Basquiat: The Unknown Notebooks and Astounding Commodification

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African-American, born to African-descended, Francophone and Hispanic Caribbean immigrant parents, Jean-Michel Basquiat was the embodiment of modernity. He is the quintessential romanticized figure of the agonized artist, who died too young. He was prolific during his brief and meteoric career, and remains an invaluable artworld commodity decades after his tragic passing.

Only half joking, I describe the trip from Harlem to Brooklyn as “the Hajj.” It consists of trains that are almost guaranteed to be delayed and messy, ever-mutating transfer routes. It is not a commute for the feint of heart. It feels as arduous and time-consuming as a holy pilgrimage and I don’t embark upon it lightly.

To access the rich and complex mind of Jean-Michel Basquiat – the entryway provided by his art, his notes, his interviews – is well worth the hefty journey. Nutrition bar and water bottle in hand I set out on the trek to the Brooklyn Museum from Upper Manhattan.

On entrance to the show, projections on two opposing walls mirrored a video of Basquiat spray painting an obscure phrase onto a wall. He is charming and aware of the camera.

video still and viewer at "Basquiat: Unkown Notebooks", Brooklyn Museum, April 2015

video still and viewer at “Basquiat: Unkown Notebooks”, Brooklyn Museum, April 2015

The viewer is led into a room with everyday notebook covers enshrined behind glass boxes, on hallowed museum pedestals. No one can accuse the Brooklyn Museum of anything less than paramount presentation. Every single page occupied its own space in the lengthy, glass-topped displays that lined the walls. At one point a humble collection of the private notes of a rising artist, at another, each one a valuable piece of art and history. Picked apart and laid bare, like a body dissected into each of its components and arranged in a slightly macabre but orderly spread. “Why,” I asked myself, guilty of the same hungry voyeurism as every other visitor, “is it okay to have entry into someone’s private, mental meanderings after that person is dead?”

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I have been the ‘celebrity tourist’, visiting graves and previous dwellings of the notable who lived and created before I did. I have scanned private correspondence made available to the public, items of clothing and other personal affects, been tempted (and sometimes succumbed to the urge) to purchase tacky souvenirs that make me feel forever connected to the exaltation that this person’s art or life brings to my spirit.

Yet walking through the impressive exhibition, Basquiat: The Unknown Notebooks, gobbling up every word, every stroke of brush or pen, delighting in the feeling of time spent with a mindful and charismatic friend whose thoughts flowed freely and openly, I found myself at the sobering conclusion of the exhibition, the “shop.” In this room, I could select a portable conduit for a flattened morsel of that exposed mind – works of art transferred to the surface of anything that could be sold – a pair of flip-flops, a tea set, a t-shirt or even a scented candle (fragrance of choice); books chronicling, analyzing or exploiting the celebrity and notoriety of this brief life; objects that might somehow be related to the tastes of those who enjoy Basquiat, naturally, appropriate for a range of age groups. The store was as carefully curated as the exhibit.

Two times, I sat through the closing interview of the exhibition, on a bench way too close to the massive screen, intensely focused on the low audio that suffered adulteration from chatting visitors. I indulged in it a third time while simultaneously reading through a print-out of the corresponding text. I wandered through the exhibition again, absorbing the complex works, first from a distance and then up close, reveling in the impossible challenge of consuming it all at once. I re-read every page of every notebook, then headed down to the 3rd floor with two poorly scaled museum prints in a massive plastic bag swinging from my arm. Like the thousands of viewers who will inevitably experience this show before it closes, I too could not get enough of Basquiat. To temporarily appease my insatiability, I had purchased a morsel.

I could not help but wonder if we would have had more of him, had the institutions without whose acceptance he floundered, acknowledged his genius within his lifetime.

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