Last week was the final of the influential exhibition Basquiat x Warhol: Painting Four Hands at the Fondation Louis Vuitton in Paris. While the collaboration between the two artists has been widely recognised, this exhibition brought together over 300 artworks and documents relating to the artists, making it the largest and one of the most important to ever explore their close friendship and mutual artistic influence. The exhibition, which was curated by Dieter Buchhart, Anna Karina Hofbauer and Olivier Michelon, was considered a highlight of the Parisian cultural scene this past spring and summer. One of the most impactful objects on show was the artwork Ten Punching Bags (Last Supper), which addressed key themes that shaped the 1980s - such as the AIDS epidemic and discrimination.
When they were alive, contemporary critics often panned the artworks this partnership generated. Vivien Raynor of the New York Times, for example, opined: “Last year (1984), I wrote of Jean-Michel Basquiat that he had a chance of becoming a very good painter providing he didn't succumb to the forces that would make him an art world mascot. This year, it appears that those forces have prevailed, for Basquiat is now onstage (...) doing a pas de deux with Andy Warhol, a mentor who assisted in his rise to fame.” She accused Basquiat of being a “willing accessory” and compared the works to the story of Oedipus Rex, stating that they were “large, bright, messy, full of private jokes and inconclusive.”
As evidenced by the success of this year’s blockbuster exhibition and the commercial triumph achieved by both artists, later art criticism has been kinder to their union.
Many people are familiar with the canvases and photographs that Warhol and Basquiat co-created, but some objects are less conspicuous. One notable and impactful example is Ten Punching Bags (Last Supper), created in 1985 and never shown while either artist was still alive. The work consists of ten white hanging punching bags, on which Renaissance-like depictions of Jesus’ face are painted. Each likeness is variously modified with a different aspect of physical injury, such as scratches, black eyes and other bruises. In one of the bags, it is possible to see Basquiat's crown motif. Scribbled and drawn over in the typical Basquiat style, the word “Judge” is found at various points in each bag, making a powerful commentary on the disparity between the Christian doctrine of non-judgment and Christianity’s exclusionary behaviour in practice – which was especially evident during the early days of the AIDS epidemic. The fact that there are ten punching bags is not an accident, but instead reflects the Ten Disciples of Jesus and the Ten Lepers healed by Jesus in the Bible, the latter being yet another allusion to the mysterious new condition that was beginning to ravage the artistic community in the early 1980s.
AIDS was first reported in the United States in 1981, and from that point onwards LGBTQ+ people in the United States faced intensified stigmatisation. As a community at the epicentre of widespread mass panic, they experienced heightened isolation and further marginalisation, and were victims of escalating acts of violence. Televangelists such as Jerry Falwell fear mongered, even going as far as stating that AIDS was divine punishment for homosexuality – a direct attack that is distinctly at odds with Christian doctrine.
At the core of Christian teaching is the principle that one should not judge others, as captured in Jesus’ words from the Gospel of Matthew 7:1: “Do not judge, or you too will be judged.” Despite this, it is widely known that throughout history certain Christian groups and individuals have acted in deeply judgmental ways, whether it be towards LGBTQ+ communities, people of other faiths or even in internal denominational conflicts. Warhol, as a strong Catholic, doubtless was aware of this. By superimposing the word “Judge” with imagery from the Last Supper, Basquiat and Warhol highlighted the dichotomy between the teachings of Jesus and the actions of some of his followers. Both Warhol and Basquiat navigated spaces where judgement — of race, of success, of authenticity, of sexuality — was a constant. Warhol, having been a significant figure in the art world and openly gay at a time when acceptance was even more limited, faced judgments. Basquiat, as a young Black artist breaking into the predominantly white art scene, also faced racial and professional judgments.
The medium and imagery of the artwork are also a reflection on violence as a larger issue. The punching bags in this work cannot ultimately serve their purpose, to improve and alleviate violent tendencies in its users. Yet, the beat-up appearance of Jesus’ face implies that they already have and that, furthermore, judgement is a weapon of violence. Boxing served as a larger symbol in the Basquiat x Warhol relationship, and was something that appeared in other artworks beyond Ten Punching Bags. In fact, the artists chose the sport as a main motif when staging the photoshoot announcing their joint show.
Taken by Michael Halsband in 1985, the photographs capture both artists in boxing gear, with Warhol in his trademark wig and black turtleneck next to a shirtless Basquiat. Playful yet charged with symbolic meaning, the shots capture the essence of their partnership and the dynamics of the contemporary art world at the time, as a tongue-in-cheek representation of generational clashes. Warhol was already an established figure in the art world, representing Pop Art and the 1960s generation, while Basquiat -- younger and part of the emerging Neo-Expressionist movement -- represented a new wave of artists. The staged fight captures the perceived tensions and dynamics between them.
In the pantheon of contemporary art, few collaborations resonate as deeply as that between Basquiat and Warhol. Their work Ten Punching Bags (The Last Supper) stands as a testament to their combined artistic prowess and as a poignant commentary on the socio-political milieu of their time. The repeated motif of 'JUDGE' starkly juxtaposed against the backdrop of the Last Supper alludes to societal judgments, particularly potent in an era marked by the devastating AIDS epidemic. During the 1980s, when the LGBTQ+ community faced intense stigmatisation and was erroneously linked with the spread of the virus, artworks like this became subtle vehicles for resistance and commentary.
The boxing motif—symbolising conflict, resilience, and dynamism—captures the essence of their partnership, as evidenced by their photoshoot. While the playful sparring in the pictures might hint at the artistic tussles behind the scenes, it also serves as a metaphor for confronting societal judgments and prevailing narratives, much like what's embodied in Ten Punching Bags.
The confluence of boxing and the punching bags in their artwork underscores the duo's shared journey of navigating personal and collective struggles, a testament to their unyielding spirit and their commentary on an era that desperately needed voices like theirs.