Artistic collaboration within art history is surprisingly rich and dense, having its roots in the Surrealist exquisites corpse projects generated in 1925 by André Breton and stemming from the French term cadavre exquis, a method by which a collection of words or images is collectively assembled. Each collaborator adds to a composition in sequence, either by following a rule or permitted to see the end of the previous contribution. Andy Warhol and Jean Michael Basquiat's collaborations represent one of the most iconic examples of artistic and personal exchange over the course of the last century, as well as a fundamental turning point in the individual career of each artist.
Art dealer Bruno Bischofberger is the mastermind given credit for the formation of the dynamic duo of Warhol and Basquiat. His fascination for the conceptual collaboration of the surrealists and nouveau realists of the 1960s inspired him to design a collaboration that initially involved the trio of Jean Michel Basquiat, Andy Warhol, and Francesco Clemente; however, it was the relationship that formed between Warhol and Basquiat that proved to be harmoniously creative and one of true comradely. Their unique synergy ignited an artistic partnership anchored by a deep and profound friendship that, at times, bordered on obsessive, if not pederast: the most celebrated Pop artist of all time, one who had reached the status of icon, struggling with his own fame, merged with an up-and-coming art genius whose energy and enthusiasm tapped into the excess of a new generation.
The present Collaboration #23 ferociously expresses the zeitgeist of the New York of the 80s, the blurred boundaries between commercial art and graffiti and represents the perfect combination of each artist's individual artistic statements in a colorful bold and powerful canvas. Working on the same painting in different sessions, usually Warhol first and Basquiat later, the world of commerce, celebrity, and marketing suggested by the Pop artist encounters the energy, the racial reminiscences, and the generational rebellion of the Basquiat's process. As Basquiat describes:
"[Warhol] would start most of the paintings. He'd start one, you know, put...something very concrete or recognizable like a newspaper headline or a product logo and I would sort of deface it and then when I would try to get him to work some more on it, you know, and then I would work more on it. I tried to get him to do at least two things. He likes to do just one hit, you know [laughs] and then have me do all the work after that...We used to paint over each other's stuff all the time"(Jean-Michel Basquiat as quoted in T. Davis, Jean-Michel Basquiat: The Radiant Child, 2010).
On the background of the large canvas, a gigantic image of two steaks drawn by hand by Warhol almost covers the entire painting. The image, an advertisement found in a newspaper, later silkscreened in 1985 as part of Warhol's Ads series, depicts a classic motif of the popular consumer goods market. As well as the big steaks traditionally painted using brushes on canvas, Warhol reported the price of the steaks and the certification label of the quality of the meat, leaving no doubt to the commercial purpose of the original print, also recalling the artist's hand-painted Ad paintings from 1960-1961.
On top of that, literally, is Basquiat's guerrilla attack, leaving his expressive trace on the canvas by drawing a crocodile head on top of the advertisement, crossing-out part of the title, drawing a toilet, a glass and violating the blank background with orange brushstrokes. The crocodile's head, a recurrent theme drawn or copied and pasted in many collages from the period, goes back to the voodoo rituals and Basquiat's own ethnic Haitian roots. Basquiat's rebellion takes over the structural harmony carefully built by Warhol's graphic ability. Through his gestural impetus, child scribbles and crossed out words, he adds and changes the background in order to compose an exotic narrative in which the frenetic and forceful chaos disrupts the harmonic shapes of the steaks. In Collaboration #23 the concepts of meat, food, commodification, marketing and communication are all mixed together to form a non-narrative logic. The painting simultaneously illustrates a crucial moment in each artist's career: Warhol as designer and Basquiat as SAMO. In their collaboration they each found the delicate equilibrium, trust, and the intimacy necessary to develop a mutual psychological investigation of their own worlds.
"Andy is such a fantastic painter! His hand panting is as good as it was in his early years. I am going to try and convince him to start painting by hand again" (B. Bichofberger, "collaborations and Reflections on/and Experiences with Basquiat, Clemente and Warhol", The Andy Warhol Show, Milan, 2004, p.43)
In line with the tradition of the exquisite corpses, two different artistic systems collide: the commercial, pop, mass culture and celebrity world got attacked by the expressive, graffiti, racial issues coming from Basquiat's imaginary. Collaboration #23 represents the culmination of their friendship, careers and lives (Warhol would die in February 1987 and Basquiat, eighteen months later). As such, Collaboration #23 exemplifies the passing of the baton from one generation to the next: the closure of Warhol's circular speculation on a culture of commodity and the consecration of Basquiat's genius.