He’s one of the most famous and recognizable artists that the United States has ever produced. His young protégée would become the wunderkind of the New York art scene who would sky rocket to fame as a figure of his generation. Together, they would become an unlikely powerhouse pairing of artistic talent and one of the most admired couplings postmodern art has ever seen, but how did Andy Warhol and Jean-Michel Basquiat become such close collaborators and friends?
Synonymous the world over for his pop art screenprints of celebrities and tins of soup, Andy Warhol is a star who transcended the world of art to become one of the most famous celebrities of the past century.
Obsessed with celebrity, artistic reproduction and consumer culture, Warhol was a figurehead of the pop art movement who created some of the 20th century’s most iconic images. Drawing from popular culture and everyday subjects in his most famous works, he used cheap and quick commercial printing to mass-produce silkscreen versions of news, fashion, and pop culture photographs.
Warhol’s approach was revolutionary in the art world at the time. His work has become so ingrained into a popular culture idea of what art is that today it’s hard to imagine it was ever rebellious. But as he embraced silk-screen printmaking to achieve his flat areas of color and characteristic hard edges, his rejection of the accepted modes of painting was outrageous to the standard-bearers at the tine.
Rejecting accepted modes
Warhol wasn’t the first to plough such a revolutionary artistic furrow though; his artistic hero, Marcel Duchamp, had similarly turned ordinary, very everyday objects into works of art. Duchamp called his series of everyday items, “readymades”, as an antidote to what he called retinal art, with his urinal his most famous piece.
“I really like Warhol’s spirit. He’s not some painter. He’s a filmeur, and I like that very much”
Marcel Duchamp, on Andy Warhol
And like Duchamp, Warhol’s everyday items proved to be some of his most iconic works; his 32 Campbell’s soup cans and Brillo pad box sculptures proved to be immeasurably popular. But it was his portrait of Marilyn Monroe that set a new sales record when it sold at Christie’s for $195 million, making it the most expensive 20th-century artwork, surpassing Pablo Picasso’s 1955 Les Femmes d’Alger (Version ‘O’), which had sold for $179.4m at auction in 2015.
This is more than triple the price achieved for Race Riot (in Four Parts), which sold for $62.8m at Christie’s in 2014. Warhol’s Elizabeth Taylor silkscreen, Men In Her Life sold for $63.4m, while Triple Elvis, a portrait of Elvis Presley in three identical pictures sold for $81.9. Prior to the sale of his Monroe portrait though, Warhol’s most expensive sale was serious in tone, as Silver Car Crash (Double Disaster), a double canvas depicting a car crash, sold for $105m.
Tagging a name for himself
Like Warhol, who used the New York party scene as a subject for his work, Jean-Michel Basquiat would use the background of New York City as his canvas. He did this quite literally before he became a name in the art world – by tagging the word SAMO on the streets with artist and friend Al Diaz. Loaded with symbolism, SAMO (standing for “same old shit”) conveyed short, sharp, and frequently anti-materialist messages. And graffiti in the hands of Diaz and Basquiat became a tool of artistic branding that represented an important development of Basquiat’s work, as well as mature social commentary for someone still in their teens.
But as the 1980s began, so Basquiat’s career began to blossom. He participated in multi-artist exhibition, The Times Square Show, while art critic Rene Ricard published an important article, The Radiant Child, in Artforum magazine. Then, Basquiat sold one of his first paintings, Cadillac Moon (1981), to Debbie Harry, the lead singer of Blondie (who also posed for Warhol – small world in the NY art scene!), for $200 after they had filmed Downtown 81 together. He also appeared as the DJ in the 1981 Blondie music video, Rapture.
It was the Swiss art dealer, Bruno Bischofberger who discovered Basquiat painting in lower Manhattan and helped propel his career to dizzying heights. And by 1982, Basquiat was hot property. He opened six solo shows around the world and became the youngest artist to be included in the prestigious international contemporary art extravaganza, Documenta. As a result, Basquiat work from this period are particularly highly prized. His Untitled (Skull) from 1981 became a signature piece and a riff on the tradition of self-portraiture, which he repeated with Untitled (Black Skull), and Flexible the following year. Untitled (Skull) was sold for $4,000 in 1982, before being auctioned at Christie’s in 1984 for a $20,900. An extraordinary investment for any buyer.
At times accused of being a primitive painter by critics, Basquiat’s work had a primordial, cave painting-like quality to it, combined with the cubist influence on his painting of heads, and the thrilling energy of contemporary street art. This can be seen in the dayglow excitement of Dusthead (1982) and Untitled (Boxer) (1982).
This energy is combined with social commentary in works like Irony of a Negro Policeman (1981), highlighting how African-Americans are controlled by the white majority in America, while In This Case (1983) is Basquiat’s tribute to Michael Stewart, a young African-American street artist who died following police arrest in 1983.
In This Case is the last painting in Basquiat’s enduring holy trinity of large-scale ‘skull’ paintings, which sold at Christie’s New York in May 2021 for $93,105,000, nearly 40 years after it was painted. This plays second-fiddle though to Untitled (1982), which achieved $110.5 million at auction.
Basquiat’s work was emblematic of his New York surroundings of the 1980s and the burgeoning counter-culture scene that embodied the spirit of punk and graffiti. These themes were previously seen as oppositional to the conventional art market, so the arrival of Basquiat in the mainstream was unprecedented, as he transformed the idea of what can be accepted as art, alongside other young artists from New York like Keith Haring.
When Basquiat first met Warhol, though, he was selling postcards of his art on the streets of New York. In a diary entry, Warhol recalled “the kid who used the name SAMO when he used to sit on the sidewalk in Greenwich Village and paint T-shirts, and I’d give him $10”.
SAMO meets a hero
The pair met again at a restaurant in Soho when Warhol bought a postcard Basquiat had made with artist Jennifer Stein. They then met for lunch and Warhol recalls that Basquiat “went home and within two hours a painting was back, still wet, of him and me together”. The painting was Dos Cabezas (1982) and it would ignite the pair’s journey of prolific artistic collaboration that would produce about 150 canvases, accounting for one tenth of Basquiat’s overall output.
Basquiat idolized his hero Warhol. And Warhol was in awe of Basquiat’s talent and the speed at which he worked. Together they were an unlikely and efficient pairing. Warhol’s silk screening or painting of a corporate logo, or everyday product on canvas would be painted over by Basquiat, combining the Pop Art foundations which made Warhol a superstar with Basquiat’s primal, socially-conscious, wild graffiti style. The world hadn’t seen this before and hasn’t since.
“The relationship was symbiotic. Jean-Michel thought he needed Andy’s fame, and Andy thought he needed Jean-Michel’s new blood. Jean-Michel gave Andy a rebellious image again”.
This approach can be seen one of their most well-known collaborations, Ten Punching Bags (Last Supper) (1985), which offered a playful critique of ideological oppression in the art world. Similarly, Arm and Hammer II combined their trademark styles, with Basquiat inserting a black saxophonist in place of the flexing white arm of the toothpaste logo. This was a show of Black creativity and reclamation of public space by Basquiat. The same relationship can be seen in the painting GE/Skull.
This approach formed a theme of their work. Warhol’s trademark corporate logos represented the materialistic modern psyche and they were overlaid by Basquiat’s freehand style. There was a restrained anger in Basquiat’s work, as if he was raising his fist at the monolithic monster of corporate America that Warhol represented. Basquiat was much more pragmatic. Warhol “would put something very concrete or recognisable, like a newspaper headline or a product logo”, he recalled, “and then I would sort of deface it”.
As well as productive, their relationship was mutually beneficial. “It was like some crazy art-world marriage and they were the odd couple,” said Ronnie Cutrone, artist and Warhol’s studio assistant. “The relationship was symbiotic. Jean-Michel thought he needed Andy’s fame, and Andy thought he needed Jean-Michel’s new blood. Jean-Michel gave Andy a rebellious image again”. Cynical minds pointed out that Warhol was not at the height of his fame and could be accused of using the young Basquiat’s popularity to stay relevant, while Basquiat was accused of latching onto Warhol’s established fame. In his diary, Warhol simply said of his protégée, “I think he’s the best, I really do.”
One of Warhol’s “manipulations”
Despite this, the relationship was reviled by some critics. New York Times critic Vivien Raynor wrote on September 20, 1985, “[T]he collaboration looks like one of Warhol’s manipulations… Basquiat, meanwhile, comes across as the all too willing accessory.”
Defending the collaboration, Jack Shainman, owner of Jack Shainman Gallery, said of the critics “They felt as though Warhol was in a quiet point in his career and taking advantage of the hot new name on the scene. They were not grasping the fact that Basquiat was a master in his own right who could not be taken advantage of.”
This idea of a platonic relationship did not sit well alongside many critics’ image of the relationship that had produced such highly-prized artwork during their brief, whirlwind collaboration. The collaboration was tragically cut short when Warhol died following surgery in 1987 and Basquiat then died from a heroin overdose the following year. A peak into their relationship can be seen in the Polaroid portraits that Warhol took of Basquiat, as well as their gently intimate selfie. The Polaroids have appeared at auction and offer entry-level access to a Warhol/Basquiat collection.
With the benefit of hindsight and away from the cynical reaction to the exploding art market of the 1980s, the Warhol and Basquiat collaboration was an astonishing pairing that surpassed the grandeur of any supergroup. It was as if the Beatles and Rolling Stones had got together. Or Run-DMC and Jay-Z collaborated. Or the sun and the moon had teamed up. It was an unfathomable mash-up of two postmodern icons of very different styles.
Andy Warhol was the most famous artist America had ever produced and Basquiat was an artistic supernova who symbolized a generation. So, whatever the criticism they received at the time, theirs was an incredible pairing that seems unlikely to be repeated.
And if there was any doubt about the longevity of their appeal, then the sale of their GE/Skull painting for $4,620,000 in May 2022 shows the appetite for their fantastic postmodern mash-up is as insatiable as ever.
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