How Basquiat’s brush strokes paint the Miami experience

Chances are you’ve seen Jean-Michel Basquiat’s face around Miami.

Kevin Ledo’s mural on NW 54th Street positions Basquiat in “another world.” In Wynwood, Elisabetta Fantone’s “Crimes Against Art” depicts Basquiat’s mugshot next to longtime friend and collaborator, Andy Warhol. A few streets over, Kobra painted his closeup next to Salvador Dali.

Basquiat isn’t a Miami boy, but his influence is everywhere. He’s one of us even if he never called Miami home: a child of immigrants negotiating between different identities and oversaturated with pop culture.

That’s why Perez Art Museum Miami (PAMM) brought us his work.

“This is a show that had to come to Miami,” says PAMM Director Franklin Sirmas. “The artist is conceptually a child of where his parents are from: Puerto Rico and Haiti […] and although he never spent a lot of time here, there is a relationship to Miami that is very much a part of the work.”

Now Miami is finally going to get to experience his work firsthand in “Basquiat: The Unknown Notebooks,” the first major exhibit of the artist’s work.

According to Assistant Curator Maria Elena Ortiz, there is no other city that better represents him.

Born to a Haitian father and Puerto Rican-descendent mother, Basquiat explores cultural and racial identity, police brutality, and the intoxication of fame and ego. Reading through his notes, it’s like he’s reading Miami’s minds. The amazing thing is he was doing this back in the 1980s.

“Basquiat lived in a different time and by that I mean, when he was growing up, police brutality was still there but wasn’t as obvious to everyone,” says Ortiz. “One of his pieces says ‘police.’ We now know what he’s referring to.”

Even if you don’t recognize Basquiat’s face, you probably recognize his symbols: jagged crowns and anguished faces done in eerily childlike sketches.

His paintings are overstimulated like his mind: colorful and layered. If you look closely, you’ll probably see a footprint. He juxtaposes images with text that sometimes gets crossed out and replaced as a way to highlight certain words. People always want to read what they seemingly can’t.

Touring Basquiat’s notebook hearkens back to his early days of street tagging as SAMO, when he wrote cryptic messages on Lower East Side walls. His notebook pages are positioned next to empty pages, framing the notes in visual silence. His margins are uniform and his lines are sleek.But his words and minimalist images are frenzied, often kind of a stream of consciousness poetry.

“Nicotine walks on eggshells
The Earth was Formle
Formless Void
Darkness face of the deep
Spirit moved across the
Water and there was light
“It was good” ©
Breathing into his lungs
2000 years of asbestos.”

The exhibit will be on view until Oct.16. It includes lesser-known works on paper straight from his notebook, spanning the height of his career until 1988, the same year he was found dead in his New York apartment. The exhibit also features select canvas pieces, including two collaborations with Andy Warhol and an excerpt from the documentary “The Radiant Child.”

Basquiat became well known in New York City in the late 1970s under the psuedonym “SAMO” (Same old shit) when he spray painted messages on Lower East Side buildings with friend Al Diaz. In the 1980s he started getting attention from the art world and befriended Andy Warhol and soon after broke out as a solo artist. He fought a long battle with heroin addiction and died of an overdose in his Manhattan apartment at the age of 27. Though his career only lasted nine years, his influence has served as a cultural oracle, breeding a new generation of fearless artists.