At Large  July 10, 2023  Paul Laster

Jean-Michel Basquiat's Life and Times Examined in Two European Shows

Collection Bischofberger, Männedorf-Zurich, Suisse © The Estate of Jean-Michel Basquiat. Licensed by Artestar, New-York. © The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, Inc. / Licensed by ADAGP, Paris 2023

Jean-Michel Basquiat, Andy Warhol, OP OP, 1984-1985 Acrylic and oilstick on canvas, 287 × 417 cm

A self-taught artist, Jean-Michel Basquiat fortuitously met his artistic hero, Andy Warhol, when he was beginning to pursue his celebrated creative career. At seventeen years old, Basquiat spotted Warhol having lunch with curator Henry Geldzahler at a restaurant in Soho. He approached the artist and NYC Commissioner of Cultural Affairs to show them his postcard-size collages. Interrupting their conversation, Geldzahler commented that Basquiat was too young to consider, but Warhol bought one of the emerging artist’s works for a dollar.

 It was at that point in time, the young Basquiat, who was just starting to make a name for himself by tagging the art neighborhood streets as part of the graffiti artists duo SAMO, met his destiny. “Andy Warhol was the apple of his eye since he was fifteen or sixteen. He wanted Warhol’s fame. Jean-Michel had a mission to accomplish; he wanted to be somebody and he was hell-bent on getting there,” artist and curator Mary-Ann Monforton shared in Basquiat, Phoebe Hoban’s 1998 biography of the artist. Hoban makes the case that Basquiat was certainly not alone in his admiration, stating “virtually everyone of his generation had been influenced, in one way or another, by the artist who more than any other seemed to embody contemporary culture.”

In Paris, the exhibition “Basquiat × Warhol. Painting four hands” at the Fondation Louis Vuitton (April 5 - August 28, 2023) features more than 80 Basquiat and Warhol collaborative paintings and drawings made between 1984 and 1985 and a group of three-way artworks made by Basquiat, Warhol, and Francesco Clemente, as well as artworks by fellow artists of the times as Keith Haring, Kenny Scharf, along with a variety of photographs and ephemera. 

© Estate of Jean-Michel Basquiat Licensed by Artestar, New York, 2023 © The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, Inc. / Licensed by ADAGP, Paris © Fondation Louis Vuitton / Marc Domage

Exhibition View of "Basquiat x Warhol, Painting Four Hands", Fondation Louis Vuitton, Paris

Meanwhile, in Basel, Switzerland, the solo show "Basquiat. The Modena Paintings" at the Fondation Beyeler (June 11 - August 27, 2023) offers a suite of eight large-scale paintings that the artist made in the Italian city of Modena over a two-week period for a 1982 exhibition that never took place—until now, more than 40 years later.

After seeing a selection of the Basquiat/Warhol collaborations in a much-anticipated exhibition at New York’s Tony Shafrazi Gallery in 1985, where 16 of the paintings were shown for the first time, Keith Haring appropriately called the visual dialogue, “a conversation occurring through painting, instead of words.” Bruno Bischofberger, the Zurich-based megadealer who represented both artists, had initiated the collaboration between Basquiat, Warhol, and Clemente. He thought of it as a contemporary version of the Surrealist’s exquisite corpse collaborations, and as a way for the elder Pop artist to engage the gallery’s younger artists. Bischofberger also saw the collaborations as a means to stimulate Warhol’s weakening market, as his previous body of dollar-sign paintings had, ironically, failed to find many buyers.

After completing the three-way works, Basquiat and Warhol continued collaborating—initially doing small works together before turning them into an almost daily production on a grand scale after a move of the Interview magazine office out of the Factory created more studio space. According to friends and staff who saw the paintings in process, including Paige Powell, a Warhol assistant and Basquiat’s girlfriend at the beginning of the collaboration, the two artists would take turns painting—often working on canvases several times in succession.“He [Warhol] would start most of the paintings," Basquiat told Tamra Davis and Becky Johnston in a taped 1985 interview. "He would put something concrete down, a newspaper headline or a product, and then I would sort of deface it and then would try to get him to work some more on it. And then I would work more on it.”

Collection of Norman and Irma Braman © The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, Inc. / Licensed by ADAGP, Paris 2023

Andy Warhol, Portrait of Jean-Michel Basquiat as David, 1984, Synthetic polymer and silkscreen ink on canvas, 228.6 x 176.5 cm

Highlights in the show include the Basquiat/Warhol 1984-85 collaborations OP OP, which has the Warhol painted TOP COP ADMITS HANKY-PANKY newspaper headline, drawing of dentures and corporate logos that are accented and painted over by Basquiat, and Arm and Hammer II, where Basquiat turns one of Warhol’s hand-painted renditions of the brand’s logo into a commemorative coin with a black musician on the face of it.

Other not-to-be-missed pieces are Warhol’s 1984 silkscreen painting Portrait of Jean-Michel Basquiat as David, which captures the semi-nude artist in nothing but a jockstrap and brings to mind Warhol’s 1963 painting Double Elvis [Ferus Type], a similarly iconic silver painting of another era, and Basquiat’s 1982 painting Dos Cabezas, a portrait of the two artists based on a polaroid shot at The Factory. In the catalogue, Bischofberger recounts how in October 1982 he brought Basquiat to The Factory to have Warhol photograph him and create a work on canvas in exchange for a work by the 21-year-old artist. Warhol photographed Basquiat around 30 times with his Polaroid camera (the photos were later used for several “David” pictures) and at the end of the session, Basquiat asked Bischofberger to take a few shots of Jean-Michel and Andy.

While Warhol and the dealer went to lunch nearby, Basquiat ran back to his studio and made a painting for Warhol, based on the photo of the two of them, and had his assistant race to the restaurant with it, still wet. “Oh, I’m so jealous,” Warhol famously told Bischofberger. “He’s faster than me.”

Collection Bischofberger, Männedorf-Zurich, Suisse © The Estate of Jean-Michel Basquiat. Licensed by Artestar, New-York. © The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, Inc. / Licensed by ADAGP, Paris 2023

Jean-Michel Basquiat, Andy Warhol, Arm and Hammer II, 1984-1985, Acrylic and oilstick on canvas, 193 x 285 cm

The story surrounding the Modena Paintings is equally as fascinating, as it takes us back to Basquiat’s breakout days. While tagging the streets with enigmatic texts and hawking his collages and handmade T-shirts, the artist started making art for exhibitions. In July 1980, he made a splash in a seminal group show called “The Times Square Show,” which featured a new generation of artists exhibited in a shuttered massage parlor. By February of the following year, Basquiat commanded an entire gallery wall in the influential “New York/New Wave” show, curated by Diego Cortez at P.S.1, Institute for Art and Urban Resources in Long Island City.

The exhibition was a turning point for Basquiat: it attracted the attention of Bischofberger, who made his first purchases of the artist’s work from the show; Galleria d’Arte Emilio Mazzoli then gave him his first one-person exhibition in 1981; and Annina Nosei, in turn, provided studio and living space for Basquiat. She then gave him his first American solo in 1982 and introduced his work to major collectors.

Mazzoli’s gallery was in Modena, Italy. He would bring artists there, set them up in a big warehouse studio and provide them with a hotel room and all of the materials that they needed to quickly make as much work as possible for a show. It was Basquiat’s first trip out of the country, but even though he didn’t speak Italian he soon discovered the ancient city’s underbelly and clubs, where he could find sex and drugs with the money supplied by Mazzoli. Although his work, which he still signed as SAMO, was only bought by the dealer and his close friends, Mazzoli invited him back for a second solo show in 1982, but he had bigger plans.

Private Collection © Estate of Jean-Michel Basquiat. Licensed by Artestar, New York Photo: Robert Bayer

Jean-Michel Basquiat, Untitled (Angel), 1982, Acrylic and spray paint on canvas, 244 x 429 cm

The deal for the second exhibition was arranged by Annina Nosei, who was now representing the artist in New York. The plan was for Basquiat to spend a week in the studio making a lot of paintings that would be exhibited at the gallery and reproduced in a book. Basquiat was supposed to travel with Nosei, but he purposely missed the plane. Picking up the tab for his pal Kai Eric and on-and-off girlfriend Suzanne Mallouk to travel with him, they landed in Rome and stayed for a week before heading north to Modena.

After lunch with Mazzoli, “Eventually we got taken over to this industrial section of town, where there was a whole hangar that had been rented for Jean-Michel to paint in,” Eric later told Hoban for her Basquiat book. “I was really wondering whether Jean was going to be able to handle something of this scale, but he seemed totally unfazed. He had no preconceived notions of what he was going to do, and he just began painting. The spontaneity was incredible.”

Basquiat was supposed to stay for the show, but he suddenly flew back to New York before the arrangements for the exhibition could be finalized. In a little over a week, however, he had completed eight massive paintings, which Nosei ended up buying back from Mazzoli. She immediately sold four of them to Bischofberger, who was by then representing the artist in Europe, and the rest to international collectors. ''They set it up for me so I'd have to make eight paintings in a week, for the show the next week,'' Basquiat told The New York Times Sunday magazine in 1985. ''That was one of the things I didn't like. I made them in this big warehouse there. Annina, Mazzoli and Bruno were there. It was like a factory, a sick factory. I hated it.” “I wanted to be a star,” the frustrated artist added, “not a gallery mascot.''

Private Collection © Estate of Jean-Michel Basquiat. Licensed by Artestar, New York Photo: Adam Reich

Jean-Michel Basquiat, The Field Next to the Other Road, 1982, Acrylic, enamel paint, spray paint, oil stick, and ink on canvas, 221 x 401.5 cm 

At the Fondation Beyeler, the first painting from the series that viewers encounter is Untitled (Woman with RomanTorso [Venus]) on a wall in the lobby, just outside the rest of the exhibition. Quickly rendered, with areas of pentimento and overpainting, it depicts two floating and standing female figures—one angelic and the other headless and armless—that seem to be portraying his traveling companion and lover on the trip, Mallouk (whom he often called Venus), in relationship with a crude interpretation of the statue of Venus de Milo, a subject that he sometimes repeated in other works during this period. This canvas is a prime example of Basquiat’s mix of free association imagery with subjects culled from art history.

In the main gallery, the paintings Untitled (Angel) and Untitled (Devil) reveal the expressive artist at his best. The conflict between good and evil is huge and so are the figures. The wide-eyed angel fills the canvas while heroically raising its arms to offer a blessing or hold back danger, while the devil appears to be dripping in blood as it makes its way through the field of chaotic brushwork that surrounds it.

The two cow paintings in this gallery, however, may be a commentary on how the artist felt in the studio. In The Field Next to the Other Road, the haloed, skeletal figure with a gold skull seems to be Basquiat (the golden boy) leading the cash cow, with its gold head and brushstroke-filled, painterly body. Similarly, in Untitled (Cowparts) the devilish, expressively rendered cow has just left a steamy pile of shit, which may be how he also thought about being corralled into making these brilliantly painted canvases in such a short amount of time.

About the Author

Paul Laster

Paul Laster is a writer, editor, curator, advisor, artist, and lecturer. New York Desk Editor for ArtAsiaPacific, Laster is also a Contributing Editor at Raw Vision and Whitehot Magazine of Contemporary Art and a contributing writer for Art & Object, OculaGalerie, ArtsySculptureTime Out New YorkConceptual Fine Arts, and Two Coats of Paint. Formerly the Founding Editor of Artkrush, he began The Daily Beast’s art section and was Art Editor at Russell Simmons’ OneWorld Magazine. Laster has also been the Curatorial Advisor for Intersect Art & Design and an Adjunct Curator at P.S.1 Contemporary Art Center, now MoMA PS1.

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