Jean Michel Basquiat. Untitled. 1985. Cut-and-pasted paper and oilstick on paper, 41 1/2 × 29 1/2" (105.4 × 75 cm). Acquired in memory of Kevin W. Robbins through funds provided by his family and friends and by the Committee on Drawings. © 2021 Estate of Jean-Michel Basquiat. Licensed by Artestar, New York

The text below is excerpted from the MoMA publication Among Others: Blackness at MoMA, edited by Darby English and Charlotte Barat. Chosen by the New York Times as one of the Best Art Books of 2019 and by ARTNews as one of the Best Art Books of the Decade, Among Others is the first substantial exploration of a major museum’s uneven historical relationship with Black artists, Black audiences, and the broader subject of racial Blackness. For the next few months, we will be featuring selected excerpts, beginning with Hervé Télémaque’s poetic dissection of a busy Basquiat drawing.

The war of rum and gin      From Pétion-Ville a little road runs toward Port-au-Prince and the airport. Near a puddle there, Jacob Lawrence drew an arrow pointing to New York.

“If it is’nt love.” Jean-Michel Basquiat walks alone, wearing an elegant suit and bare, painful feet. An optimist for sure! In fact a “foolish optimist,” according to the drawing. He only speaks the language of the Bronx, Brooklyn, and Manhattan. Not a word in French or Creole, but two words in Spanish, “sin hueso,” boneless. Sheesh!

In the Caribbean, though, Spanish is the mother tongue—the tongue of women, love, tenderness, sex. Sin hueso, or sin huevo? Boneless, or eggless?

A woman’s genitals in blue, twice. The words “WINTER/SPRING,” “GARDEN BLOOMING,” “BARREN TREE,” and “SWEETER RELAXATION,” three times. Why do images and words often appear more than once? Could it be to escape the impressive shadow of Lawrence?

But he’s still the foolish optimist, except when he drinks at least six glasses of gin while listening to a divine jazz piano, that crucial instrument of African-American blues. The black keys look like bone charcoal; the melodic tone of ivory dominates. How great to be able to “(CHEW)” language.

My friend the Haitian poet Georges Castera prefers Creole to French, the pure Creole of peddlers come down from the hills to Port-au-Prince’s March. en Fer. It is in fact an original language like Creole that Basquiat seeks. While Georges abandoned the elegant French of my Port-au-Prince childhood, Basquiat seems to know no French at all.

The hostile world is present here: the cactus, the armadillo, “LATERAL FLEXICON” (which does not exist), the bones of the middle ear (hammer, anvil, stirrup), fibers, nerves, blood supply, a jawbone or toothbrush, the anatomy of the knee, the word “synovial,” burning vegetation (a sign of suffering). And to sum up the whole linguistic and formal scene: a two-eyed mask, with one side an incomplete arrow. The drawing is a cabinet of poetic curiosities. Allusions reign supreme. Are there other bits to add to this collage of no immediately clear meaning? Words and shapes have always gotten along—Dada, Surrealism—and once again we have a complicity between painters and poets. Basquiat is a baroque Caribbean poet among North American Protestants.

If Basquiat’s painting is continuous with Willem de Kooning, Robert Rauschenberg, Jasper Johns, and Cy Twombly, his drawing is totally original, in the content of the elements, their autonomy, and their global underground meaning. It’s a pity he never got to this in his painting. Young artists would do well to look at his drawing.

The dictionary as a chapter of the fine arts      No French, no Creole, but Spanish. We find Italian in certain other works, perhaps through Basquiat’s friendship with Francesco Clemente. Basquiat’s words are not lists, as in Twombly, but attempts to identify a part of the world through language. The drawing of Black men meanwhile remains summary, caricatural, except when they are angry. Likeness is unnecessary. Is the Black man still a caricature, as in my work or Basquiat’s? In any case, the idea is there, close to hand. The expressive force of Blackness exists today. If Basquiat’s oilstick traces the figure forcefully, his words speak more secretly, with jazz lovers and other conversants.

Jean Michel Basquiat. Untitled. 1985

Jean Michel Basquiat. Untitled. 1985