This interview appeared in the Winter/Spring 2020 print edition of RAIN magazine. Support print. Purchase your copy here.
Main text by Andrianna Campbell-LaFleur
Andy Warhol and Jean-Michel Basquiat made for an unusual pair during their five-year collaboration and close friendship. Warhol was a master of pop art, while Basquiat was a young artist who came up tagging graffiti in New York City in the late 1970s under the tag and pseudonym SAMO©. Warhol was readily accepted by American art institutions, while Basquiat was dismissed and sharply rejected. Their debut collaborative show, “Paintings,” held in 1985 at the New York gallery of Tony Shafrazi, was panned unanimously as a monumental failure. To this day, many in the art community maintain a cynical view of their radical works.
As with so many groundbreaking artists, musicians, filmmakers, and creatives, some of their most celebrated works are often the most controversial and are unaccepted at the time of their release. We could fill an entire magazine with them. In 2008, Manhattan’s Van de Weghe Gallery took the lead in re-examining the monumental pieces presented at the Tony Shafrazi Gallery in 1985, while this past summer, Jack Shainman Gallery held a show titled “Basquiat x Warhol” at The School, its exhibition space in Kinderhook, New York. And rightly so.
This contentious and highly expressive body of work embodies many topical and relevant societal issues, from capitalism to race and the artistic process itself. In time, it may not only become one of the most profound collaborations between two critically acclaimed artists but also recognized as arguably the peak of their creative outputs. We invited the renowned art critic Andrianna Campbell-LaFleur to peel back the layers and analyze their collaboration in an inquisitive and compelling essay for RAIN.
– Mark Benjamin
THE JACK SHAINMAN GALLERY EXHIBITED two works in the Kinderhook lobby of its show “Basquiat x Warhol,” held this summer. Both pieces exemplified the violence and antagonism that the advertising and critics played on for the exhibition held at the Tony Shafrazi Gallery in 1985 of these two unlikely collaborators. One display was Jean-Michel Basquiat’s Untitled (Football Helmet) (c.1981-1984), which he loaned to Andy Warhol to wear with the express purpose of compelling him to see what living as a black man felt like in the 1980s.
The second work was a Warhol Self-Portrait (Camouflage) (1986), which the artist made in the palette of camo. Both works set the stage to explore the confrontational aspects of the collaboration; the negative reviews and the short break the artists took afterwards added to their mutual disappointment. However, it is worth noting that Warhol and Basquiat collaborated for five years between the autumn of 1982 and 1987, after the Swiss art dealer Bruno Bischofberger brought Basquiat to the Factory to meet Warhol.
Though I did not see the Jack Shainman exhibition, several shows and collections across America have dealt with these collaborations. One of the most common features in the Basquiat and Warhol series is a GE logo. Their painting GE (1984) has almost equal sides. Its surface is afloat with an alphabet soup of more than 10 heads and an alphabet of letters seemingly missing only a b and an s. As is congruent with their working strategies, Warhol silkscreened the powder-blue outline of a cursive blank GE logo, which appears on the right hand side, where it is topped by a drawn head that is turned left and captioned with the word “ALERT.” This crudely rendered pate is, in fact, Basquiat’s cultivation of an advanced drawing technique.
These moments where his hand-drawn heads (some quirkily configured with crooked teeth, broken smiles, and splotchily painted skin tones) pleach with Warhol’s coolly printed corporate logo are where these collaborations move beyond the sum of their parts. In his diaries, on April 16, 1984, Warhol wrote, “I think those paintings we’re doing together are better when you can’t tell who did, which parts.” The same day, he made a dog painting, imitating Basquiat’s style. With Basquiat fully aware of what he was doing, Warhol traced Basquiat’s linear style into the paintings.
For Warhol, Basquiat’s line had become fully available (with the other artist’s consent) for appropriation, akin to his use of a corporate logo. Though Warhol shockingly wanted to erase himself in the process, this did not happen. (In a piece titled “Where Is Your Rupture?”, Annette Michelson describes the filmmaker Stan Brakhage as seeing in Warhol the desire to eliminate subjectivity.) There was a way that the pictorial places where their obvious differences shone enabled this collaboration to function as bi-authored paintings.
Basquiat had been an avid pursuer of Warhol, and when Bischofberger introduced the two in 1982, Warhol was at first glance uncertain of Basquiat’s talent. He used his portrait camera to take a Polaroid of Basquiat; the younger artist in turn sent a fresh painting to Warhol that afternoon. It was at this moment the two artists cultivated a double vision. Two years after that initial meeting, Warhol documented coming to the studio and seeing Basquiat already there, which happened often. Their painting General Electric with Waiter (1984) repeats the GE logo.
In this work, a car chugs up a steep red incline on the left, while a waiter in green brings a gin bottle and glasses through a door marked “01” on the right. In Amoco (1984), Basquiat’s sorbefacient touch of flagrant red flames erupts from Warhol’s depiction of Mobilgas’s winged, fire- breathing Pegasus logo. The mythic flying horse on the right is balanced by a penguin in a tuxedo and hat on the left, and the text beneath it, like a banderole, says, “KEEP FROZEN ©.” The painting takes its title from the red and blue Amoco torch in the center. The entire work reeks of its petrochemical allusions. Warhol was wittily bringing the symbology of the ancient world into the present. The Olympic torch was also carried by Greek Olympians. In the Western iconographic canon, alena (the torch of light) and the great beast of Pegasus are enduring cultural artifacts that Warhol made contemporary to art in the 1980s.
Warhol and Basquiat were contemporary in their discontinuous unity. First let’s unpack their inclusive integrative aspirations beyond capitalist tools. The dual-authored collaboration with the younger, “hot” artist, at its most cynical estimation, was a means for Warhol to resurrect a flailing career that had been catering to rich, old, pale-white businessmen. (Full disclosure: I once assisted with the curating of a Warhol show at the Forbes Galleries, Fifth Avenue. The star of the collection was a burger painting that said “Happy Birthday Malcolm from Andy” on the back.)
The truth is, Warhol pissed everyone off because he liked the street hustlers as well as the rich capitalists. Basquiat might have been looking for some gravitas that only Warhol could give him. People didn’t like these paintings. They have silkscreened GE logos on them that display the aesthetics of Warhol’s studio in full production and Basquiat’s hand- drawn lines are so bedraggled, edgy, and gem-like that they are unique.
As artists they were different: Warhol invested in repetition through the use of technology, while Basquiat focused on handmade redundancies. It makes sense that viewers, critics, curators, and serious scholars such as bell hooks were slightly wary of the whole process behind making these. hooks was writing at a time when Warhol sales were sluggish because the market was so flooded with his paintings and, I am told, you could sometimes get yourself one for $300. The art critic Eleanor Heartney thought Warhol’s “Midas touch” was boring. However, more recently, scholarship has shifted. In Ambition & Love in Modern American Art, Jonathan Weinberg writes that if we think of these outside the terms of cynicism and the bottom line, then we are privy to probably one of the most masterful of artistic intersections.
First of all, Basquiat lived for a year after Warhol died in 1987, so their window for collaboration was precious. Second, in the photos taken of them around the time of the collaboration, they appear jocular—juiced up, not to fight each other, they are swiping, jabbing, and ready to take on all the non-believers. Third, successful bi-authored collaborations demand two strong authorial voices. This is not a studio system with one master and an assistant: In such a scenario, the master’s technique and skill deliberately render the assistant’s hand obsolete and the assistant agrees to this system. Rather, between these two artists, there is, a) consent, b) a respect for each master’s hand, and c) an eagerness from both to stand behind the finished paintings and also in front of them, as pictures show.
The paintings themselves are like operas, where one person has written the libretto and another composed the score, and both contributions are distinct and harmonious. Perhaps Warhol’s understanding of a successful collaboration was derived from working on The Velvet Underground & Nico album cover of 1967, with its jonquil-colored banana. The fruit also surfaced in solo paintings by Basquiat and in his collaborations with Warhol. Because of their distinct styles and repeated attributions, neither considered the ownership of the fruit their own, rather they retained their signature styles in the banana rendering.
During the period of their collaborative works, Warhol was a teetering giant. It is hard to dispel the thought of him from the image on the poster for the exhibition, his and Basquiat’s petite-muscled arms effete and weighed down by boxing gloves. Keith Haring, a friend of theirs, was able to imagine them completing the paintings moving as the poster suggests. As with an Ushio Shinohara, the Japanese artist who boxed pigment into the canvas, there is a pre-understanding of processed- based abstraction.
Perhaps the greater offense lies in the poster of Warhol swinging at the dreaded head of the beautiful young Basquiat. As hooks writes in her article “Altars of Sacrifice, Re-membering Basquiat,” published in Art in America in June 1993, “Historically, competition between black and white males has been highlighted in the sports arena. Basquiat extends that field of competition into the realm of the cultural (the poster of him and Andy Warhol duking it out in boxing attire and gloves is not as innocent and playful as it appears to be).” Warhol has the upswing and upper hand in the poster, although Basquiat’s career was on the upswing; there is a violence underlying the promotion of the exhibition.
It is a violence that Warhol abhorred, noting that a review referred to Basquiat as his dog. Despite this, their collaborations continued steadily. In Eggs (1985), Warhol probably painted the six apples; he was a convincing draughtsman, having begun his career as a commercial illustrator making colorful and whimsical depictions for fashion magazines (for more depictions of apples, see Warhol’s silkscreened apple paintings and his 1985 Apple Macintosh ads). Basquiat most likely painted the eggs, as in his Brown Eggs (1981).
Eggs, bananas, apples, alcohol, gas, Arm & Hammer… Unlike distinct bodies and corporate logos, the fruit and food products are also stand-ins for sexuality, desire, and sustenance. There are many bodily references in these paintings. While some artists want to separate their bodies (and those of their assistants) from their work, it wouldn’t be the first time that Warhol brought the body (as dispersal unit) into his practice. One should think of those oxidation piss paintings, one of which is based upon the Polaroid of Basquiat’s head, but corroded by urine.
To be pissed on crystalizes the problem at hand: Previously, where there was a person in an elevated position of power and another in a lower one, say a rich, white, famous artist and an up-and-coming black artist, the assumption was the outcome of a collaboration would be negative. However, there is little documentation of residual rancor between Warhol and Basquiat; rather, what emerges is a picture of two luminaries with weaknesses who compensate for each other.
They balance each other and lift each other. Often, power-abusing collaborations imply a level of deprivation, expropriation, exploitative labor, unequal compensation, and misdistribution of credit. This abuse did not happen between Basquiat and Warhol. They created their own field: To look at these paintings is to see that pale cobalt of the negative space around the GE logo, then its inverted blue cursive, to see Basquiat’s radiantly drawn stick figures, to read the writing on the canvases, and there, in the space between their contributions, one image emerges. They achieved this without having to make the same kind of mark, an innovation if ever there were one.