Visual Arts

Dead art icon’s notebooks offer clues to his genius

A still from “A Conversation with Basquiat” 2006 (Tamra Davis)
A still from “A Conversation with Basquiat” 2006 (Tamra Davis) Courtesy of the artist. By permission of the Estate of Jean-Michel Basquiat, all rights reserved.

Few conventional artworks appear in the Jean-Michel Basquiat show, “Basquiat: The Unknown Notebooks,” at the Pérez Art Museum Miami now. Instead, torn pages of cheap, lined paper, filled with the artist’s scrawled notes and drawings, are lined up across the walls, a reverently framed trail of clues. There are giant photos of the artist, staring watchfully at the camera, and films about his life.

Basquiat is one of the most famous artists in the world today, even more so than during the ’80s, when he was a celebrity almost as well known for his defiant, unconventional persona as he was for the startlingly original work that propelled his meteoric rise. Now he’s the kind of prestige artist he longed to be when he was alive, considered a pivotal figure in late 20th century art, his paintings worth fortunes.

But he’s also become a cultural icon, an emblem of creativity, celebrity, rebellion and race. Basquiat overdosed on heroin in 1988, at just 27, joining the pantheon of live/create-fast, die-young legends like James Dean, Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, Kurt Cobain and Charlie Parker.

His idol status brought some 2,000 people to the show’s opening earlier this month, who streamed through the galleries, jammed the outdoor plaza, and snapped selfies to mark their presence at what was as much cultural event as art exhibit.

“We’re fascinated by those types of stories, this idealist who stands only for what they believe in,” said Franklin Sirmans, director of PAMM. “There’s that macabre sense of ‘this is how we like our artists.’ “

“It’s sad,” ardent Basquiat fan Swanellie Paulin, 31, said at the opening. “But most artists are on that border between creative genius and crazy.”

Even those who don’t know much about Basquiat’s work are drawn to what has become his legend.

“I know he’s an artist, he had drug problems, he hung out with Madonna and Andy Warhol,” said Janessi Garcia, 18, looking at the Basquiat gear in the PAMM gift shop: T-shirts, coffee mugs, $250 sunglasses, and reproductions of the notebooks, complete with stains and scribbled phone numbers. “I like that he did his own thing differently from everybody else and didn’t care about other people’s opinions.

“I’d just like to know why he wrote all these things.”

So would a lot of people.

You won’t find the answers in this show, though it’s filled with fascinating clues. (Sirmans, who studied Basquiat in college and has written a book on the artist, has added works owned by Miami collectors to the original show, organized by the Brooklyn Museum.)

It’s a measure of Basquiat’s allure that an exhibit made up largely of what seems like ephemera — pages torn from the cheap student composition notebooks he filled with the precisely scrawled poems, lists and phrases that fill many of his paintings — could be a blockbuster. They give us a tantalizing glimpse into his mind, simultaneously revealing and enigmatic. One page contains just one word: “Art.” Which may tell us as much as anything else.

“Sometimes we look for reasons and meaning, and maybe there is none other than no one else had done it before,” says Michael Holman, a filmmaker and writer who was a friend of Basquiat’s at the start of his career. “It looked cool. It worked.”

They met at a party Holman threw with other artists in 1979, where Basquiat, a teenage newcomer, proposed they start the band Gray together. (In the punk/experimental art ethos of that time and place, none of them knew how to play an instrument.) Holman and bandmate Nicholas Taylor, who once shared an apartment with Basquiat, found and sold the notebooks in the show to New York collector Larry Warsh.

Basquiat, who loved art since he was a small child, was the son of a Haitian father and Puerto Rican mother. He ran away from his Brooklyn home in his teens and made his way into New York’s downtown art/nightlife scene in the late 70’s by writing cryptic, poetic graffiti, signed SAMO (for Same Old S---), not on subway cars or South Bronx walls, but in the streets of Soho. He started making art, was written up by fascinated, influential critics, befriended Andy Warhol (two of their collaborations are in the PAMM show), and became a hugely successful artist and celebrity. But he also used voluminous amounts of drugs, and struggled with fame, racism, and opportunistic hangers-on.

I was part of the insular downtown nightlife and art scene where Basquiat started, and hung out with him a few times. (We met at Area, a hot club with elaborately creative environments that was a hangout for artists, hipsters, socialites, and pop stars, where he was smoking a huge joint on the dance floor.) I didn’t know him well. But I knew people who did, including Suzanne Mallouk, a key girlfriend who supported him as he was becoming an artist. (That’s her in another page in the notebooks, “Suzane Explained The Film to Me.”) A mutual friend (who dated another Gray bandmate) told stories of how Basquiat filled Mallouk’s apartment with his art, leaving drawings all over the floor, even painting her refrigerator. Later we marveled at how strange it was that people wanted to buy the refrigerator.

At his studio one afternoon, I watched Basquiat flip between drawing and watching TV and talking, seemingly unthinking, without effort. How could those simple-seeming lines be worth millions now, be the focus of so much attention?

Basquiat could seem like he was testing you, messing with you to see how you’d react. He’d say or do something provocative, then wait, face opaque, eyes flat, to see what you would do. Holman first encountered that penetrating stare at the party, where he was interviewing people for a video, only to jerk the microphone away as they began to speak. In response, Basquiat gave him that deadpan stare. “I call it the mirror,” Holman says. “He just drained his face of all judgment, emotion, anything, became a blank slate and you were looking at yourself.”

The first time I went to Basquiat’s home on Great Jones Street, he walked into the studio and started pulling paintings from a rack, asking did I like this one? This one? It seemed more like a challenge than a question.

Those same provocations and doubts are in the notebooks. One page reads:

Ladies + Gentlemen this is your announcer inviting you to another episode of ‘celebrity heroin addict.’

The show that says ‘oh no! Not him’ ‘I had no idea.’

A. Was a junkie

B. Is still a junkie

C. Trying to quit

Another page, labeled “Psalm,” has the lines “This is not in praise of poisoning myself waiting for ideas” and “No one is clean.”

Sirmans, who is from New York, was a teenager when he first encountered Basquiat on the cover of the New York Times Magazine in 1985. He was fascinated by the artist’s poetry, and his references to race, history and music.

“That was the moment of trying to figure out who you were in the world,” Sirmans says. “Basquiat’s work was revelatory to me at that point. It was so specifically of that moment, and at the same time dealing with hundreds of years of history.”

He believes Basquiat’s Haitian and Caribbean heritage (he’d sometimes write in Spanish and Creole) make him particularly relevant to Miami.

“For me this is a show that had to come to Miami,” says Sirmans. “He had an imagination that is very much of Miami.”

At the PAMM opening there seemed to be many who, like Haitian-born Paulin, were drawn by that heritage. “Hearing that this brilliant guy, his father was Haitian — that’s something to be proud of,” Paulin said.

Basquiat’s race was a significant part of his identity and his art, and it plays a complicated role in his iconic status. He is — and was — the first widely famous black Western artist, successful in an art world as white as a gallery wall. But he often couldn’t get a cab in New York, and he never felt (with good reason) fully accepted by an art establishment that always saw him, at least in part, as an instinct-driven child of the streets.

His work is filled with references and comments that foreshadow the current examination of race and identity and even the Black Lives Matter movement. In 1983 Michael Stewart, a young, aspiring black artist whom Mallouk dated during a split with Basquiat, was arrested by New York City transit police for supposedly tagging in a subway station. They beat him into a coma from which he never woke up.

“It could have been me,” was Basquiat’s reaction, who did a painting in Stewart’s honor.

“As a black man, he certainly felt ostracized from the art world, felt like an outsider, felt like a potential victim of the police,” Holman says. “He hit back through his art.”

How would Basquiat feel about his current iconic status? About how his paintings sell for millions, even as Michael Stewart-like scenarios multiply? We’ll never know. Shortly after one of his paintings sold for $57.3 million in May, Mallouk, who probably knew him better than almost anyone else, wrote this on Facebook.

“Is this success? I’m not sure it is. People have been saying how wonderful it is that art is being valued so high. I don’t know. There is something repugnant about it to me. I’m not sure that Jean would have liked this. There is something painfully ironic about it.” She noted that he used to throw $100 bills out the window, and wrote “Not For Sale” on some of his paintings. She was perplexed and disturbed by “the whole complex thing — the marketing of a dead black artist’s works that themselves depict a response to the marketing of the racist white, colonialist world.”

Yet the ways in which the meaning of Basquiat’s work has grown is another measure of his achievement. His doubts and anger, his longing and provocation and fierce sense of irony, his power and instinct and imagination, are still there in his paintings. And in the messages to himself — and now the world — in the notebooks. Even now, Basquiat is giving us that challenging, unknowable “mirror” look. What do we see in him? In his art? And in ourselves?

If You Go

What: Basquiat: The Unknown Notebooks

When: 10 a.m. - 6 p.m. Monday to Tuesday, Friday to Sunday; 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. Thursday, closed Wednesdays, through Oct. 16

Where: Perez Art Museum Miami, 1103 Biscayne Blvd., Miami

Info: $16; $12 for students, seniors, and youth 7 to 18; free for children under 6; or 305-375-3000