Warhol on Basquiat: The Iconic Relationship Told in Andy Warhol’s Words & Pictures
It’s hard to know where to begin when discussing this fascinating book and the dynamic story it tells. The book itself is presented chronologically, starting with the initial meeting of Andy Warhol and Jean Michel Basquiat and concluding with their deaths several months apart, six years later.
“Monday October 4, 1982: And so I had lunch for them and then I took a Polaroid and he went home and within two hours a painting was back, still wet, of him and me together. And I mean getting to Christie Street must have taken an hour. He told me his assistant painted it.”
Oh to have an assistant who does the painting for you! Where is the line for when the art isn’t yours anymore, but should be credited to an assistant? This is a question I’ve thought about a lot as I’ve read the biographies of artists I admire. The Old Masters had schools of assistants who helped them with everything from mixing pigments and stretching canvases to actually laying paint. Frida, on the other hand, didn’t have any assistants to help her with her work, despite being often confined to a bed. Or, if she did, they are never mentioned in her biography.
Does it make a work less impressive to know it wasn’t the work of just one person, or does it make it more impressive?
Other entries from Andy’s diary make it sound like Jean Michel sometimes created without the presence of an assistant (and occasionally in the presence of or collaboration with Andy), so it’s unclear from reading this book how much of the work he did vs this unnamed assistant. What is clear is that they spent a lot of time together, off and on, and they created together frequently.
“Sunday October 7, 1984: Jean Michel is so difficult, you never know what kind of mood he’ll be in, what he’ll be on. He gets really paranoid and says, “You’re just using me. You’re just using me.” and then he’ll get guilty for being paranoid and he’ll do everything so nice to try and make up for it. But then I can’t decide what he has fun doing, either. Like when we got to Susan’s he didn’t like it. I don’t know if it’s because of the drugs or because he doesn’t like crowds or because he thinks it’s boring. And I tell him as he becomes more and more famous he’ll have to do more and more of these things.”
They also attended parties and dinners and openings and gatherings. They often rubbed shoulders with the rich and famous, as Andy was very well known for doing. And thanks to his obsessive drive to document everything with pictures, receipts, diary entries and more, we the readers get to peek in through these windows he left for us into their world.
Andy helped Jean Michel navigate this new world as best he could, though the meteoric rise to fame had to have been intense for Jean Michel, even without the drug problem. Andy’s entries mention multiple new romantic relationships starting (and ending) with various women, and trips to Los Angeles and Paris, in between the seemingly constant stream of happenings they attended. I didn’t get a picture of the page that featured Madonna, but any fan of Basquiat should know they had a brief romance at the height of her Material Girl fame. He had Made It.
And hopefully a fan of art in general is aware of Madonna’s interest in and patronage of art. She is a keen collector and I hope someday she shares her collection in a public way, at least for a temporary exhibit. Or she could go full Eli Broad and build a museum for it. I am very much so behind that idea.
They continued to collaborate and create together, and eventually developed a large body of work to show. An entry from January 1985 describes “like twenty people working for him, getting big canvasses ready.”
Again, I’m struck by the thought of these intense creative personalities employing people, and I wonder how well that worked. Those are some stories I’d like to hear someday, what the assistants have to say about working for these iconic people.
Strong personalities are often associated with “the greats”, the people whose contributions are known long after they are gone. Both Andy and Jean Michel have been described as extraordinary creative geniuses, with personalities to match.
The diary entries make it clear that the relationship between the two men had some strained moments, no doubt due to the emotional nature of both and exacerbated by their collaborations.
“Thursday, September 12, 1985: Jean Michel called and I’m just holding my breath for the big fight he’ll pick with me right before the show of our collaboration paintings at the Shafrazi Gallery. The openings’s on Saturday.”
Andy complains about Jean-Michel’s body odor fairly frequently throughout the book, going so far as to tell Jean Michel’s longtime girlfriend Paige, “you’re the one who had the affair with the dirty, unwashed person.” It’s an unexpected detail that humanizes both of them. I also think it highlights the strength of Andy’s affection for Jean Michel, because it would be such a challenge to spend so much time over the course of 6 years with a stinky person. I wouldn’t be surprised to find out he called him out on it to his face, considering how much ink it got in the diaries.
Before reading this book, I was not aware Andy Warhol and Jean Michel Basquiat had been close friends. Call it my unconventional (read: spotty) education in art history, but I knew both of their basic life stories and examples of their individual works while somehow missing their collaborations and their puzzle-piece roles in each other’s lives. Now that I know more about it, I am, as always, humbled by how much more there is to learn.