My Experience of Discovery with Jean-Paul Basquiat's Notebooks

By Michael Kelly

"In my opinion, an individual without any love of the arts cannot be considered completely civilized. At the same time, it is extremely difficult, and sometimes impossible, to interest people in works of art unless they can see them and know something about them."

—J. Paul Getty, 1965

In a continuing discourse on Art and where to begin finding yours. I would like to present a post by my friend Michael Kelly who, among other things, is a technical business & educational systems creator. -Calvin

On my first visit to the High Museum’s exhibit of Jean-Michel Basquiat’s “Unknown Notebooks” here in Atlanta, I was disappointed. Close to a hundred pages from the notebooks were displayed in the usual waist-high display cases in two large galleries; it was a very mixed bag: some were interesting, but most seemed to be the product of someone playing with one or two words, or a few lines. Here’s an example:

colors with numbers on the back
brooming into mezzo /aspuria-

You have to picture a page with just these two lines on the top the rest blank. Insight, anyone? It’s true that this is the kind of private noodling that art-history scholars love to sift through, but why was it trumpeted as providing insight into Jean-Michel’s art for the rest of us?

Before saying more about my visits, you should know that this is a traveling exhibit that may come to a Museum near you. It came to the High from the Brooklyn Museum, where it was first organized, and where an important Basquiat show was mounted in 2005. I wanted to see Basquiat’s notebooks because of seeing and enjoying other artists’ notebooks, and because his art is baffling to me. While some of his pieces have a very strong visceral impact, I draw a blank when I try to understand why; many of his pieces hardly register as art, which of course is hardly unique to Basquiat. Although I’ve spent a good number of years in New York’s many museums and galleries enjoying and learning about all kinds of art, especially modern art, I find it difficult to sort out what is going on in any given Basquiat painting—and if you are familiar with his work, you know that there’s typically a lot going on. He put an enormous amount of energy into his work, which attracted me and affected me, but it was also clear that I had very little resonance with what was actually being depicted in the paintings.

Although I left the exhibit disappointed, I was actually still processing a lecture by Franklin Sirmans on Basquiat and his notebooks which I’d attended earlier in the evening. Basquiat was born in New York City on December 22, 1960 and died there in 1988. He emerged as an artist in the 80s, and some of the key points of reference in Mr. Sirmans’ talk were the cultural transformations that Jean-Michel was immersed in during this period: rap music and other kinds of street art, most notably for Jean-Michel graffiti. Where he emerged was in Manhattan’s famous downtown gallery scene, which was scruffy, energetic and Punk.

Discovering that the Notebooks show was closing in a matter of days, I decided to give it one more try. The second time I could feel the pieces start to come together. I realized that I was reading the words on the page in a literal way, as if they were orphans from a story or that he started describing something and kept getting interrupted. In other words, I was reading like I would read my notebook, not like the words of a graffiti artist! And not words from a street-art, rap-inflected view of the world. These neatly printed words were like bits of poems: creating visual imagery in the mind’s eye; testing out how they looked on the page; and experimenting with how they sounded. Once I made that shift, the notebooks came alive for me. I still don’t know what “colors with numbers on the back” means, but as poetry it comes alive: maybe a colored ticket or artist’s paints? And “brooming into Mezzo”—I get that he’s playing with word-sounds: booming into…, brrrroooming into…. I began to peer down at each page, trying to free-associate with each one. It was an intense kind of fun, and had the side-effect of creating a backed up line of museum visitors.

My discovery was to see the notebook pages more like a street-smart graffiti artist with an attitude and a lyrical gift with words as images. It takes time to see something in a new way because we don’t have any indication that we are seeing in a way at all and don’t have a conscious way to change it even if we want to. But despite our habitual ways of seeing, that ones we don’t know are ways, with lots of inputs and a willing attitude our brains are able to process things differently. So be on the lookout for possible visual shifts, and then pay attention when what you obviously see is raw fish—try to get your brain to show you sushi!

Michael Kelly can be contacted thorough his blog Explorations.