Basquiat and Warhol: Exploitative or even-handed relationship?

Basquiat and Warhol - wall in Wynwood, Miami FL

Basquiat and Warhol, the Pop Art master, became good friends and constant collaborators, creating works of art that were vibrant and brilliant.  Was this relationship authentic, however, or did it have a slightly darker side?

During the rise of the hip-hop, punk, and street art movements of the late 1970’s, Basquiat started his rise to fame.  The burgeoning artistic movement was an important outlet for the man. He would then go on to make an indelible stamp it with his wild, eccentric vision. Basquiat’s celebrity status in the early and mid-80’s was renowned worldwide. He remained an important voice in the art world for his entire life, which was tragically cut short in 1988.

Basquiat’s Beginnings

Basquiat - high school drop out
Basquiat – Teenager

As a young, half-Haitian, Half-Puerto Rican, rebellious, Highschool dropout, Basquiat’s life growing up was difficult and fraught with peril.  His mother, having gone in and out of mental institutions during this time, was unable to protect him from his father, who banished him from the house upon hearing that his son failed conventional schooling.  Basquiat survived this time on the streets, selling T-shirts and homemade postcards to make ends meet.

SAMO is dead
SAMO tag – Basquiat and Al Diaz

With his friend, Al Diaz, in 1976, he started his artistic work spraying graffiti on buildings with the SAMO tag. The two created the SAMO tag and sprayed their work all over lower Manhattan until they were discovered by The Village Voice, who published an article about their collaborative efforts.  After the sudden influx of fame, the group split up, with SAMO IS DEAD written on many buildings signaling the end of this partnership.

When Basquiat and Warhol meet each other

Soon after being spotted, Basquiat began his official art career in 1980 and participated in numerous galleries.  His star was rising and his fame was becoming more and more discussed. During this time, he met Andy Warhol through the art dealer Bruno Bischofberger and the two would continue their relationship until Warhol’s death in 1987.

Basquiat and Warhol with Art gallery owner Bruno Bischofberger.

Basquiat idolized Warhol, to the point where he has a picture of the man above his bed.  It was incredibly important that he met his hero, and this meeting having occurred with the help of Bischofberger was an intense experience for Basquiat.  Bruno planned a meeting between the two over lunch one day, and Andy Warhol was ultimately extremely impressed by the young man.

Interestingly enough, the first reaction Warhol seemed to have of Basquiat was that he was a young upstart – someone who, according to Warhol’s Journals, “drives [him] crazy.” “Bruno discovered him and now he’s on Easy Street.” He would go on to say.  That is until the rest of the story comes out:

“Had lunch with them and then I took a Polaroid and he went back home and within two hours a painting was back, still wet, of him and me together. And I mean, just getting to Christie Street must have taken an hour.”

Afterward, the two would find themselves in an incredible, lifetime collaborative partnership that seemed to benefit Basquiat and Warhol considerably.

The Collaboration between Basquiat and Warhol

Even though some critics didn’t appreciate Basquiat and Warhol‘s relationship — some claiming that Basquiat was a fame-hungry leech trying to ride on Warhol’s reputation while others stating that Warhol was an opportunist who was using Basquiat’s talent for his own ends, the truth seems to show that the relationship was genuine, if fraught with frustrations.  Ronny Cutrone, a friend of the two, was quoted in a Biography of Andy Warhol saying that, “It was like some crazy Art-world marriage and they were the odd couple. 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.”

Basquiat and Warhol

The ten punching bags

Whether intentionally exploitive of Warhol or not, it is true that the young Basquiat felt deeply for the man, and created masterpieces with his idol. He felt uneasy and often overwhelmed by celebrity and saw Warhol as “a protective alter-ego.” The two created many pieces together, including “Ten Punching Bags,” a work created with the artists’ mutual love of Boxing.  It is said that Warhol would paint first, then Basquiat would layer his own work over top of the other man’s.  Together, they would create a compelling and wonderful collaborative style unique to themselves. In one of his journal entries during the beginning of their partnership, Warhol wrote, “[Jean-Michel] came up and painted over a painting that I did, and I don’t know if it got better or not.”

10 punching bags by Basquiat and Andy Warhol
Ten Punching Bags by Basquiat and Warhol

Olympic Rings

A famous collaboration of theirs was Olympic Rings, in which Warhol’s signature style – a silk-screened image of the traditional Olympic Rings, is modified and painted over by the energy and vision of Basquiat.  The rings seem to merge into a primal being of their own, with Basquiat blacking out the middles and inserting various shapes and faces into the print.  Warhol’s satire and Basquiat’s rebellious nature come through perfectly in this image, giving both artists the venue to combine their visions.

Olympic Rings - Basquiat and Warhol collaboration work
Olympic Rings – Basquiat and Warhol collaboration work

Untitled

Another such collaboration is Untitled, 1984-85, which depicts Basquiat’s famous skull alongside a Warhol-esque, red stomach.  The piece perfectly illustrates the techniques of both artists and also has the unique feature of combining perfectly – as if it’s saying that this is how true collaborators create unique art.  Keith Haring as well was to comment on the artists’ work, saying that it was like “a physical conversation happening in paint instead of words. The sense of humor, the snide remarks, the profound realizations, the simple chit-chat all happened with paint and brushes…There was a sense that one was watching something being unveiled and discovered for the first time. 

Untitled - Basquiat and Warhol art work
Untitled – Basquiat and Warhol art work

Recently sold by Elton John, Untitled is the perfect example of both of the artists’ Philosophies.  Basquiat’s trademarks, such as the text and skull, predominate and appear to almost be sprayed on afterwards – almost calling back to his graffiti days.  Warhol’s stomach contribution plays into his idea of undermining authorship.  It isn’t so much the painting itself, says Warhol scholar Blake Gopnik, but that “it’s the collaboration itself that matters.  They show Warhol taking yet another step to undermine the standard notions of unique authorship, which he’d done since his first Pop experiments.”  The gigantic, Basquiat and Warhol nine-foot painting was estimated at $1.1 million dollars.

Tension in the Relationship

Warhol and Basquiat paintings - Exhibition
Warhol and Basquiat paintings – Exhibition

As with most partnerships, the Basquiat-Warhol relationship ended with the artists barely speaking after their exhibition “Warhol and Basquiat: Paintings” opened in Soho to negative reviews, but to say that the two did not care for each other would be strange.  After Warhol’s death, for instance, Basquiat was deeply saddened and would spiral further and further into himself.  It is no secret that Basquiat dealt with addiction problems in his life, and his personal relationships were affected by his constant heroin use.  Becoming more and more isolated, Basquiat attempted to relax and regain control of his life through sobriety, planning a trip to Maui.  Despite this attempt, however, Basquiat would die of a heroin overdose in 1988.

Basquiat and Warhol legacy

Basquiat and Warhol
Basquiat and Warhol

Whatever the intent of either artist going into and maintaining the relationship, we can see that for a long period of time that the collaboration was successful and expanded the opportunities of both artists.  Basquiat becoming more famous and having his artistic voice heard worldwide was a direct benefit of his relationship with Warhol, who, likewise, gained a fresh energy and talent to lend to his own work.  It is clear that the two cared for each other deeply and the masterpieces they created, from Untitled to Olympic Rings will remain in the collective consciousness of the art world permanently.
In popular culture, there recently has been a play produced concerning the relationship of the two men as well: Collaboration: Warhol & Basquiat is a work that celebrates and critically examines the relationship of the two artists, detailing their meeting and the almost decade-long relationship the two of them had.

The Symbiosis of Collaboration

Kobra's mural in Williamsburg - basquiat and Warhol
Kobra’s mural in Williamsburg – Basquiat and Warhol

While certainly not a storybook friendship, the relationship between Basquiat and Warhol was certainly one that produced excellent art that bolstered the careers of both men.  It is impossible to talk about the inner motivations of both men, whether they were interested in using the other as much as possible or whether they genuinely cared for each other, because we cannot see into their (long deceased) minds.  Instead, we must look at what they left behind and the actions they took during this process.  Warhol speaks well of Basquiat in his journal, if often being frustrated, and Basquiat likewise idolized Warhol and was crushed hearing about his death.  It is clear that the relationship was unique and contained its ups and downs (like the odd, married couple they apparently appeared like), but there seems to be little evidence supporting an exploitative relationship from either end.  Truly Basquiat and Warhol genuinely seemed like two eccentric, brilliant minds coming to accord for a time, then parting.  We should be glad they did, looking at the works they left behind because we are all better.

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