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.
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.
Notebooks one through four, which date from 1980 and 1981, are the most densely scribbled in; after that, the contents peter out — a trajectory familiar to anyone who has attempted to self-record with consistency. There are some truly excellent pages: a sketch for what would become Basquiat’s Famous Negro Athletes series; a crowned totem pole emerging from what looks to be a sutured heart; nine consecutive sheets onto which he copied, as if in a trance, the table of contents from Moby Dick.
So much of Basquiat’s appeal lies in his time-traveling posturing: the adult impersonating the child who is in turn impersonating the adult. We can see it in his earliest graffiti — that copyright symbol — and it litters the notebooks: the trademark sign, the 1:1-scale copy of a Monopoly card, the amoebalike drawing of a wax seal beside the words “very official.” Even at Basquiat’s most distracted and least intentional, the basic elements of his visual grammar — even mere marks — were executed with an inimitable hand. There isn’t an awkward gesture in the exhibition.
For all this affirmation of talent, there is nothing terribly revealing here. For better or worse, the most thrilling inclusions are the pages that excite our basest enthusiasms: the moments of charming sloppiness (he misspells his girlfriend’s name) and scraps of once-banal information that the confluence of time, economics, and good press has rendered important: the phone number of Sperone Westwater Gallery, a dashed-off reference to Francesco Clemente.
An exhibition of Basquiat’s most mediocre words and images, one realizes, might have the opposite of its intended effect and instead diminish him in our eyes. Many of the pages are entirely forgettable. And while you can’t exactly blame the curators for including them, the pages on display do create the impression that some kind of unseemly hero worship is going on. Is there nothing Basquiat touched that is anything less than holy?
A little more than a week after Basquiat died, in 1988, at the age of twenty-seven, appraisers from Christie’s stormed his loft on Great Jones Street and found, among other things, finished and unfinished paintings, more than a thousand videotapes, a collection of antique toys, six synthesizers, a closet full of designer suits, and multiple bicycles. Perhaps in 2020 we will have Basquiat: The Unknown VHS Tapes.
There is a long history of this sort of posthumous second-guessing. Virgil’s Aeneid, Kafka’s The Trial, and, more recently, Nabokov’s The Original of Laura were all originally destined for the fire. But at least their authors would have recognized them. These might be imperfect works, unfinished works, works that in their current form would mortify their makers, but they are undeniably works of literature.
Such retroactive and remote anointing is far more difficult in the context of contemporary art, which for the past century has often been the product of speech acts. I am an artist because I say I am. This is art because I say it is. In the case of Basquiat’s notebooks, it’s not the artist’s permission but his definition that is missing. As the years progressed and the notebooks multiplied, Basquiat remained diligent about neither writing nor drawing on both sides of the page. This consistency can be read as proof that he considered the notebooks worthy of exhibition. Or maybe he simply didn’t like to work on a page where the ink had bled through.
We put a great deal of trust in visual artists to correctly distinguish their art from their nonart; it’s one of the most basic ways in which they express their vision. To retroactively call Basquiat’s notebooks art steals his agency — he could have displayed them had he wanted to — and changes our perception of the authenticated work. But to assert that the notebooks are definitely nonart is also, obviously, impossible.
Maybe that’s the meaning of the show’s strange subtitle: only Basquiat could settle this debate, and his verdict is unknown. The curators pose the question anyway. Every answer is potentially wrong, which is as good a reason as any for an artifact — art or not — to be held up for examination.