Jean-Michel Basquiat, born in 1960, had a life of 27 years in Brooklyn and Manhattan, although he exhibited in galleries of France, Italy, Los Angeles, Tokyo, Germany, and Abidjan, Ivory Coast, beginning around 1980. In the Brooklyn Museum, my feelings became deeply aroused as I walked through the “Unknown Notebooks Exhibit.” The notebook exhibition idea captured me, I being a journal keeper these many years.
The day before, I viewed one large yellow Basquiat painting at the Whitney Museum of American Art, the newly completed building being quite a work of art in itself, the old uptown building having gone to The Metropolitan Museum of Art. I would not have developed my lasting feelings for Basquiat by viewing the strange yellow painting streaked and messy, paint drips and words cast about the unframed canvas on the wall of the Whitney.
The difference in my engagement with Jean-Michel Basquiat came with watching a video of him being interviewed, he so unusual and cool. I also found a streamed docu-drama starring Jeffrey Wright to watch at home.
I understand how strong a preference for certain paper and writing implements can be. A writer needs the perfect jotter to scratch the pen against. I was smitten with the realization that his aptitude for and love of language kept him buying hundreds of small, lined notebooks. They were named by the brand Marble.
Definitions of the word “marble” may not have escaped Basquiat’s notice (or, the jotters were cheap): 1) to mottle and streak with colors and veins in imitation of marble stone; 2) (slang) a healthy mental state: lucidness, mind, reason, sanity, sense, wit, as in “to lose your marbles” = to go mad, take leave of your senses, and (Australian) “to pass in one’s marble” = to die. Jean-Michel Basquiat wrote in all caps all the time. I came home with a few 14-page 5 X 7 blank notebooks displaying one of his exuberant, wild-eyed males, from the painting Dustheads, 1982, on the front cover, and began practicing writing fast in all caps. The back cover is black with an icon that became associated with the artist– a small, three-pointed crown.
The video of Jean-Michel Basquiat revealed to me a startlingly handsome, young and fresh-seeming man, creative, who had the aplomb to keep silent if a question came that he did not like, a skill I admire. I particularly have come to enjoy the title of that video after studying the artist’s early life. The name of the piece is RADIANT CHILD. Jean-Michel Basquiat grew up with good mothering from Matilde of Puerto Rico, beautiful wife of Gerald, of Haiti, who broadened his brilliance and upper-middle-class privileges in several ways: a child’s membership in the Brooklyn Museum, a Gray’s Anatomy for understanding the body, and literature for understanding culture. Andy Warhol met Matilde and painted her portrait in 1986, 40 X 40 inches.
In the streamed documentary, I particularly liked the response the Basquiat character gave to the aggressive interviewer who said, “Someone has termed you the ‘picaninny of the art world.'” To which Basquiat replied, “Who was that? No. The phrase was the ‘Eddie Murphy of the art world.'” It is interesting to note that the comedian Murphy was born in 1961, one year after Basquait, and also was born in Brooklyn and lived early life there. The character cast as Madonna, close friend, came across too tame in looks.
Jean-Michel Basquiat gave a modern touch to the world of art, as did Keith Haring. A quote by Cathleen McGuigan from the Robert Farris Thompson essay “Activating Heaven: The Incantatory Art of Jean-Michel Basquiat,” from the 1985 exhibition catalog, Mary Boone Gallery of New York, sums up the Basquiat established career: “The extent of Basquiat’s success would no doubt be impossible for an artist of lesser gifts. Not only does he possess a bold sense of color and composition, but, in his best paintings, unlike many of his contemporaries, he maintains a fine balance between seemingly contradictory forces: control and spontaneity, menace and wit . . . . Still, the nature and rapidity of his climb is unimaginable in another era.”
In closing, valuing the imagination so much, I value the uninhibited rule-breaking canon of art, huge and tiny pieces, that he imagined, drew, and painted, images others could not see otherwise. Quotes on imagination abound: Hieronymus Bosch, Flemish painter, said, “Poor is the mind that always uses the ideas of others and invents none of its own.” George Santayana, Spanish-born American philosopher, said, “I have imagination, and nothing that is real is alien to me.” The life of Jean-Michel Basquiat, a life that some describe as creative genius for depiction of difficult messages and signs for American culture, passed through his life too soon. A radiance from the young man, gone these 27 years, continues to enlighten and assist. He is buried at Greenwood Cemetery in Brooklyn.