The Unknown Notebooks
Through August 23, 2015!
Content and images by: Caressa Losier
Back to the Brooklyn Museum
Since my exploration of their spring exhibit, Killer Heels, I have been anxiously awaiting the moment I’d set foot back into the Brooklyn Museum for another incredible adventure. This time around, shiny brand names like Christian Louboutin and Vivienne Westwood were traded in for vintage brand logos we all love like Campbell’s Soup, Arm & Hammer and the glamorous Paramount Pictures as I remained a fly on the wall in the documented world of famous 1980s artist Jean-Michel Basquiat a la salt and pepper cover composition notebooks.
World, meet SAMO©
Based on a fictitious comic book lifestyle created by Jean-Michel and friend Al Diaz, SAMO© was born in the streets of SoHo in the golden era of the street art movement. At the time, these two high school dropouts were runaways sleeping in Washington Square Park fueled by marijuana and deep poetic philosophies on life they shared with the world by tagging local walls. Inspired by their desire for something more, SAMO became an abbreviation for their everyday high and repetitive nature – SAMO is the same ol’ s#!t. Standing on the corner selling small flyers and Mudd Club matchbooks covered in art to survive was far from the life Basquiat’s parents had in mind for him, but unlike most of the annoying street corner salesmen, Jean Michel’s work was far from the same ol’, in fact it was filled with great promise for the future unknown.
At first, SAMO was the name that buzzed around the streets of SoHo, not Jean-Michel’s. His words captivated the uppity New York art crowd, the street dwellers and anyone who was fortunate enough to set their eyes on the poetic life solutions told by a mysterious Brooklyn boy they later discovered was Jean-Michel Basquiat. But before he gained notoriety as a famous street artist and socialite, Basquiat was just the son of a middle-class Haitian father and a depressed Puerto Rican mother who had spent a majority of his life in and out of psychiatric institutions. Reflecting on the harsh childhood beatings he’d encountered at the hands of his father, his often absent mother and his visual memories of occurrences in his era, Basquiat went to work with a head full of ideas. When he could afford it he’d often use a canvas and a paintbrush, but what most are just now discovering through the Brooklyn Museum exhibit is that he also experimented with simple pencil sketches and cautiously styled words found scattered on lined writing paper.
“I cross out words so you will see them more: the fact that they are obscured makes you want to read them.”
Did you know the price of a Basquiat original ranges between $3,000 – 30,000? That’s pretty impressive for a former homeless artist that used to sell his work for no more than $1.00. His artistic style was heavily influenced by the works of Leonardo DaVinci, Vincent Van Goh, Mark Twain, William S. Borroughs and many more, but what made his work most unique was the use of familiar elements taken from these prominent European artists, his good friend and American pop culture artist, Andy Warhol, and of course, the urban art graffiti movement that had been blooming all around him.
Basquiat Blacks Out
Basquiat was just as fascinated by society’s omittance of Black people as he was with the art world’s perception of him as a Black artist. Classic notebook pieces such as “Famous Negro Athletes” paints a complex visual of the irony in Black faces and the color-coded recognition they received in his era. Having the blonde-bombshell Madonna on his arm as a girlfriend, Andy Warhol doubling as a second father to him and coping with rejection from a handful of prominent art venues – predominantly handled by White art enthusiasts, he struggled to internalize harsh critiques of his work and the genuineness of his place in society. After the death of Warhol in 1987, he began to battle yet another controversial form of darkness – addiction.
“I’m on heroin. I guess you don’t approve of that, but I have decided the true path to creativity is to burn out.”
Doubling as an incredible 80s pop culture artist and party scene socialite extraordinaire in the New York City nightlife, drugs were easier to come by in his world than real friends. Intoxicated by his work and the increase in demand, he’d binge repetitively in his studio cranking out lively cultural masterpieces to meet deadlines. But he himself was dying inside. As he continued to depict popular culture images of life as a Black New Yorker in his generation, he witnessed an event on the news that hit so close to home for him in 1983 that it changed his life completely. Michael Stewart, a Black graffiti artist, was on his way home to Brooklyn from Manhattan’s Lower East Side when he was brutally beaten to death by police. This inspired Basquiat to make powerful pieces like Defacement? (¿Defacimento?), firing up conversations of racial discrimination and police brutality. Basquiat’s famous quote referring to the incident:
“It could’ve been me. It could’ve been me.”
Soon after, Jean-Michel Basquiat died of a heroine overdose, drowining in a pool of his own vomit. He was only 27 years old. Today, his artwork and the story it tells continues to remain relevant in the art world. In fact, since his death, his popularity has only heightened crowning him as one of the most influential artists of the 20th century.
Couldn’t make The Unknown Notebooks exhibit at the Brooklyn Museum? See more incredible photos from the exhibit below!