New Art — From the August 2015 issue

New Art

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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?

Clockwise from top left: Untitled (Ink Drawing), 1981, sumi ink on paper; untitled notebook page, 1981–84, wax crayon on ruled notebook paper; untitled notebook page, 1980–81, ink on ruled notebook paper

Clockwise from top left: Untitled (Ink Drawing), 1981, sumi ink on paper; untitled notebook page, 1981–84, wax crayon on ruled notebook paper; untitled notebook page, 1980–81, ink on ruled notebook paper

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.

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