Two worlds collide at Copenhagen’s ARKEN Museum of Modern Art. Pop Art artist Andy Warhol and street artist Jean-Michel Basquiat nurtured an unlikely partnership, creating more than 130 collaborative works.
By Camilla Jalving
The ARKEN Museum of Modern Art just south of Copenhagen currently features a major exhibition of works by Andy Warhol (1928-1987) and Jean-Michel Basquiat (1960-1988). The show spotlights a number of their collaborative works in addition to paintings by the two artists and offers fascinating insight into a partnership between two artists of very different natures who nonetheless found common ground.
Warhol was in 1983 already an established artist famed for his images of Brillo boxes, Campbell soup cans and his portraits of such icons of the times as Marilyn Monroe and Chairman Mao. Basquiat, on the other hand, was only just making a name for himself in New York. An African American, he garnered attention with his wild and expressive style, which with its haywire rendering of symbols and alphabetical letters drew energy from graffiti.
A few years earlier, Basquiat had arrived in Manhattan as a penniless and homeless young man. Using his artist name, SAMO© (Same Old Shit), he had sold homemade T-shirts and postcards on the streets of Greenwich Village and developed his own lyrical style of graffiti that he would render on walls and gallery facades, all with the aim of getting noticed – and he succeeded. He was soon feted by gallery owners, critics and fellow artists and gave up his spray paint for paintbrushes and oil sticks.
As a teenager, Basquiat had been infatuated with Warhol’s art. He visited The Factory on several occasions from 1980, but it wasn’t until Warhol’s dealer, Bruno Bischofberger, suggested that the two artists try collaborative painting that their partnership crystallised. Initially, Italian painter Francesco Clemente (b. 1952) was also part of the circle but it soon became clear that Warhol and Basquiat were the ones who made the sparks fly and who could nurture the most poignant dialogue.
“A physical conversation in colours.” That is how artist colleague Keith Haring (1958-90) described the relationship between Warhol and Basquiat during their sessions at The Factory where they would create vivid, energised artwork. Here, Warhol’s symbols from mainstream culture and advertising would meld with Basquiat’s motifs from the world of jazz, sport, anatomy, zoology, history and images from New York.
On occasion their conversations would be heated and battles would unfold on canvas. With his oil-pastel scribble and fiery brushwork, Basquiat would invade Warhol’s silkscreen or hand painted motifs crossing them out.
“I cross out words so you will see them more: the fact that they are obscured makes you want to read them,” Basquiat once stated when explaining his practice of crossing out, which in his collaboration with Warhol became his most powerful weapon.
A rebel dressed in Armani
The partnership with Basquiat gave Warhol an infusion of energy at a time when his career was starting to wane. And it gave Basquiat the decisive push in reaching the zenith of his art world career. He now became part of the vibrant Manhattan scene and its nightclubs such as Mudd Club and Studio 54, where Madonna, Basquiat’s girlfriend for a short while, and Blondie singer Debbie Harry used to hang out. Basquiat also became a fixture at The Factory where celebrities and the up-and-coming would jostle for a little limelight. In 1984, *The Village Voice* hailed Basquiat as the most promising artist on the contemporary art scene. And the year after, Basquiat appeared on the cover of the February edition of *New York Times Magazine* barefooted and wearing a paint-splattered suit. The young street artist had become part of the establishment – a rebel wearing an Armani suit.
Artistically, the two artists also benefitted greatly from each other. While Basquiat, inspired by Warhol, started experimenting with silkscreen techniques, Warhol, after 20 years of dedication to silkscreen, film, photography and other such media, started to paint again. Warhol made the following entry in his diary on 17 September 1984: “Jean-Michel has made me paint in a different way, and that’s a good thing.” Mentor and prodigy would constantly switch roles.
Warhol and Basquiat held an exhibition in 1985 of their collaborative works at gallery Tony Shafrazi in New York. The show was given a mixed reception. One critic voiced the opinion that Warhol was only using Basquiat to boost his own flagging career and furthermore called Basquiat Warhol’s mascot. Basquiat was deeply hurt and although it never came to a break between the two artists, their partnership fizzled out. Basquiat’s visits to The Factory would become increasingly rare and, nurturing a busy career, he wasn’t in New York all that often.
In 1987, Warhol died tragically of a complication following a routine operation. His death was a hard blow to Basquiat, who lost a good friend and mentor he had known for a very intense, though short period of his life in which his existence had been transformed from that of an unknown street artist to world celebrity. Basquiat died a year later of an overdose of heroin. Aged just 27, Basquiat joined the famous club of stars whose lives and careers have been cut regrettably short.
Warhol and Basquiat were the stuff legends are made of. They enriched each other and left a deeply fascinating art legacy – a fusion of two very different worlds and artistic sensibilities. See for yourself at ARKEN this autumn.