Basquiat x Warhol: The Mutual Exploitation Exhibit

Basquiat x Warhol: The Mutual Exploitation Exhibit

by Genna Rivieccio (Paris, France)

It is the last weekend of the Basquiat x Warhol exhibition at Fondation Louis Vuitton. And, clearly, the final days have created a frenzy around seeing it before it’s gone. Not that this exhibit isn’t recycled over and over, ad infinitum, in museums across the globe. For, perhaps more than with any other artistic collaboration, it has sought to capture the imagination and delight of those who would like to believe that these prodigious men were something resembling “friends.” And maybe they were…or as close to friends as a young hetero Black firebrand could be with a snarky, rich, aging queen. What Warhol didn’t seem to fathom, however, is that Basquiat was actually far more cutting than he himself could ever be. And that shines through endlessly in the work that covered their brief collaborative period together. Complete with Basquiat’s depiction of Warhol as a banana with brown spots (a spoof on his illustrious cover for The Velvet Underground) and an enfeebled-looking Warhol trying to lift weights. If that isn’t a troll preying on the white-haired luminary’s worst fears about himself (namely, that he was hideous and weak), nothing is.

As someone whose art was known for critiquing the oppressive power structures and the colonialism inherent in everything, perhaps it seems slightly odd that Basquiat should go for working with a person like Warhol, who consistently applauded and upheld the status quo of power and capitalism in the work he did. Work that ultimately deified (as it paid homage to) those very things. Lifted them up and elevated them to “art status” (including, of course, the simple image of a Campbell’s soup can). But, like anyone who wishes to “make it” in the artistic medium of their choosing, Basquiat was as repelled by the Establishment as he was attracted to it. For who doesn’t want to be deemed “worthy” by the proverbial white oppressor that has conned the world for centuries into believing they are the end all, be all authority? The final say in what it means to “succeed”? As biographer Franklin Sirmans noted, Basquiat “saw the world in shades of gray, fearlessly juxtaposing corporate commodity structures with the social milieu he wished to enter: the predominantly white art world.”

No one better represented the predominately white art world in New York at that moment in time than Warhol. Basquiat knew that when he approached Warhol, who was dining with art critic/Met curator Henry Geldzahler at W.P.A. restaurant in SoHo (a joint that would also serve in footnote history as the establishment where Anthony Bourdain got his first job…and helped to “bankrupt the place in short order”). It was there that Basquiat sold the rich artist a postcard entitled, presciently enough, “Stupid Games, Bad Ideas.”[1] Because what better phrases could describe any attempt at working with an egomaniac like Warhol? But then, of course, who wasn’t an egomaniac in the Downtown scene of 80s New York (and New York in general)?

That’s how Basquiat would also end up in the arms of Madonna circa ’82[2] (and yes, she has her own undeniable history of exploiting men of color).[3] ’82 also happened to be the year he became the youngest artist to show work at Documenta, a famed exhibition for contemporary artists that takes place every five years in Kassel, Germany. Warhol, too, had work in the show that year, further signaling that their eventual collision was written on the wall. Orbiting all the same “Downtown people,” including Debbie Harry and Paige Powell, an associate publisher at Interview magazine. Granted, Basquiat’s art dealer, Bruno Bischofberger, would provide a more formal introduction than the one at W.P.A. before Powell came along.

It was during the Bischofberger-led introduction that Warhol, in typical fashion, snapped a Polaroid of Basquiat. According to Warhol, it was only about two hours after that meeting when Basquiat returned with a painting of the two of them he had titled “Dos Cabezas.”[4] “Two heads” theoretically being better than one, but not necessarily when so much ideological divergence was at play. Nonetheless, the two forged an alliance quickly, working together (à quatre mains-style) to churn out an incredible amount of work in such a short period. Ultimately leading to the 1985 art show at 163 Mercer Street that ran from September 14th to October 19th. Advertised simply as Warhol * Basquiat Paintings, the just-over-a-month-long exhibit would prove to be almost as lore-filled as the hours of work that led up to it.

Even back then, many regarded the Warhol/Basquiat “friendship” with more than a touch of cynicism. It was Ronnie Cutrone, a former assistant to Warhol at the Factory and a pop artist in his own right, who would remark of the duo’s symbiosis, “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.”[5] But it’s easy to tear a hole in the “logic” of the so-called symbiosis based on that statement alone. For Basquiat was already plenty famous and only getting more so. Rendering Andy the parasite taking advantage of Jean-Michel’s insecurities so as to stave off some of his own. Including the horrifying idea that he might not only be truly irrelevant, but that he had nothing left to “say” as an artist.

Watching Basquiat, a painter at the outset of his career with so much to let out, was obviously inspiring to a formerly cocooned Warhol. To boot, it brought out Warhol’s natural sense of lusty voyeurism, something that clearly emerges in the images he created (e.g., the “Jean-Michel Basquiat” silkscreen) and pictures he took of Basquiat. When Powell half-joked of Warhol’s overt “appreciation” of Basquiat (more to the point, his virile physique), “Are you starting up your gay affair again with Jean-Michel?” Warhol quickly snapped back, “Listen, I wouldn’t go to bed with him because he’s so dirty.” More than just a garden-variety level of assholeishness on Warhol’s part, this spoke to his own continued self-denial about his sexuality. Clinging to the idea that he was asexual as opposed to gay throughout his life,[6] Warhol was known for saying such things as, “Sex is more exciting on the screen and between the pages than between the sheets.” And sure, he’s not totally wrong. Plus, it was an attitude that clearly spared him from contracting AIDS as the 80s forged ahead and the disease ramped up throughout NYC and the world. The irony, of course, is that he still wouldn’t make it out of the 80s alive due, instead, to “ventricular fibrillation” by way of gallbladder surgery. In any case, his venomous comment about Basquiat’s dirtiness (whether or not it referred to the number of people he slept with) doesn’t exactly scream, “Genuine friendship!” And yet, most art enthusiasts don’t care either way if it was “real” or not because, to them, the work that resulted is. And that’s all that matters.

Even so, of the over eighty paintings displayed at Fondation Louis Vuitton, it seemed that none ever truly expressed a unified vision. Despite Keith Haring’s insistence that the duo was having a “conversation occurring through painting, instead of words” and that, in so doing, they created a “third distinctive and unique mind.” In truth, the only really distinctive elements occurred when Basquiat “defaced” Warhol’s work with especial gravitas. This includes paintings like the “Olympics” one, an homage to the 1984 Summer Olympics that was happening the year it was created. While Warhol traced the standard colored rings logo, Basquiat added a black face to it with something like a Mickey Mouse ear attached.

To be sure, Basquiat fully admitted to defacement as the name of the game for his “process” with Warhol, stating “[He] would put something very concrete or recognizable, like a newspaper headline or a product logo, and then I would sort of deface it.” And surely, more than just a part of him had to get off on that a little bit. Destroying the (already grafted) work of a white artist who seemed to have everything come so much more easily to him with regard to securing fame. What’s more, where Warhol enjoyed being a “spectacle,” Basquiat wanted to be taken seriously. And it was much harder for him to sidestep spectacle and “curiosity” status as a young Black artist.

In truth, Basquiat’s “use” of Warhol felt like a way to achieve “payback” for being puppeteered all his life by the white man (hence, his insatiable desire to drop out of school). As Warhol was only too happy to do the same (exploit) under the guise of “taking him under his wing.” Especially since, if we’re all being honest with ourselves, Basquiat had more talent (and, of course, originality) in his left pinkie than Warhol had in his entire body. He didn’t need anyone’s wing to be taken under. Even at that young age when one could argue his talent was still “rough-hewn.”

And yet, were it not for his pursuit of/decision to work with Warhol, he might never have unmasked the wigged artist for the imposter he was. In so many ways, Basquiat seemed to be pulling back the curtain on the “Wizard of Oz” that was both Warhol and the art world itself (especially the New York art world). But, as Dorothy (or even Barbie) can attest, sometimes knowing the truth you always surmised can be so much worse than remaining in the dark. Especially when it ends up getting you branded as “Warhol’s mascot”—which is precisely what happened after the show initially went up. At which point Basquiat was quick to distance himself from his “mentor.”

Warhol, no stranger to sudden rifts with friends, had likely already prepared for the unavoidable coda. But even before that point, as usual, Warhol’s patented brand of callousness (the same one that prompted him to drop Edie Sedgwick like a hot, very chic potato) would also become manifest in comments like, “Paige is upset—Jean-Michel Basquiat is really on heroin [as opposed to what? “not really” on heroin?]—and she was crying, telling me to do something, but what can you?” and “Jean-Michel came by and said he was depressed and was going to kill himself and I laughed and said it was just because he hadn’t slept for four days.”

Warhol’s distinct suppression of all emotion, some might argue, was due to his own traumas, particularly growing up gay at a time when it was very much not “okay” to be that. Least of all in a butch town like Pittsburgh. Even so, you didn’t see Basquiat, or Sedgwick, for that matter, acting like an automaton just because he had struggled (this includes not only being Black in America, but the institutionalization of his mother when he was ten—her mental health haunting him for the rest of his life the same way Gladys Baker’s haunted Warhol’s beloved subject matter, Marilyn Monroe). One might say that Warhol was attracted to highly emotional people because it was a trait he so blatantly lacked—yet one that is most synonymous with what it means to be an artist. Inevitably, his attraction to those who wore their heart on their sleeve would end up repulsing him as much as it initially appealed to him. As though he just wanted a brief tour of emotionalism before things got too icky. Which they did anyway.

Funnily enough, their pièce de résistance, “Ten Punching Bags (The Last Supper),” is not only suggestive of how Basquiat and Warhol each served as the other’s punching bag for different reasons, but also foreshadowed a Jesus * Judas-like rift in the aftermath of their collaboration (except that Basquiat didn’t need anyone to kill him—he could do that all on his own). The image of the first Jesus in the row fittingly reads, “Shit Judge” on top of it. Somehow, it feels like this could just as easily apply to Basquiat’s assessment of Warhol and the rest of the hoity-toity art world. As one walks across the length of the punching bags, the use of the word “judge” amplifies—it is eventually repeated five times, as though to emphasize that Basquiat might actually be the one judging instead of allowing himself to be judged. Doing so through the insidious method of infiltrating the Establishment at the source: through Andy.

Long after they worked together, Andy would continue to be held up as some savior-like (all goes back to The Last Supper, doesn’t it?) figure in Basquiat’s life when, in fact, it was exactly the opposite. Although exploiting Warhol with just as much gusto for his own benefit, Basquiat was the one who breathed new life into the final decade of Warhol’s career. And at a time when he had all but given up on painting, save for his society portraits…something he only did for money. As he did most things. Which is not the least of what separates Basquiat from his wigged-out elder: the former was an artist, Warhol was an unapologetic capitalist.

This is, after all, the man who had the audacity to say, “Being good in business is the most fascinating kind of art.” Going on to call “good business” the “best art.” Talk about being made for 80s-era yuppiedom. Meanwhile, Basquiat grappled constantly with the guilt of becoming a millionaire. As though to self-flagellate and repent, Basquiat spent so much of his art money on the drugs that would become his undoing. As journalist Michael Shnayerson describes it in his book, BOOM: Mad Money, Mega Dealers, and the Rise of Contemporary Art, “The more money Basquiat made, the more paranoid and deeply involved with drugs he became.” As someone who saw (and lived) how the other half lives while wandering the streets of Downtown homeless (albeit a willing choice he made over continuing to live with his father), Basquiat knew money was, in fact, the root of all evil. Indeed, his “Third Eye” painting with Warhol gets to the heart of that matter by painting over Warhol’s banal, They Live-esque renderings of prices for chuck steak and rib roast with a man featuring the words “Third Eye” over his forehead. As, apparently, that’s what it takes to see through the glitz and glamor of capitalism.

This is the single most defining reason why the two are so diametrically opposed. Not because of their skin color, their childhood backgrounds or their artistic styles. But because one man was a true visionary with something to say and the other was a reflective cipher, repurposing advertising as art. A mirror of the post-war boom that would bolster neoliberalism as not just the “best” system, but the “only” system. That much was never made clearer than in the 80s, when these two forces crashed head-on into one another. And, soon after, watched the friendship burn. Nonetheless, there’s scarcely any mention of Basquiat (in his obituaries, and now, even his standard biographies) without reference to his relationship with Warhol. As though he cursed himself forever to be associated with this lily and lily-livered man by trying to carve out a place for himself among the white spaces of the galleries.

In a certain sense, the perpetual showcasing of the Warhol * Basquiat exhibit (which has since, in a sign o’ the times, become Basquiat x Warhol) is more of a triumph for Warhol than it is for Basquiat. Even though the latter made it practically impossible for future generations not to see just how much he was trolling Warhol. At least to those who aren’t faux highbrow art fuckers. Unfortunately, most people are either that or they take things at face value. Accepting the paintings just the way they’re presented without looking beneath the surface to see the flagrant hostility.

All Photos by Genna Rivieccio.

[1] Stuart Brumfitt, “New York Inspiration | Tales from Teen Basquiat’s Best Friend,” Amuse, 20 September 2017 [21 September 2023].

[2] Sarah Cascone, “Madonna Says Jean-Michel Basquiat Took Back and Destroyed Paintings He Gave Her,” ArtNet, 16 March 2015 [21 September 2023].

[3] Genna Rivieccio, “Pillaging Loot That’s Already Been Plundered: On Beyoncé Doing Madonna,” Culled Culture, 6 August 2022 [21 September 2023].

[4] Andy Warhol, The Andy Warhol Diaries, edited by Pat Hackett, New York: Warner Books, 1989, Internet Archive [21 September 2023].

[5] Ally Faughnan, “The best, worst, and weirdest parts of Warhol and Basquiat’s friendship,” Dazed Digital, 28 May 2019 [21 September 2023].

[6] Elaina Patton, “The Andy Warhol Diaries explores how the iconic artist was shaped by his great loves,” NBC News, 10 March 2022 [21 September 2023].