Jean-Michel Basquiat and Andy Warhol: ’80s cool kid and the king of Pop art. It was an unlikely pairing, but one that won the hearts of art lovers everywhere. Immortalised in Julian Schnabel’s fictionalised biopic “Basquiat” and continually revived through the photo sharing of Tumblr-obsessed millennials, the friendship between Basquiat and Warhol continues to be a source of fascination. Looking at fond memories from their inner circle, collected by Tamra Davis and retold in her documentary “Jean-Michel Basquiat: The Radiant Child”, we trace the tumultuous relationship between two of the art world’s finest.
“I’d never seen Andy so close with anyone, and I’d never seen Jean so close with anyone – these guys really loved each other” – Jeffrey Deitch
Legend has it that Basquiat first stumbled upon Warhol dining at a restaurant with curator Henry Geldzahler, and sold Warhol a couple of his postcards. It’s the moment recreated in the Julian Schnabel-directed biopic, with Andy Warhol played by David Bowie. Plenty of friends attest to the truth of this story, but gallerist Bruno Bischofberger claims that he was responsible for the pair’s proper introduction. “I took him for lunch to be photographed for a portrait,” he told Tamra Davis. “Jean-Michel did not want to stay for lunch… about an hour and something later, he arrived with this huge painting.” The polaroid of Andy and Jean-Michel turned into “Dos Cabezas” – a masterpiece. “Andy said to me, ‘Oh, I’m so jealous!’, and I said, ‘Why?’. He said, ‘He’s faster than me!’”
Plenty speculated about the motives behind this odd, unexpected friendship and many thought the two were using each other for personal gain. Warhol’s longtime studio assistant, Ronny Cutrone, remembers, “It was like some crazy-art world marriage and they were the odd couple. The 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 a rebellious image again.” Others, however, were more convinced of a genuine adoration between the two. Late Interview editor Glenn O’Brien insisted, “Andy loved Jean-Michel like a son almost”.
Warhol and Basquiat’s friendship was remarkably close. Looking back on Andy’s fondness for Basquiat, fellow artist Fab Five Freddy said, “Andy was really giving great advice. He would be like ‘Jean, did you do this? Have you spoke to your mom?’” Tamra Davis testified Warhol’s almost parental role in Basquiat’s life, insisting, “Andy really was there for him”.
Rumours of physical intimacy between Warhol and Basquiat have been tossed aside by friends and family. A notorious gay icon, Andy can be seen flirting with Basquiat in rare footage from the ’80s, and it’s clear the pair had a connection. Even so, Basquiat had countless girlfriends – including Madonna – during his friendship with Warhol. “Andy, like many people, was very seduced and enamoured by Jean-Michel”, tells Basquiat’s ex-girlfriend, Suzanne Mallouk, before adding, “I think he probably had a crush on him”.
Despite showing at Anina Nosei and Tony Shafrazi, Basquiat was never quite co-opted by the high-art circuit; his work was rejected by both the Whitney and MoMA. “The art was mostly minimal when I came up,” Basquiat explained, “and it sort of confused me a little bit. I thought it divided people a little bit – I thought it alienated most people from art.” In turn, Basquiat found himself alienated from the art-world esteem he so desperately wanted to be a part of. Basquiat saw his artistic collaboration with Warhol as a way to elevate himself in the art world. But their show, “Paintings” at Shafrazi, flopped.
On falling out
Among the countless negative reviews for “Paintings”, many began claiming once again that Warhol had used Basquiat to stay relevant at a time when he was struggling to sell work. “Jean-Michel embraced Andy at a time when Andy was not very popular”, recalls Tamra Davis, adding, “I don’t know if Jean-Michel felt bad that he let Andy down, or if he believed what the press said that Andy was taking advantage of him.” Either way, Basquiat left New York, hurt and depressed. “He didn’t return to Warhol to paint or anything”, Bruno Bischofberger recounts.
On the tragic end
Following a routine gallbladder surgery, Andy Warhol died on 22 February, 1987. The tragedy took its toll on Basquiat’s health and state of mind, consequently revealing the extent to which Warhol had been his rock. “They had a falling out and they never had a chance to repair that,” Suzanne explains, “he really went downhill after that”. The drug habit that Basquiat developed to cope with being thrust into fame spiralled out of control.
“Jean was devastated, he was crying hysterically… I could just tell he was grieving and it was so bad” – Fab Five Freddy
Bruno Bischofberger laments, “Soon after that he was so much more involved with drugs… that became the centre of his life.” Basquiat’s heroin use would famously be his undoing. Despite attempting to get clean on a trip to Hawaii, he died from an overdose when he was only 27 years old.
The tragedy of Basquiat’s early death catapulted him towards art royalty status. À la Van Gogh, he came to be perceived as a tormented genius, the young prodigy taken too soon. “Boom For Real”, his first UK retrospective, recently opened at the Barbican in London.