Basquiat is ‘just like us’ - only better - in visiting exhibition

The late artist’s notebooks open to the public in The High’s new series.

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Jean-Michel Basquiat is a name any casual art fan knows (proper annunciation is another story), so it seems reasonable to expect The High’s new exhibition, Basquiat: The Unknown Notebooks, will be monstrously popular when it opens to the public Sun., Feb. 28. The collection pulls pages from the late artist’s personal notebooks kept between 1980 and 1987, displaying single sheets of paper as independent works behind thick flanks of glass. Seeing the broad scope splayed in meditated patterns is almost overwhelming.

The pages, neatly excised from Harriet the Spy-style composition books, hold the young man’s private musings and early sketches of creative ideas. It’s a deeply personal show.

Basquiat is rightfully celebrated as a bad-ass in the contemporary art world, bleeding into high ranks of applause in the hip-hop community, too. He got a renowned stamp of approval from Andy Warhol in the 1980s when stopping him at a restaurant to share work — that takes balls. That takes a hustler. And hustle he did before tragically parting from our mortal realm after a heroin overdose in ‘88, effectively joining the ranks of other visionaries in the legendary 27 Club. Basquiat, no matter how you cross-examine him, was a bad-ass; a talented dude who worked really hard to make really big things happen for himself, simultaneously paving the way to also pull up fellow African-American artists. That’s huge.

All that being said, this collection is incredibly revealing. Jumbles of words, the artist’s signature vertical vertices-less Es, and aimless, free doodles litter the unassuming lined pages. It’s evidence of the prolific creative just riffing behind the scenes, teasing out the eggshell foundation of an idea in what he assumed was a space, private space. 

Modern Hollywood celebrities are tasked to navigate swarms of paparazzi, hoards of folks professionally invested to document the “just like us” elements of these stars. The ’80s, Basquiat’s time, may have had some similar interests in capturing such moments, but it was nothing like today. Even now, you don’t see TMZ putting Jenny Holzer’s gym ensemble on blast. No one serves up hot takes on who Saeed Jones may be bedding. That kind of field-leveling coverage for creatives didn’t exist during Basquiat’s lifetime and hopefully will continue to not exist during ours.

However, this voyeuristic peak into an artistic genius’ dense, complicated mind is, in a way, of the same camp as “just like us” tabloids. It makes the gargantuan contemporary maestro seem a touch more relatable, as viewers are invited to parse through half-baked lines of prose, weirdo little scribblings, the start of “That Mysterious ‘S’ Thing We Used to Draw” (above). 

I can’t and don’t want to imagine Basquiat in the Twitter age, tweeting a new street mural or Snapchatting a “story” of himself reciting an early poem, despite the tempting promise of learning more about our hero. The authenticity of one’s online presence in general is a facade, anyway. Instead, through The Unknown Notebooks, we get an authentic glimpse into Basquiat’s very private, cozy universe — one he never thought we’d see. One he never thought maybe anyone would see. Yet here we are with the extreme privilege to see the man as what he essentially was at his core: a man. A man with a vision and the audacity to chase it.

Basquiat: The Unknown Notebooks opens to the public Sun., Feb. 28, and runs through May 29.