Warhol and Basquiat: friendship stories (also) can end badly
Editor’s note: This article was first published in the print edition of the Fall/Winter 2022-23 issue of Luxus+ magazine. Click here to view the full issue.
Once upon a time, there was a crazy and terrible story of friendship between the pope of pop art of the 80s and the child king of the underground. Between the street and the celebrity, there is sometimes only one step. But between brotherly love and hate, there can also be only a tiny step.
This is the story of a meeting between two artists-painters that everything opposes. One is a patron of the arts, a video artist, a painter and a music producer. The other is at the beginning a street artist. Before becoming, at the end of the XXth century, a true prodigy of painting, exhibited in all the art galleries of the Big Apple. Their culture, their environment, their childhood, their influences, their lifestyle, their ethnicity, everything distinguished them and made them, a priori, two incompatible personalities. And yet. As we often say, opposites attract. And it is indeed that which made the strength of their artistic and friendly union.
So what was the secret of this almost improbable affair? We will never know. Both knew they would become artists, but not how. Warhol took his destiny into his own hands, while Basquiat took his destiny into his own hands.
Both were born to immigrant parents and had fairly normal childhoods. Andy Warhol, whose real name was Andrew Warhola, was born in Pittsburgh (Pensylvania) in the 1920s to Slovakian parents. Jean-Michel Basquiat was born in Brooklyn in the 1960s to Haitian and Puerto Rican parents. Neither good nor bad at school, they both cultivated the same passion for art, drawing and painting. Feeling unappreciated during their youth, they found in a simple object, a companion that would follow them throughout their lives and until their death: the paintbrush.
“Daddy one day, I will be famous”.
Basquiat dreams of recognition and fame. Not knowing what to do with his life, he wanders the streets of New York, takes drugs, scribbles postcards and paints on T-shirts to make some money.
(After finishing school, Andy Warhol arrived in the Big Apple where he began to make a name for himself as a designer for fashion magazines such as Glamour and Vogue before setting up his first exhibition.
Warhol’s pragmatism is felt throughout his work. In 1962, at the age of 44, he exhibited his first works. At the time, Basquiat was only two years old and did not yet know that his future would be both as dark as the darkness and as bright as the splashes of color he would bring to his paintings. Every artist adopts an assumed name, an alias, a signature that becomes an identity in its own right for many of them. In his early days, Jean Michel Basquiat covered the walls of New York with an inscription: SAMO (for Same Old Shit). This became his signature.
Day or night, whether it’s windy, snowy or rainy, Basquiat is unstoppable. We don’t see him but we guess him. We don’t recognize him but we guess his presence by his SAMO inscriptions. Keith Harring, one of the precursors of street art, said that he knew, reading these letters, walking in the streets that Basquiat had passed by. Filled with torment and remorse and after an argument with one of his friends, he “kills” SAMO by simply writing: “SAMO is dead” inside and outside the buildings as well as in the entrance of Patricia Field’s store, on 8th street. This woman with her flamboyant hair, large glasses and charming smile was one of the first to exhibit Basquiat’s work in her store. At that time, for him, these paintings were nothing but futility. Lab coats, disposable suits and all sorts of materials and objects were his canvas. And he continues to sell his postcards on the street, which will lead to one of the most fantastic encounters of his life…
“It seemed inevitable that Basquiat and Warhol would become friends”
In 1980, Andy Warhol is an accomplished artist. Between TV shows, exhibitions and other artistic talents, he overshadows Lichtenstein. He was nicknamed the Pope of Pop. In New York, everyone knows him and he knows everyone, including Jean-Michel Basquiat. He once saw him on the street, painting on the ground between two New York streets, caught between passers-by, his desire to do drugs and his desire to succeed.
Warhol immediately saw something, or rather someone, in him. When he’s not in a car or on a plane, touring the world exhibiting his work, Warhol likes to wander. The man with the silver hair, with the air of a mad scientist and with a pale face, passes again and again in front of the young man with bleached hair. When the mood strikes him, he buys him $10 postcards.
Soon after, in the early 1980s, Basquiat’s art began to evolve, and so did he. He began to exhibit his work and was spotted by Bruno Bischofberger, a Swiss gallery owner, friend and agent of Warhol. And one day, the destiny of the two art geniuses came together, thanks to this gallery owner from the old continent.
This ordinary-looking man, with blue eyes, a bald head and a salt-and-pepper moustache, would be the link, the common denominator between these two great artists. They met in 1982 at the Factory, the artists’ studio opened by Warhol in 1964. Jean-Michel idolizes Andy, he is afraid of him. Always disheveled, with blond hair, a constant pout on his face, he is what white is to black, what ying is to yang, that is to say the opposite. And yet, Warhol was quickly attracted to Basquiat’s energy. In Warhol, Basquiat found a father figure who made him take up his painting again, which he had abandoned for a long time.
“It was like a kind of crazy marriage, the odd couple of the art world. Their 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 an image of rebellion,” said Ronnie Cutrone, a close friend of the Pope of Pop Art, about the friendship, which was one of the most talked-about topics in the art world for many years.
They soon became inseparable. Basquiat goes up to his studio to work out, they show up together at social dinners and party at the latest fashionable clubs. They go to beauty salons: “Jean-Michel and I went to Yanna’s to get our nails done. And you know, my nails are doing better. Between the two of us, we would make a good series for Vogue” writes Warhol in one of his notebooks.
Andy tries to dissuade Jean-Michel from taking drugs, his evil genius throughout his life. Together they talk, laugh, create, think, smoke, paint. A year after their meeting, Jean moves into a building on Great Jones Street in Manhattan, which belongs to Andy Warhol. When one is not well, the other goes to see him. When the other is in need of inspiration, the first gives him some. From this friendly and professional collaboration, a series of paintings was born, which received mixed reviews. Some art critics felt that Warhol’s influence was too great for Basquiat’s work, and he eventually distanced himself from his mentor.
Everything comes to an end
Their strong bond breaks. Their story, both short in dates and rich in work and experience, comes to an end. Basquiat resumed his excesses, fell even more into drugs, no longer controlled his desires, his desires, detached himself from everything. In 1986, he lost his lifelong companion, the one he idolized. A few months later, Warhol died. Basquiat was distraught: “I ran into him at the Madam Rosa club: standing in the middle of the dance floor, he was crying like a maniac and running straight ahead, banging his head against the wall. He couldn’t even speak,” said Normand Brathwaite, a close friend of the artist.
A year after the loss of his friend, Basquiat joined the infamous club of 27 artists who were cut off at that fateful age. His career lasted only eight years. He was young, black, talented, handsome and, according to what he told his friends, a former child martyr. His drug addiction got the better of him.
This affinity that united the two men, is transcribed until their sudden disappearance. They left their mark on the art world with their personal and common works, while being a notable source of inspiration for the artists of yesterday, today and tomorrow.
As the Rita Mitsouko used to say, love stories usually end badly. But it can also happen to intense friendships….
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Featured photo: © Presse
Apolline Prulhiere est une jeune journaliste en herbe. Elle se passionne pour la mode, l'art et la culture, et s'est récemment découvert un intérêt certain pour l'automobile.