edited by Liz Munson and Greg Tate. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, May 2020. 200 p. ill. ISBN 9780878468713 (h/c), $50.00.

Reviewed November 2020
Jasmine Burns, Visual Resources Metadata Librarian, Cornell University Library, jburns@cornell.edu

munsonWriting the Future: Basquiat and the Hip Hop Generation is the accompanying catalog for an exhibit of the same title that was held at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts in Fall 2020. The series of essays and the reproductions introduce the reader to a remarkable group of artists working across a wide variety of media – graphics, painting, music, performance, philosophy, sculpture, and more. The catalog tells the story of a multifaceted graffiti art movement and the multitude of characters involved in its rise to ubiquity. The narrative prominently situates Jean-Michel Basquiat at the intersection of the “fine art” world and the early hip hop subculture of 1970s and 1980s New York City.

The writing is accessible to both an academic and non-academic audience. Language is an important theme throughout the volume and the tone is therefore appropriately matched. The reader is transported to scenes of gritty New York City through passionate and personal prose that sometimes read like a love letter. Each essay references various images throughout the catalog, each time offering a new framework for viewing. A very helpful appendix located at the end of the book gives short biographies of the recurring figures. Additionally, throughout the volume there are single pages defining and contextualizing some key elements of graffiti art and culture such as ciphers, fonts, and reference books. Some of the authors assume the audience has a degree of knowledge of contemporary art, but the connections and references are clearly stated to allow for more in-depth research if desired.

The reproductions are presented as single- and double-page spreads and are of high quality. They include paintings as well as representations of sculpture, clothing items, film stills, and photographs. This review was conducted using a PDF version of the book, so it cannot speak to the physical structure, paper quality, or size of the volume.

This catalog is a true companion to a physical exhibit. Instead of acting as a monograph for the “lone genius artist,” a typical trope in the history of western art, the exhibit tells the story of a community of artists, all with varying levels of notoriety within their own circles and the art world at large. The texts and images weave a story that calls upon all five senses by referencing music, visual arts, film, and dance. The exhibit catalog presents Basquiat as his whole self, which includes his cultural influences, collaborators, and friends, and does not isolate him from the moment in time that enabled his rapid rise to fame.

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