The 1980s marked a significant shift in New York's art scene with the emergence of a new wave of pioneering artists. These vanguards broke all the rules, redefining the criteria for fine art, and creating raw, provocative works reflecting the cultural and social dynamics of the time. Among them was one-half of the artists from this exhibition, Jean-Michel Basquiat.
Gallerist Bruno Bischofberger introduced Basquiat to Andy Warhol in 1982 during a visit to the Factory. A year after their introduction, Bischofberger pitched a collaboration project between Basquiat, Warhol, and Italian artist Francesco Clemente whose works were eventually shown in Collaborations: Basquiat, Clemente, Warhol at Biscofberger’s gallery in Zurich. Over the course of a year, the unlikely pair created upwards of 160 works of art. At the request of Andy Warhol in 1985, Biscofberger went to Tony Shafrazi to organise an exhibition for the creative duo, a collaboration resulting in the debut of Warhol / Basquiat: Paintings at the Tony Shafrazi Gallery. The exhibition was poorly received by the public as it was largely viewed as something transactional, lacking anything that would warrant its merit. Basquiat’s involvement stemmed from his hunger for fame and a taste for the limelight, while critics positioned Warhol as a ”has-been‘‘, trying to relive his glory days on the back of new, fresh talent.
After an initial poor reception, the exhibition was revisited decades later inside the Louis Vuitton Foundation, following the 2018 retrospective exhibition, Jean-Michel Basquiat. A dream team of curators, Paige Powell, Olivier Michelon, and Dieter Buchhart, were able to orchestrate a third genre of art. One not entirely Warhol or Basquiat, not totally Pop or street art. For the Foundation, bringing together this project seemed like an organic progression and extension of their involvement with each artist. Already having works from Warhol as part of their collection seen in Pop & Music, Crossing Views, and Andy Wahol-Looking For Andy combined with the exhibition dedicated to Basquiat. This 2023 exhibition is the visual diary of a collaboration between two masters of a medium and the endearing relationship between two friends.
I made the mistake of assuming that if I visited the exhibition on a weekday, there would be a significantly smaller crowd, allowing me more time and space to engage with the art. After walking through the revolving glass doors, I stood facing an open floor plan filled with photographers, small groups, families, and a curiously large amount of Gen Z’ers. I’ve seen more individuals shoot video content and take pictures here than at the Eiffel Tower–and for good reason.
There were multiple floors featuring a number of galleries that each maintained its own individual narratives while displaying the common motifs we see among Basquiat's and Warhol's compositions. Gross anatomy, logos, consumer culture, identity politics, boxing, repetition–the list goes on. I was pleasantly surprised to see the incorporation of collaborative works by fellow contemporaries like Keith Haring, Futura 2000, Tseng Kwong Chi, Kenny Sharf, and Fab Five Freddie in the exhibition.
Of the 160 works Warhol and Basquiat made, only half were shown at the Foundation. The only thing more impressive than this collection was the size of the galleries and their ability to house every item featured perfectly. The works measured some 8 metres long alongside canvases of a similar dimension. Visually though, the placement was immaculate, and there weren’t any works competing with each other; there was more than enough breathing room between each piece.
Inside Gallery 1, I was greeted by the 1984 masterpiece African Masks. I’ve seen Basquiat’s and Warhol’s work in publications, catalogues, and the general media, but never in person. I knew the type of brushwork I’d see and the references to consumerism I’d see, but I didn’t quite anticipate what I’d experience standing in front of this piece.
There was a familiarity in it that I’d seen in iterations of Basquiat’s African Masks series. But to see it on such a scale, from someone who possesses this cultural memory, removed from the canon’s gaze of colonialism, really moved me.
Again, when I’d see these figures in print or online, they had such an animated quality that made them almost too commercial for me to enjoy. But being here in the flesh, I see an entirely different, fresh rendering that provides an accurate expression of the essence of these masks and their significance throughout art history.
When I turned around, I was immediately reminded of Basquiat’s Jazz influences when I saw Chair. For me, this was a visual sheet music for a composition of call and response. Before I examined the painting any further, I felt it would be best to continue viewing the remainder of this exhibition with an appropriate playlist. I took out my phone, found my ”Favourite Jazz‘‘ mix and hit shuffle. Charles Mingus’ Haitian Fight Song was the first to play.
Amid a muted yet vivid green background, there’s Warhol’s initial production of six chairs. If you stare at it long enough, it becomes clear that this was the first layer of the painting, and Basquiat came in after to fill in the blanks. There was a clear visual contrast in the painting, considering the consistent design and placement of the six chairs in tandem with Basquiat’s improvised symbols and anatomical depictions. This particular work, like many on view, is difficult to draw one specific meaning, however, it does lend viewers the opportunity to draw their own conclusions. For me, it answered my initial question of what exactly would a Basquiat and Warhol painting even look like and served as a prerequisite for the compositions to follow.
Even in the photography of another artist’s work, we see evidence of Warhol’s and Basquiat’s motifs. By this point, Coltrane’s Giant Steps guided me through work by Michael Hasbland, the same photographer who created the image for the original exhibition poster in 1985. He produced black and white portraits featuring Basquiat and Warhol in Everlast boxing gear–a nod to Warhol’s obsession with advertisements visibly present in virtually all of the photographs on the walls. This also highlights Basquiat’s reverence for boxers and the high regard he holds for them. Similar to his favourite Jazz musicians ”Bird‘‘ and Gillespie, prized fighters like Jack Johnson, Jersey Joe Walcott, Muhammad Ali and Sugar Ray Robinson were heroes of Black liberation.
After stepping behind the walls that hold the most iconic images of the two you’ll ever see, you’re immediately immersed in New York’s Downtown Art Scene. Instantly, this room seems much darker than other spaces throughout the exhibition, not only because of the darker paint colour but the level and amount of lighting. A dark grey wall is adorned with 45 Plates set behind Untitled (Blue Vase). The plates were created by various artists and showed renderings of either the artists themselves or the masters that influenced them. Viewers can expect to see framed white plates with minimalist-styled interpretations of Alfred Hitchcock, Picasso, Cy Twombly, LA II, and Cézanne.
Not far from this wall is evidence of Pop Art predecessor Robert Rauschenberg’s influence in works like Untitled (Fun Gallery Fridge). This unique canvas covered in graffiti art by Basquiat, Keith Haring and other artists followed suit to turn everyday found objects into something new.
The room is imbued with the camaraderie we see among emerging artists from the city. There’s a shared experience and energy in the room absent from anywhere else in the exhibition. It’s the first time we see a reference to a larger community with works by Futura 2000, Eric Haze, and Lady Pink. The motor scooter, leather jackets, and artworks all participated in revealing the culture that reshaped art during this period.
Warhol’s devout Catholicism may come as a surprise to most viewers. However, in this exhibition, there’s more than one occurrence of this religious reference. A new canvas with images of Jesus Christ, based on Leonardo da Vinci’s The Last Supper, seen on ten pristine, white punching bags might be the most obvious. However, if you look carefully at Dogs in the first gallery, there is a detail of the text ”scapula‘‘ on the lower right side of the painting next to what appears to be a stained glass window.
Realising this, I paused my music for a moment. A lot was going on in this space. In their take, Christ is featured alone, without his disciples and in lieu of his crown of thorns, he is seen with Basquiat’s signature crown. A peculiar repetition of the word ”judge‘‘ imprinted on each bag raises an intriguing question: who assumes the role of judge here—the observer viewing the bag or the figure depicted on it? Does it allude to the judgment of Christ, Warhol, or Basquiat?
Since 1974, Warhol started his collection of souvenirs which would eventually grow into 600 of what he called time capsules. They were his personal archives that housed everything between personal photographs and personal invitations from Basquiat before his rise to fame. Wahol’s menagerie of memories can be found on display inside Gallery 7.
Out of all the gallery rooms throughout the exhibition, this one was the most intimate and most cared for. To be fair, it’s possible the nostalgic undertone was heavily influenced by my listening to Miles Davis’ rendition of It Never Entered My Mind. However, I do largely credit the intimate feel to the size and layout of the room compared to that of the larger galleries. This space was significantly smaller, in a shape that appeared to warp around the perimeter of the room. The other components were the types of works.
This room took viewers from a gallery with grandiose images into a smaller, museum style feel with artefacts encased in glass displays. Inside them were parchments, art supplies, and black and white photographs of Warhol, Basquiat, and their arts community of the 1980s. I particularly enjoyed seeing a physical copy of Warhol’s Interview magazine with Nick Rhodes on the cover.
You don’t have to be an expert on art or its movements to appreciate this exhibition. This thoughtful retrospective is delivered in a cadence that allows viewers to engage with the works and reflect on the visual dialogue between two of the art world’s biggest icons. It removed everything I thought I knew about Warhol’s and Basquiat’s work and gave me a new perspective. This experience is an open invitation to explore the dynamic relationship between Basquiat and Warhol. The exhibition not only celebrates the individuality of the two but also highlights the profound impact they had on each other’s work.