At PAMM, Basquiat's Rarely Seen Notebooks Reveal How Language Informed His Art

Jean-Michel Basquiat's art has always been steeped in language. From the beginning of a spectacular career that began with graffiti and continued with partnerships that included Andy Warhol and Blondie, he blended art with words. Enigmatic phrases such as "Make soup, build a fort, set that on fire" and "A pin drops like a pungent odor" cropped up on walls and alleys throughout Lower Manhattan and SoHo in the late '70s and early '80s. They were always signed with the mysterious tag "SAMO," a combo of a then-unknown teenaged Basquiat and childhood friend Al Diaz.

When the self-taught Basquiat broke off from Diaz and blossomed into one of the most influential African-American artists of the 20th Century, he continued to incorporate epigrams and poetic phrases into his art. His ambiguously potent play with words would end up defining much of his craft as he created a legacy in the New York art scene of the 1980s.

And now, written words are at the heart of "Jean-Michel Basquiat: The Unknown Notebooks," an exhibit showcasing some 160 pages of the artist's rarely seen composition notebooks, opening Friday at Pérez Art Museum Miami (PAMM).

"Language is one of the most important components in Basquiat's work," says Maria Elena Ortiz, assistant curator at PAMM. "He uses English, Spanish, and Haitian Kreyol — the three most prominent languages he spoke — throughout his paintings."

Basquiat was born in Brooklyn to a Haitian father and Puerto Rican mother. He dropped out of school before meeting Warhol, entering the New York cultural elite, and dying of a heroin overdose at the age of 27. Much like one of his biggest artistic influences, Leonardo da Vinci, Basquiat used notebooks to jot down ideas. There were projects, doodles, poems, sketches, grocery lists, and phone numbers.

The result is that his notebooks are much like his paintings: amalgams of dirty, abstract, postpunk neo-expressionism mixed with his innermost thoughts. They are, in essence, streams of consciousness. There is no form or structure, just fluid thoughts.

"At times, the work alludes to poetry or a certain degree of spoken word," Ortiz says, "and those who will come to see the exhibit will be able to get a more intimate glimpse at Jean-Michel's mindset as an artist and as a person."

His notebooks are much like his paintings: amalgams of dirty, abstract, and postpunk neo-expressionism.

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The exhibition, which was originally showcased at the Brooklyn Museum in 2015, delves into Basquiat's playful use of language as a visual medium. Those who know his work will recall that he purposefully misspelled words and used all caps in many of his paintings. There are visceral political messages about race, culture, and class. They are juxtaposed with mashups of words that make up playful phrases. There's always a connection to the man and his craft.

"They do sometimes come across as random," Ortiz says, "but those who visit the exhibit will definitely get a closer look at his relationship with art and language."

Ortiz says the exhibit also showcases a side rarely seen by fans of Basquiat. "These works point to a very personal side," she says, "especially when he writes in Spanish or Haitian Kreyol. This is where you see more of the artist as a person versus the big-persona artist everyone has come to know."

Visitors will see an early rendering that evolved into his series Famous Negro Athletes. There's also an oil-stick drawing of Al Jolson with Basquiat's trademark bold short strokes and bulging skull-face. And there are childlike doodles such as a drawing of a teepee in green crayon and a sketch of a Monopoly card. There are thoughts on a wide array of subjects, from street life to politics and popular culture, told through verses, one-liners, and poetry.

Basquiat's background will resonate with the multilayered cultures of South Florida. "Like so many who live here, he's someone who comes from somewhere else," Ortiz says. "He speaks more than one language; he has Haitian and Hispanic roots. He's someone who, I think, Miamians can really relate to."

The PAMM exhibit will also display a couple of paintings Basquiat created with pop-art legend, Warhol.

The New York art scene of the '80s was defined by Basquiat's reflective themes of racial and social angst — subjects he would revisit in his paintings until his untimely death in 1988.

"Basquiat is known for his Brooklyn roots, and his work is forever tied to New York, but his experience in relation to the Caribbean and African-American roots formed who he was as an artist," Ortiz says. "I think Miami art lovers can see that and will further explore it within this show."

To celebrate the exhibit's opening, PAMM will host an art talk and discussion Thursday, August 11,featuring Ortiz, museum director Franklin Sirmans, and local artist William Cordova. The evening will also include the Tradisyon Lakou Lakay dance ensemble and DJ Gardy, performing vodou-inspired dances with traditional music from Haiti, Africa, Latin America, and the Caribbean, as well as retro electronic music. The opening festivities kick off at 7 p.m.

"Jean-Michel Basquiat: The Unknown Notebooks"
Thursday, August 11, through October 16 at Pérez Art Museum Miami, 1103 Biscayne Blvd., Miami; 305-375-3000; Admission costs $16; PAMM members get in free.

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Chris Joseph