Q&A: Larry Warsh on Basquiat’s Notebooks

© Estate of Jean-Michel Basquiat, all rights reserved. Licensed by Artestar, New York. Photo: Sarah DeSantis, Brooklyn Museum

The owner of eight of Basquiat’s notebooks, currently on view at the Brooklyn Museum, shares the story behind his collection.

The notebooks of the late artist Jean-Michel Basquiat that are currently on view at the Brooklyn Museum in a special exhibit through August 23 belong to the collector and art publisher Larry Warsh. 

Within hours after my review of that show was published, my phone rang. 

It was Warsh, eager to share some backstory on how he came to acquire and exhibit Basquiat’s notebooks. It’s a story he tells in part in his introduction to his forthcoming publication, The Notebooks, which is a compiled facsimile of the eight notebooks in his collection (Princeton University Press, June 15, 2015). We spoke by telephone the day after the exhibit opened to the public.  

How did you come to acquire the notebooks, and why?
In the ‘80s, I was living on Astor Place in downtown Manhattan. The cultural scene around me was bursting with frenetic energy. Clearly, there was something historic happening. I was beginning to collect art, and in those days it was all about Keith Haring and Jean-Michel Basquiat. Living downtown, that is what felt right. I acquired the notebooks from his bandmates in Gray in the late ‘80s, right around the time of his death. I was well aware of the future in that moment and of the role that the notebooks would play in understanding Jean-Michel’s work because his brilliant essence was on those pages.

Lots of people had a hard time grasping the art of that moment—so people were often questioning my choices as a collector. Though in general, the art of a particular period sometimes takes a decade or more to be fully understood. And now, here we are, 2015, well into the future.

Did they speak to you in some way, emotionally or generally, about Basquait’s work?
They spoke to me in a way that was a little pre-conscious, a little sub-conscious and a little conscious, all in one. The thoughts and the intensity of the thoughts were so precise and poignant […] I had to have them. When I collect, I collect an artist in depth. Seeing the notebooks made it so obvious to me the connections between these words on these pages and his bodies of work that came afterwards or were made in some cases at the same time.

Tell me about living with Basquiat’s notebooks for all this time—almost 30 years.
They lived in a closet in my apartment in Manhattan, in archival boxes. 

Did scholars of Basquiat ever approach you about these notebooks?
No. And this is really the first time they are being seen since I bought them, though I would show them to friends and to people who came over—and of course I’d look at them.

For the show at Brooklyn Museum, you had to have the pages de-assembled so they can eventually be put back together. What made you want to do that, and to show this work now, in 2015?
Yes. Eventually, I knew I wanted others be able to see those connections too between the very public work he made—much exhibited, some even on walls of buildings—and what he wrote in his notebooks. I felt the moment was ready and that there would be a receptive audience. No one can have a complete picture of the inner workings of any artist, but the words on these pages give us a glimpse of the soul behind this complex, creative persona.

I was so blown away going to the [Brooklyn Museum] opening with all those people—it was emotional and gratifying.

I noticed that visitors are pointedly urged to regard the pages of the notebooks “as autonomous works of art rather than preparatory studies,” which to me felt a little like trying to have it both ways.
Good point. I think they are equivalent to more finished works of art than to studies—the notebooks aren’t sketchbooks. And they weren’t meant or used for doodling. Don’t be fooled by the size of the paper and the fact that this is on paper to begin with. The norm is that most works of this size and on this type of paper are considered preparatory, but the way we look at these and the way we look at Jean Michel’s work should not be limited by the norm. The notebooks were a separate practice, totally distinct from what he did in the studio or on the street. In some cases, Jean-Michel applied notebook pages or copies of them directly onto a canvas.

As I mentioned in my review, I was surprised and I admit a little disappointed that even though this was an exceedingly verbal artist—and many are not—and someone super well read and who loved words, that the notebooks don’t “read” like real diaries…they are exceedingly spare.
That is his diary, to him. The notebooks captured the essence of his mind and summarize his carefully articulated, poetic and intimate thoughts and ideas, even though they’ve got the sparseness of Twitter.

Why do you think that is?
The entries are short because I think his mind was so quick that he could only get fragments on the page, although he probably had ten sentences in his mind at once. But what he wrote, I think, says a lot and evokes what he wants. There are lots of half-words, blocked and crossed-out words and revised phrases, which all contribute to and reveal the play between his conscious and unconscious mind.

The notebooks read almost like Napoleonic battle plans, as prep for his attack on the art world. Many words and phrases, like “FAMOUS NEGRO ATHLETES ©,” that you see throughout his art, originated in these pages. So the notebooks reveal important steps on his creative path.

(This interview has been edited and condensed.)

For a look at some of the pages from Basquiat’s notebooks in Larry Warsh’s collection, see our slideshow and review of the exhibit »