New Art — From the August 2015 issue

New Art

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Museums,” the art historian Susanne Neubauer wrote, “are the place where things are transformed into objects.” In the case of BASQUIAT: THE UNKNOWN NOTEBOOKS, which is on view at the Brooklyn Museum through August 23, we’re forced to ask whether objects that are shown in an august institution are thereby transformed into art.

The eight notebooks on display were disassembled in the early Nineties by Gerard Basquiat, the artist’s father and the head of his estate, in collaboration with Larry Warsh, a New York–based collector, from whom they are on loan. (Brooklyn Museum conservators maintain that the sheets can easily be rebound.) The 160 pages are arranged in hip-level vitrines or mounted, one by one, on the walls. Most have a single line of text, or a few lines; a handful have sketches in ink or crayon. The show also includes about a dozen large but visually analogous works on paper and canvas. (Selecting these couldn’t have been too difficult, as almost all of Jean-Michel Basquiat’s work features text.) The inclusion of the larger works is meant to illustrate similarity rather than difference, a through-line connecting the contents of the notebooks to what the artist sold during his lifetime.

The show, which was organized by Dieter Buchhart and Tricia Laughlin Bloom, brings to mind DVD extras or the liner notes to deluxe editions of classic albums: bonus material, in this case, to the Brooklyn Museum’s critically acclaimed, blockbuster Basquiat retrospective in 2005. There’s nothing wrong with wanting more — more art, more clues — but the hungry fan might wonder why all this more is appearing. I hope it’s not unduly cynical to point out how financially advantageous — to the estate, to Warsh, to auction houses, potentially — it would be if the notebooks emerged from this exhibition having shed the designation “ephemera” once and for all.

Left: Untitled notebook page, circa 1987, wax crayon on ruled notebook paper. Right: Untitled notebook page, 1980–81, metallic ink and wax crayon on ruled notebook paper. All artwork by Jean-Michel Basquiat; licensed by Artestar, New York City; © The Estate of Jean-Michel Basquiat

Left: Untitled notebook page, circa 1987, wax crayon on ruled notebook paper. Right: Untitled notebook page, 1980–81, metallic ink and wax crayon on ruled notebook paper. All artwork by Jean-Michel Basquiat; licensed by Artestar, New York City; © The Estate of Jean-Michel Basquiat

We pore over the sketches of Leonardo da Vinci in part because he left behind so few finished paintings. The same can’t be said of Basquiat, whose body of work includes 600 paintings and 1,500 drawings, especially impressive numbers considering how brief his career was. Of course, the museum couldn’t have curated a sequel, a retrospective of his second-best paintings, but knowing how many authenticated Basquiats exist in the world makes it difficult not to feel as though our ardor is being preyed upon.

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