In the early 1980s, Andy Warhol was one of the cultural icons of New York City, his fame and his influence were undisputed. With the Factory and his entourage of young artists, actors and musicians, he was nothing short of a celebrity in the art world.
At the time, Jean-Michel Basquiat was a wild and talented graffiti artist. He coined the tag SAMO (sometimes written as SAMOã) in the late 1970s. This acronym, which stood for same old shit quickly gained notoriety across Manhattan’s streets, attracting the attention of many other artists, including Keith Haring and Warhol himself.
Warhol and Basquiat: How Did It All Start
As the story goes, the friendship between Warhol and Basquiat started in 1979. Basquiat spotted Andy Warhol dining with curator Henry Geldzahler at a fancy restaurant on Manhattan’s Spring Street. Basquiat walked in and introduced himself, and Warhol purchased one of his postcards for $1, despite the dismissal of the famous curator he was having lunch with.
At this time in his career, in 1980, Basquiat abandoned graffiti and turned to paint, becoming one of the most interesting artists in downtown New York. He was noticed by gallerists, curators, and fellow artists for his disruptive work.
It’s 1982 when Basquiat and Warhol have their first lunch together, organised by influential gallerist Bruno Bischofberger. The two immediately clicked and just two hours after the departure Basquiat was delivering a painting to Warhol’s studio, Dos Cabezas, made after a self-portrait polaroid of the two at lunch.
Artistic Alliance and Friendship
From there, the relationship between Warhol and Basquiat developed to become an intense friendship. Warhol, who was notoriously private, found solace in the fresh energies and edgy life of the younger artist. Basquiat, in turn, looked to Warhol as a mentor and confidant, like the father figure that had been missing from his life.
Even further, the two are famous for painting together. The collaboration between Warhol and Basquiat started at the beginning of the 80s as a mail art project, which was initiated by galleries Bruno Bischofberger and included Italian artist Francesco di Clemente. The three would send each other’s partially finished canvases, in which one would add something to what he received from the other. The paintings were eventually shown by the gallerist in Zurich in 1984, in a show titled Collaborations, which was a huge success.
But as time went by, the relationship between Warhol and Basquiat grew to become a true friendship. And that’s when their work together took a completely different approach.
Creating Work Together: The Process
The Visual Language of Collaboration
Looking at the pieces the two artists were making together, it is easy to think of a conversation through painting. There is a strong sense of freedom in accepting and incorporating the other’s techniques, and the overlapping of those techniques creates the disruptive effect their work is known for.
According to their gallerist Bruno Bischofberger, Andy’s work was “a kind of poster style featuring heraldically hand-painted enlargements of advertising images, headlines, and company logos but partly in painterly, free brushstrokes, similar to a part of his early works of 1961 and early 1962.”
Basquiat, on the other hand, was using his idiosyncratic strokes, marking images out, adding icons and improvised text, quirky lettering, images of black people’s life, bringing his personal style to the canvas.
The beauty of this collaboration is that Warhol and Basquiat soon started adopting each other’s techniques. Basquiat started using silk screening, while Warhol would paint marks and strokes over them. Each artist would obliterate the other, painting over, deleting and in this way enhancing the other’s work.
As Keith Haring once put it: “Jean-Michel and Andy achieved a healthy balance. Jean respected Andy’s philosophy and was in awe of his accomplishments and mastery of color and images. Andy was amazed by the ease with which Jean composed and constructed his paintings and was constantly surprised by the never-ending flow of new ideas. Each one inspired the other to outdo the next. The collaborations were seemingly effortless. It was a physical conversation happening in paint instead of words…“
1985: Warhol / Basquiat Paintings
Warhol and Basquiat created a unique visual language that resonated with the cultural zeitgeist of the time. Not much time passed before their galleries found out about their secret paintings, resulting in a seminal exhibition, the Warhol/Basquiat Paintings show at the Tony Shafrazi Gallery in 1985 in New York.
Currently, the complete set of works produced collaboratively by Basquiat and Warhol is exhibited at the Fondation Louis Vuitton in Paris, serving as evidence of how the two artists had an impact, whether positive or negative, on an entire artistic and cultural period.
Criticism and Gossip
The exhibition had a huge impact on NY art scene but was also the beginning of many controversies. Some critics argued that Warhol was using Basquiat’s fresh blood to stay relevant. Other would say that Basquiat was making the best of Warhols’s celebrity status to boost his own career.
Despite a genuine friendship that had lasted for years, this would be the last exhibition of the collaborative work of Basquiat and Warhol.
The harsh criticism of critics went to the work, but also to the nature of their relationship. One of the worst comments came from art critic Vivien Ranor, who described their collaboration as “Warhol’s manipulations” and called Basquiat his “mascotte” in a famous NYT article. Basquiat, already fragile and erratic due to his drug dependencies, suffered from the gossip and even more from his talent not being recognised.
Immediately after the criticism and bad press, Basquiat stopped going to the Factory for the regular painting sessions with Warhol. Allegedly, he said he didn’t suffer for the “mascotte” remark, but clearly his ego had received a blow.
Accounts of the time report how after that turbulent moment Basquiat stopped calling Warhol and began going deeper into his heroin addiction. An entry in Andy’s diary says “Jean-Michel hasn’t called me in a month. So I guess it’s really over”.
Basquiat, Warhol and Their Legacy
Unfortunately, their friendship never recovered, as in 1987, the art world was rocked by the sudden death of Andy Warhol due to complications from gallbladder surgery.
Basquiat was devastated by the loss of his friend and collaborator, and his grief was palpable in the artwork he created in the following months. Just one year later, Basquiat would also pass away due to an overdose at the age of 27.
Despite their untimely deaths, the artistic legacies of Andy Warhol and Jean-Michel Basquiat continue to inspire and captivate audiences worldwide. Their unique collaboration, fueled by a profound connection and a shared desire to challenge the status quo, remains a testament to the power of artistic synergy.