and for their look; he gave eyes, ears, mouth—and soul—to words. He liked to say he used words like brushstrokes.”1 For drawing is the foundation of Basquiat’s artistic practice:2 drawn letters, words, lists, and phrases are often an integral component of his work. His notebooks undoubtedly form an important source for understanding what he sought to convey in his art. Not only does an in-depth study of the notebooks close a gap in the research to date, but it also provides a new perspective on Basquiat’s work and its place in art history. His notebooks are not sketchbooks in the classical sense, and they can be attributed an artistic status all their own.

A notebook, defined as “a small book with blank or ruled pages for writing notes in,”3 is an easily handled object for everyday use. Whether these quotidian objects have an artistic significance depends on their use. In order to understand the unique character of the notebook drawings as works in Basquiat’s oeuvre, it is helpful to look back to parallels in the work of two seemingly disparate artists, Leonardo da Vinci and Joseph Beuys. The pages of Leonardo’s notebooks—such as the Codex Arundel, which was bound together from loose sheets of paper after the artist’s death—are today considered “artworks with a status all their own.”4 The diagrams, drawings, and brief texts composed in mirror writing (read from right to left) treat a range of subjects, from technology, natural sciences, and art to personal notes and comments.

Jean-Michel Basquiat on the Set of Downtown 81, 1980–81. Edo Bertoglio (Swiss, born 1951). 35 mm slide. © New York Beat Films, LLC. Courtesy Maripol. By permission of the Estate of Jean-Michel Basquiat, all rights reserved

The compilation of Leonardo’s manuscripts and drawings, discovered in 1965 at the Biblioteca Nacional de España in Madrid and published in 1974 as the Codices Madrid, in turn inspired Beuys to create a group of drawings, which he published as an edition in 1975.5 In so doing, Beuys sought to explore how Leonardo would draw “technology if he were alive today.”6 Basquiat’s own interests in history, alchemy, and science seem to echo or sample from several Beuysian works. Like Beuys’s 1975 drawings, Basquiat’s Untitled from 1986 is largely covered with pictograms and symbols that evoke Leonardo’s codices.

Basquiat’s notebooks reveal a similarly omnivorous mind: besides drawings, pictograms, and symbols, they include everything from letters, syllables, words, lists, and poetry to quotidian notes such as shopping lists, addresses, and telephone numbers. In addition, pages with shared authorship or non-attributable contributions can be found. For example, one notebook contains a four-page, detailed discussion about genetic mutations, including a humorous drawing of the transformation of a bird into a kind of mouse, and vice versa. To whom these pages can be attributed remains an open question, although their presence in any case suggests Basquiat’s own broad interest in culture, science, and everyday life. With only a few exceptions, the notebook pages can be attributed to Basquiat, but the outside contributions, probably by acquaintances and friends, also have a place in his understanding of art. For in the downtown New York art scene of the late 1970s and early 1980s, artists engaged widely in interdisciplinary endeavors across painting, performance, music, and film, and collective artistic work was a common practice.7

In all of his work, from notebooks to drawings, collages, paintings, and sculpture, Basquiat included the things that immediately surrounded him, things he happened to find, and things that literally stood in his way. Continuing in the vein of his earlier graffiti, Basquiat transferred his drawings and paintings to the objects and spaces surrounding him. A friend recalled that “Basquiat painted on anything he could get his hands on: refrigerators, laboratory coats, cardboard boxes, and doors.”8

It was almost as if the artist were covering everything around him, from everyday objects to his notebooks, with his art. Friends described him as virtually manic, drawing constantly while sitting on the floor, even while in conversation.9 The phrase SCRATCHING ON THESE THINGS evokes this incessant practice.

Untitled Notebook Page (detail) 1980–81. Jean-Michel Basquiat. Collection of Larry Warsh. © Estate of Jean-Michel Basquiat, all rights reserved. Licensed by Artestar, New York

As Robert Storr put it, “Drawing, for him, was something you did rather than something done, an activity rather than a medium.”10 The act of drawing—which for Basquiat virtually constituted proof of his existence, his desire for art, and his artistic imperative—was of great importance to him. Through drawing, the representation of his everyday being became art. Within this framework, his notebooks offer a particularly significant perspective on his work.

Scratching on These Things”: In the notebooks, we see Basquiat working out the strategy of crossing out text elements to give them additional emphasis. As he explained, “I cross out words so you will see them more: the fact that they are obscured makes you want to read them.”11 The notebook page reading CHEMICAL WATL contains a deleted, fragmented term alluding to “chemical water condition.” In a similar way, in two small-format paintings the artist uses black paint to cross out the phrase TO REPEL GHOSTS. The words disappear under the dry, frayed brushstrokes. After he had already exhibited Untitled (Sugar Ray Robinson) at Fun Gallery in 1982, Basquiat deleted the visual element of his monogram and the date in the lower right corner. The artist “was endlessly crossing out words, writing them again, correcting, emphasizing, obliterating, inexplicably changing the subject, and pulling it all together with a grimacing mask.”12

The notebooks expand our understanding of Basquiat as an artist who takes his words, symbols, and concepts from everything he perceives in his environment with his five senses. It is the appropriation of the everyday, the coincidental, as well as the apparently significant that makes his art unmistakable and unique. His work is based on history and culture, yet he samples from what surrounds him, and from the things he chooses to surround himself with. In his notebooks, he often develops phrases, partial sentences, and fragments of thought that lead from one page to the next and in part to the next notebook. He consciously copies, taking chance as an artistic strategy and transforming the found material, as in the copy-and-paste sampling of the Internet age. And indeed, Basquiat’s aesthetic approach is so contemporary that his works are able to inspire even the most recent generation.

All of Basquiat’s works, including the notebook pages, drawings, and paintings, are linked and have comparable status as independent artworks. Both as objects in their own right and as models for his word-based work in other mediums, his notebooks link Basquiat much more to artists such as Leonardo da Vinci, Joseph Beuys, Hanne Darboven, Alighiero Boetti, and Joseph Kosuth than to the Neue Wilden or Neo-Expressionists with whom he usually is incorrectly associated. There has hardly been an artist who has renewed the history of artistic practice with drawing and the word in such a radical way.   

Untitled (Ink Drawing), 1981. Jean-Michel Basquiat (American, 1960–1988). Sumi ink on paper, 30.5 x 22.9 cm. Private collection. © Estate of Jean-Michel Basquiat, all rights reserved. Licensed by Artestar, New York. Photo: Gavin Ashworth

Adapted from Dieter Buchhart, “Basquiat’s Notebooks: Words and Knowledge, Scratched and Sampled,” in Basquiat: The Unknown Notebooks, ed. Dieter Buchhart and Tricia Laughlin Bloom (New York: Skira Rizzoli; New York: Brooklyn Museum, 2015), 27–47.

1. See also Klaus Kertess, “The Word,” in Jean-Michel Basquiat: The Notebooks, ed. Larry Warsh (New York: Art + Knowledge, 1993), 17.
2. See Dieter Buchhart, “Egon Schiele, Cy Twombly, Jean-Michel Basquiat: It’s All Drawing and the Emancipation of Dissonance,” in Poetics of the Gesture: Schiele, Twombly, Basquiat (New York: Nahmad Contemporary, 2014).
3. The New Oxford Dictionary of English (2001), s.v. “notebook.”
4. See Wolf Stadler et al., eds., Lexikon der Kunst in zwölf Bänden (Erlangen: K. Müller, 1994), 7:252. See also Jonathan Jones, “Leonardo da Vinci’s Notebooks Are Beautiful Works of Art in Themselves,” Guardian, February 12, 2013, http://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/jonathanjonesblog/2013/feb/12/l….
5. Martin Kemp, “Leonardo–Beuys: The Notebook as Experimental Field,” in Joseph Beuys: Drawings after the Codices Madrid of Leonardo da Vinci, ed. Lynne Cooke (New York: Dia Center for the Arts; Düsseldorf: Richter Verlag, 1998), 31–37. 
6. Eugen Blume and Catherine Nichols, eds., Beuys: Die Revolution sind wir (Göttingen: Steidl, 2008), 230. Phrase translated by Brian Currid.
7. Dieter Buchhart, “Kollaborationen als körperliches Zwiegespräch zwischen Respekt und Differenz,” in Ménage à trois: Warhol, Basquiat, Clemente (Bielefeld: Kerber, 2012), 117–34.
8. Franklin Sirmans in conversation with Mary Ann Monforton, January 31, 1992. Quoted in M. Franklin Sirmans, “Chronology,” in Richard Marshall, Jean-Michel Basquiat (New York: Whitney Museum of American Art, 1992), 235.
9. Suzanne Mallouk and Glenn O’Brien, conversations with the author, September 18, 2009.
10. Robert Storr, “Two Hundred Beats per Min,” in Jean-Michel Basquiat: Drawings, ed. John Cheim (New York: Robert Miller Gallery, 1990), n.p.
11. Robert Farriss Thompson, “Royalty, Heroism, and the Streets: The Art of Jean-Michel Basquiat,” in Marshall, Jean-Michel Basquiat, 32.
12. Marc Mayer, “Basquiat in History,” in Basquiat, ed. Marc Mayer (New York: Brooklyn Museum; London: Merrell, 
2005), 50.