One fall day in 1982, Swiss dealer Bruno Bischofberger, curious about setting into motion what had the potential to be art’s biggest collaboration, brought two artists he represented together for brunch. One was Pop art’s most famous purveyor, Andy Warhol, and the other was the decade’s rising star, Jean-Michel Basquiat. They gathered at the Factory, but Basquiat, seemingly inspired, quickly left, and 30 minutes later, a double portrait of the two artists arrived at the Factory. Warhol reportedly remarked, “I’m really jealous—he is faster than me.”
That painting, Dos Cabezas (Two Heads), kicks off a new blockbuster exhibition at the Fondation Louis Vuitton in Paris that explores the two artists’ 1984–85 collaboration that resulted in a collaborative show at the Tony Shafrazi gallery. During a preview of the exhibition, Suzanne Pagé, the Fondation’s artistic director, described the painting as being fully of “Basquiat’s passion and energy” in it and, on a more humorous note, a “battle of wild hairdos.” On the opposite wall is Warhol’s response, a double portrait of Basquiat, posed like Michelangelo’s David, that he silkscreened on the same background as his 1978 “Oxidation Paintings,” for which Warhol urinated on his canvases to create abstractions.
This new exhibition, which opens today and runs until August 28, comes after a 2018 show of Basquiat at the Fondation, which was staged concurrently with one for Egon Schiele, who died in 1918, 42 years before Basquiat was born. Reports at the time said that visitors had been expecting a dialogue between the two artists, but Pagé countered that “would have been a betrayal to both artists.” But the idea to create a show looking at an artist Basquiat was actually in dialogue with was already in the works.
Titled “Basquiat x Warhol, à quatre mains” (the latter phrase means “jointly” in French, though the Fondation has translated it more literally to “Painting four hands”), the show boasts about 300 objects, including 70 of the 160 works that Warhol and Basquiat created à quatre mains, or somewhere between two-fifths and half of those works. (Dieter Buchhart, the exhibition’s co-curator who has been studying the two artists for over 20 years, said he believes there might actually be 180 works in total, with the 20 missing ones being of smaller scale.)
So how exactly did the two make a collaborative work? It’s a subject that has long been explored, almost as soon as the exhibition happened and most recently in the form of a Broadway play. In a 1986 interview with screenwriter Becky Johnston and director Tamra Davis, Basquiat said Warhol “would start most of the paintings. He would put something very concrete or recognizable, like a newspaper headline or a product logo, and then I would work more on it. I would try to get him to do at least two things, you know? [laughing]. He likes to do just one hit then have me do all the work after.”
In an essay for the exhibition catalogue, Buchhart identifies six types of collaborative works, including hand-painted logos (Arm & Hammer or Paramount), “simple motifs” (dogs, household appliances, or fruits) as basic themes, headline paintings, silkscreens, “Warhol’s more complex visual creations like a landscape to which Basquiat reacted,” and finally “joint works initiated by Warhol in a copy and paste style of the highest complexity, such as Arm and Hammer II.”
For Buchhart, Arm and Hammer II is key to understanding their creative process, and is also placed in the exhibition’s first room. Warhol painted the company logo of the American baking soda manufacturer on a gold acrylic background, similar to that of his Gold Marilyn Monroe (1962). Basquiat reworked the left logo, erasing the arm and hammer with white acrylic adding the face of jazz musician Charlie Parker, the word “Liberty,” and the number 1955, the year of Parker’s death. Inscribed as if printed on the face of a coin, Basquiat has added and then crossed out the words “commemeritive” [sic] and “one cent.”
“That Warhol let Basquiat obliterate elements from his compositions speaks to his generosity and open-mindedness,” said Pagé. That claim is somewhat contradicted by an interview after the work’s creation that is displayed in a gallery on the top floor, in which Warhol, after calling Basquiat “sweetheart” and “sugar daddy,” says, “You painted me out! Yes, you did! You painted me out!” How serious or how sarcastic Warhol was being is ambiguous.
As you progress through the exhibition, spread across the Fondation’s four floors, Warhol and Basquiat’s distinct styles begin to blur into one another, much to Warhol’s pleasure: “I draw first, and I paint like Jean-Michel. I think the paintings we do together are better when you don’t know who did what,” he said.
For example, Felix the Cat, which has not been shown since 1985, combines an image of the famed cartoon feline, instructions on how to tie a bow tie (perhaps a nod to Warhol’s past as a commercial illustrator), a signature Basquiat skull-like head, and a Black woman, whose breasts are covered by a thick black line over which the word “Negress” has been painted. “If you focus, you can tell who did what but not how. In the end, a truly new visual language came out of their conversation,” Buchhart said.
In a 1988 interviewalso republished in the catalogue, artist and friend Keith Haring, who is represented in the exhibition by a collaborative fridge with Basquiat, said that though the duo’s approaches to art and life were seemingly diametric, it was a rather symbiotic collaboration that empowered Warhol to return to painting and to Basquiat to delve into silkscreening.
“Jean-Michel and Andy had achieved a healthy balance,” Haring said. “Jean respected Andy’s philosophy and was in awe of his accomplishments and mastery of color and images. Andy was amazed by the ease with which Jean composed and constructed his paintings and was constantly surprised by the never-ending flow of new ideas.”
As Basquiat and Warhol were beginning to collaborate, Bischofberger invited Francesco Clemente, another artist he represented, to join in. The idea was to have Basquiat, Warhol, and Clemente produce a kind of cadavre exquis (exquisite corpse), the Surrealist parlor game in which each collaborator contributes to the composition according to a strict set of rules (often without being able to see what came before). But in this instance, according to Pagé, “each collaborator was able to see the entirety of the composition as they went and not only the end of what the previous person had contributed.”
Presented in the exhibition’s second gallery, the Clemente-Basquiat-Warhol works are less convincing than the Basquiat-Warhol ones and appear to be included if only to make the pair’s collaborative works shine. Basquiat and Warhol made only 15 works with Clemente, and continued their collaboration on an almost daily basis for the months leading up to the fall 1985 show.
In some of the duo’s best works, you can quite literally feel the energy the two radiated while collaborating in the studio. The 1985 still life Apples and Lemons (1985) also includes a black-and-yellow floating head, from which musical notes and letters are pouring forth. “It seems to be intoning, thus filling the painting with sound,” Pagé said, noting that both artists had close ties to musicians, from Fab 5 Freddy and A-One (Basquiat) to the Velvet Underground and Lou Reed, Blondie, David Bowie, and The Cars (Warhol).
Music will also factor into the Fondation’s events programming for the show, from a cycle of concerts later this month to a performance with both amateur and professional dancers in June. (Interested amateurs have until April 16 to apply via the Fondation’s website). And the Fondation has also arranged that admission to its show gives visitors access to the Philharmonie de Paris’s “Basquiat Soundtrack,” which focuses on Basquiat’s relationship with music.
Though the Basquiat-Warhol collaboration is now viewed as a landmark (Haring called it two amazing minds fusing to create a third, totally separate, and unique mind”), reviews of the Shafrazi show that debuted some of the works were mostly negative.
Writing in the New York Times, critic Vivien Raynor, who thought the canvases were “large, bright, messy, full of private jokes and inconclusive,” commented on, as many have since, on the uneven power dynamics of the collaboration: “But here and now, the collaboration looks like one of Warhol’s manipulations, … Basquiat, meanwhile, comes across as the all too willing accessory.”
Still, the two stayed friendly, if distantly so, until their respective deaths a few years later, while their daily sessions together soon waned.
In his 1986 interview with Johnston and Davis, Basquiat recalls that he had created “a million paintings” in collaboration with Andy Warhol. “It is slightly exaggerated,” Bucchart said, beginning to laugh, “but if you count in square meters it is somehow accurate.”