Today, Swizz Beatz and Jay Z name check him all the time. But before his name rang bells in hip-hop, Jean-Michel Basquiat was known throughout the art world as a self-taught genius—a manic wild child who in eight short years produced a volume of work as prolific as it was sublime.

Basquiat’s work can be currently be seen on New York’s Upper East Side at Acquavella Galleries, in Jean-Michel Basquiat Drawing: Work from the Schorr Family Collection. The exhibit features selections exclusively from the collection of Herbert and Lenore Schorr, and none are for sale.

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(Basquiat’s last painting up for auction at Chrisite’s sold for over $48 million, and there is an upcoming auction for a piece at Sotheby’s—for Undiscovered Genius of the Mississippi Delta—on May 14. Drawings traditionally don’t fetch as much as paintings, and it should be interesting to see what the future of this collection will be.)

The Schorrs were early patrons of Basquiat’s art, and began purchasing his work when he was 19, before his first solo New York City show. Herbert and Lenore Schorr befriended the young artist and collected both his drawings and paintings over the years, giving him advice and encouragement during his meteoric rise to fame.

The Drawing exhibit is rare in that some of the work has never been shown publicly before, and includes only two paintings among 22 drawings. Yet unlike other artists whose sketches were just primers for their paintings, it’s clear that Basquiat made complete art on whatever medium he touched.

“With the exception of Picasso, few acclaimed painters of the 20th century invested the same time or energy to works on paper that is evidenced in their painting,” explains show curator Fred Hoffman in the accompanying catalogue. “In Basquiat’s drawings… you are sucked in and carried along an often intricate and complex journey through a maze of references which oftentimes make little rational sense but nonetheless feel like they have a reason to exist.”

The Acquavella exhibit’s pieces span from 1981 to 1986, two years before Basquiat’s tragic death at the age of 27. Basquiat created in the go-go ’80s, in a New York City that crackling with danger and possibility. It was a time when hip-hop and graffiti were burgeoning art forms (so it’s apropos that MCs are now big consumers of his work, muses Basquiat expert Franklin Sirmans). Certainly the Greenwich Village that Basquiat ran to from his native Brooklyn wasn’t the gentrified haven for the rich that it is today, but someplace as gritty as it was surely magical. 

Basquiat’s drawings are mesmerizing, dense and full. In his work, he draws on and references everything from the inner-city kids game skellys (a hopscotch of sorts played with bottle caps) to Sugar Ray Robinson, Miles Davis and Da Vinci; from Jor-El to King Alphonso, Galileo and Max Roach. Young Basquiat was a conduit for it all, a channel for everything that swirled around him—from his childhood comic books to the museums that his mother took him to as a child, and even the Gray’s Anatomy textbook she gifted him after he was laid up by an accident as a young teen.

Because my first love is the word, I’m personally delighted that actual words (etched in his now famous scrawl) take primacy in his drawings, perfectly placed streams of consciousness colliding with his now iconic images of crowns and skulls. One can get lost for hours in them, and they’re honestly a bit less “dark” than some of his later work.

Because there was so much work created in his artistic life (they say Basquiat created more than 2,000 works in his from the ages of 19 through 27, and was rarely without a pen in hand), most of his work was untitled and undated by the artist. Drawing takes us into the mind of a prodigal genius with flashes of his early style. His ubiquitous trademark crown is present, as is the black background and mirrored images, boxers and skulls.

As Lenore Schorr told the New York Times, Basquait’s drawings are “the key to all his work.” All true Basquiat fans owe it to themselves to see these early pieces up close, and if you can’t get to New York, the catalogue is worth it.

Jean-Michel Basquiat Drawing: Work from the Schorr Family Collection runs through June 13 at the Acquavella Galleries, 18 E. 79th Street, New York City.

Angela Bronner Helm