Monday, May 25, 2015

Poetry and "Basquiat: The Unknown Notebooks"

Basquiat's paintings appear on the cover of Kevin Young's volume To Repel Ghosts.

In late June, the plan is for me to visit the Brooklyn Museum to check out an exhibition "Basquiat: The Unknown Notebooks." I'll take a few students with me, and we'll converse about our observations and what we learn.

Leading up to our visit, I'll have the young folks check out materials on Basquiat, including items on this site, which has a Basquiat page, featuring his artwork. There are articles as well, which offer some context for the painter. I suspect the materials will be useful as we prepare to take a look at excerpts from Basquiat's notebooks in the exhibit. 

Interestingly enough, I first really became more aware of Basquiat's work through Kevin Young's volume of poetry To Repel Ghosts. Young's book piqued my interest in the painter's life and work. I was also curious on what drew Young to Basquiat.

Later, I noticed that Jay Z had begun mentioning Basquiat in his raps. In his memoir Decoded , Jay Z discusses the painter:
The paintings don’t just sit on my walls, they move like crazy. Basquiat's work deals with fame and success: the story of what happens when you  actually get the thing you'd die for. One Basquiat print I own is called Charles the First–it’s about Charlie Parker, the jazz pioneer who died young of a heroin overdose, like Basquiat. In the corner of the painting are the words, MOST YOUNG KINGS GET THEIR HEAD CUT OFF. Like a lot of the art Basquiat created, that line has layers of meaning.
In the book, he goes on to discuss some of those meanings. Few rappers are as in-depth and introspective about visual artists as Jay Z is when it comes to Basquiat. Jay Z (b. 1969) and Young (b. 1970) are part of the same generational cohort, and so it stands out to me that the two verbal artists would be drawn to this common visual artist.

Poets have long referenced painters and paintings in their work. In addition to many established poets writing about painting, MFA programs and writing assignments regularly prompt poetry students to visit museums and produce poems based on art. Basquiat, though, perhaps enjoys more prominence among contemporary African American poets than most. Writing about Basquiat allows African American verbal artists to embrace the (largely Eurocentric?) tradition of writing about painters and paintings but adding a distinct black difference.

I've seen Basquiat showing up as a reference or influence in the works of various artists. So seeing the exhibit at the Brooklyn Museum will now give me a chance to consider some of Basquiat's interests and thoughts in process as they appear in his notebooks.  

Jay Z & Jean-Michel Basquiat as poets

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