It will not provide any new answers, but it might point to some new questions. The famous collaboration, which has been wrapped in layers upon layers of mystification over the years, has been a subject much deliberated in the art world, as well as the various and plentiful discourses of popular culture. Many a times, the stories tried to unravel what was really happening with the two artists, the intricate details of their relationship and its abrupt ending. Consequently, it seemed as though these stories had taken a life of their own, making the discussion on art intertwined with various aspects of the existential situations of the two great stars. Much like the title of this article suggests, many aspects of the Warhol and Basquiat story never happened and the proliferation of popular culture discourses did its part to mystify everything greatly. Here, we are going to try to address only some of the questions which might be important for understanding the prolific collaboration of the 1980s. It is up to you, dear reader, to take those questions for yourself and make up your mind – is it really about the “truth” or what we want to read into it?
Andy Warhol and Jean-Michel Basquiat collaboration had deeply been a result of the particular moment when the two began their journey through the world together. Quite different, in terms of individuality and artistic expression aspirations, the two found a way to incorporate various levels of inputs in the collaborative work. Creating together mostly during 1984 and 1985, Warhol and Basquiat made close to two hundred works. Apart from these instances, all the discourses forming around the two seem to shift toward those stories which don’t concern the art itself. The scenario of an article, a documentary, even a debate among art enthusiasts, always seems to follow the same line – who was “using” who, how and why did it end, was it the infusing of “new blood” for an artist who needed a jolt or, perhaps, the seeking of attention by a young artist who strived for stardom, and so on… Add to this the tragic and untimely exits from the stage of both main characters, and there you have it – what more would a story need, why ask other questions?
We are faced with endless possibilities to approach a subject matter such as this one. One that instantly comes to mind relates to the question of market value. This concerns at least two aspects. One reduces the collaboration to “pure” aspirations for profit. And why shouldn’t it? Warhol has said on many occasions that business is a form of art and Basquiat seemed to understand quite well that the scene of the 1980s in terms of the art market. On the other hand, from the perspective of contemporaneity, the collaboration is, as often as not, analyzed through the lens of the present market value of artwork. However, although this represents a legitimate and informed approach, let us take a different direction.
It is no secret that the art of Jean-Michel Basquiat was heavily influenced by his racial background, personally and on the plane of his artistic expression. However, it is interesting to contemplate on ways how this had happened. Through the reading of the career path of Basquiat, one can come to better understand the art scene of the 1980s. The reception of the artist’s work seems to have frequently been soaked in discrimination. This goes for the critics as well as art dealers and collectors. On the one hand, Basquiat was interesting to the public for bringing to the surface the symbolism of the ritual, the magical and the intriguing, with the characteristic style of his expression. On the other hand, as an individual, he seemed to have brought the spirit of difference in the “racially tedious” art scene. But that’s just it – it is not a question of whether someone recognizes these instances as “positive” or “negative.” It is the question of an artist who had been faced with the notion of otherness throughout his life and, especially, career. Even when he had been expressing himself as SAMO, Basquiat had been building a sense of self, trying to confront what his identity represents (or should represent). Jean-Michel Basquiat had been forming his artistic voice in the “Bermuda triangle” of street art, Western culture and the sediments of racial connotations.
Perhaps the collaboration with Warhol empowered Jean-Michel Basquiat to address the notions of the popular culture, as well as the whole contemporary art scene, incorporating what he found to be most important when it comes to the freedom of expressing himself. Could this be the driving force which made the collaborative works possible? Through a short (and inevitably simplified) contextual analysis of some of the collaborative works, let us try to investigate the impact of the artwork on a symbolic cultural level. Paramount piece can be perceived as true paradigm of the text and context that interested Warhol and Basquiat. It resonates the dialectical approach to the creation of art, since it can be said that the duo created in an atmosphere of a dynamic silent dialogue of styles. What does this mean? In one interview (you can listen to the artist in the documentary Jean-Michel Basquiat: Radiant Child) Basquiat had said that, usually, Warhol would start a canvas and then he would paint over it. Paramount incorporates the instances of the illusions of Hollywood and, with heavy symbolism depicting the decade, it resonates the socio-economical context of a time period. In addition to attributes criticizing the economy, there is a personal “note” from Basquiat, reflected in the black stick figure drowning in the yellow pool in the centre of the piece. This thesis-antithesis creative process is also visible in the GE piece, in which Warhol contributed with the General Electric logo and Basquiat continued to incorporate the street art influenced figures of his style, conveying a two-faced world of the American lifestyle. It can be argued that this piece (along with other ones we talk about in this paragraph) conveys the respect which Warhol had for the young artist and his social commentary. Through this kind of work, Warhol, as a self-proclaimed commercial artist of the previous decades, addressed the issues of domestic and international affairs of the 1980s. Finally, if we were to look at the China piece, the two artist showed the sensibility of understanding the influence of the Western culture on the once closed out country, reflecting the notion of soft power implemented in the United States foreign policy. This piece also conveys a notion of otherness which came to be an important concept in the work of Basquiat. Here, we had only begun to scratch the surface of the abundance of meaning situated in the collaborative works of the two artists. Faced with these works, one feels privy to a particular chronicle of an era, constructed by transgenerational and influential artistic minds of the 20th century…
So, should this be a story of love, fear, jealousy and uncertainty, or is there something else we need to address? It can be argued that the world of art strives on the process of mystification. On a journey of trying to understand those instances of a story which conveys “a true report” of the matter at hand, one tends to incorporate, purposefully or incidentally, new layers of meaning. In this regard, and especially concerning the relationship of Warhol and Basquiat, there is no escaping the attributes of mystification. However, maybe we shouldn't focus on the dwelling on the “human condition” or “reasons” why certain discourses had come to be… Rather, we need to look at those instances as collateral products of that which should matter most – it is not the individual(s) who reside(s) in the centre of meaning, but the story itself. To understand the Warhol-Basquiat relationship, one must look at the artwork and find the meaning behind the articulation of art and culture which the two had managed to achieve. A daunting and challenging task, isn't it?