More than any other artist, Andy Warhol was acutely aware of the marketing of myths to create legends. After a long career appropriating his subjects' celebrity, Warhol was himself a legend and a highly valuable commodity. The artist was now positioned to bestow fame on others; if Warhol painted your portrait, you became instantly associated with the pantheon of beautiful people and high society that he preserved for posterity. In Jean-Michel Basquiat, Warhol documents the young artist with whom he had become a friend and collaborator, the artist whose rapid transformation from a drifting graffiti artist to one of the most sought after painters of the eighties secured his place as a superstar in Warhol's world.
A faceted, kaleidoscopic painting executed in the 40 x 40 inch square format Warhol typically reserved for his full-face portraits, Jean-Michel Basquiat derives from a sequence of Polaroid photographs Warhol took of Basquiat in August of 1983. A scrambled puzzle of body parts, the layered images create a sense of movement similar to the dynamic stop-motion photography of Edward Muybridge. Yet, the segments show Basquiat posed in the static, statuesque form of Michelangelo's colossal sculpture David, taken piece by piece with Warhol's Big Shot portrait camera.
Warhol's portraits of Basquiat took three different formats. The first portraits feature a full face, silk-screened onto the "oxidized" canvases Warhol used in his series of Piss paintings, in which he achieved a patinated effect from the chemical reaction between metallic paint and urine. These paintings were later followed by two versions of Basquiat as David-- with the various parts either assembled into a complete body or shuffled in a psychedelic whirl of flesh as in the present painting. Both Warhol and Basquiat were known to project personas of ironic ambivalence as a defense mechanism to cope with the pressures of life; Warhol frequently refers to "gluing himself together" in his diaries, as if he must compose his personality before facing the world. Jean-Michel Basquiat appears to reflect this fractured state of being, in which one must gather together parts of the self in order to construct an identity. Reviving the photographic negative technique used in his Reversals series, the painting's stark inverted shadows possess a translucency that recalls x-ray imagery or ghostly apparitions, which appears to expose mortality's fragile nature-- a concept made all the more poignant by the fact that both artists would be dead within four years of the portrait's completion.
Basquiat's anxieties about race, about being a token African-American presence in a rarefied, white-dominated art world, make the notion of the David-and-Goliath subtext all the more personal and pertinent. In this picture, one wonders whether blindness to issues of color, deliberate irony or a desire to show his young protegé as a gleaming, Messianic superman led Warhol to present Basquiat in negative, captured in searing white against a black background. The Pop guru has used the visual idiom of his Reversal series, which usually revisited or reimagined the themes that had become part of the Warholian canon earlier in his career, to deliberate effect, adding to the electric appearance of the picture while bringing to light a complex-- and ultimately, as is ever the case with the enigmatic Warhol, ambiguous and unresolved-- mixture of issues and insights.
The meeting between Warhol and Basquiat marked the beginning of a new phase in both of the artists' lives. Warhol had initially been wary of the wild-haired youth who had tried on numerous occasions to insinuate himself into the Factory. It was not until Basquiat was formally introduced to Warhol at a lunch organized by Bruno Bischofberger in the autumn of 1982 that they began to establish their relationship. As a representative of Warhol and a business partner in Interview magazine, Bischofberger had a privileged arrangement, in that he could bring younger artists to the Factory to have a portrait done in exchange for one of their own works. For the young Basquiat, Warhol was an art world deity, a hero and an example. He was so struck by the encounter that he ran off and painted a dual portrait showing himself with Warhol, and returned the still dripping canvas only two hours later, a speed of execution that impressed even the veteran of Pop Art.
On a more personal level, this rejuvenation and new energy were also reflected in the fact that the pair shared a personal trainer at the time, working out together-- the dynamism of the broken-up forms may even be intended to reflect Basquiat's motions while exercising. By 1984, Basquiat was already being fêted as a great artist, a force to watch. Warhol was particularly fascinated with him, and the pair would produce a number of paintings together. While the reaction to their collaborations was somewhat mixed, it nonetheless demonstrates the importance that many artists of the day ascribed to the young painter. Basquiat was cutting-edge enough to be considered able to give Warhol back his own edge, and in turn, Warhol found that the enthusiasm and directness of his young protégé was rubbing off on him, prompting a new creativity that rejuvenated his painterly output.
Taking Basquiat under his wing, Warhol behaved as a hyper-cool father figure to the painter-- the ultimate art world mentor. The filial bond that existed between Basquiat and Warhol may have originated in an attraction between opposites but it was also rooted in a deep and instinctive union between two lonely and gifted outsiders. Both artists operated on the fringes of mainstream convention, deflecting the psychological and sociological obstacles in their lives into the language of art. Thus, despite their differences in age, race, background and sexuality, it seems somehow fitting that they would come together as friends. They had complete trust in one another when it came to their work, fuelled by a mutual respect that each would record in their portraits of one another. In the spring of 1984, Basquiat painted an homage to his mentor for his first show at the Mary Boone Gallery-- a portrait of Warhol as a speckled banana in honor of his famous album design for the Velvet Underground. According to Phoebe Hoban, Basquiat's biographer, Warhol painted the portrait of Basquiat as David to return the compliment. Through the fractured portrayal of Basquiat, Warhol fetishizes the artist's body in a calculated expression of erotic attraction that reworks the classic canon of art into a commentary on the complexities of modern identity and fame. In doing so, he not only sustains his interest in the artifice of representation but has also created a lasting testimony to a troubled and brilliant young artist who would never grow old.