A monument to an extraordinary friendship, Andy Warhol’s Reel Basquiat pays tribute to his close friend and collaborator, Jean-Michel Basquiat. Executed in 1984, the larger-than-life proportions and bold red shade of this portrait reveal the profound effect the younger artist had on Warhol’s life and work, despite the brevity of their relationship. A silk-screened portrait of the young artist created from a collage of time-lapsed photography, Reel Basquiat is based on a sequence of Polaroid photographs taken by Warhol of Basquiat in the summer of 1983 and, synthesizing Warhol’s signature medium with Basquiat’s anarchic presence, is the most iconic of a series of portraits of Basquiat made by Warhol in 1984 at the height of their highly charged, competitive relationship; virtually inseparable, they collaborated on paintings and circuited downtown dinners and parties together. Yet, unlike their exuberant collaborations, made between 1984 and 1985, which bring together the best of Warhol and Basquiat, Reel Basquiat is pure Warhol, casting Basquiat in the role of the ill-fated celebrities that had dominated his artistic output since the early-1960s. In a pose that echoes the sculptural proportions of Michelangelo’s sixteenth-century masterpiece, David, in Reel Basquiat Basquiat is portrayed wearing nothing but a jockstrap. Acutely aware of his own status as a myth-maker, here, Warhol firmly entrenches Basquiat within his pantheon of legendary figures.
These two titans of the international art scene first met in 1980, and the pair soon developed an unlikely friendship. Basquiat had encouraged Warhol to paint again, and Warhol liked the provocative Basquiat who frequently rebelled against both the conventions of the art world and the law; it gave the elder artist a new edge as well as a direct line to a younger generation. Basquiat defined a new genre of art and expression, and Warhol admired him for his ability to paint the grime and grit of New York city street culture. The two formed an incomparable relationship that dominated the art world, as fellow artist Ronnie Cutrone remembered “It was like some crazy art-world marriage and they were the odd couple. The relationship was symbiotic. Jean-Michel thought he needed Andy’s fame, and Andy thought he needed Jean-Michel’s new blood. Jean-Michel gave Andy a rebellious image again” (R. Cutrone, quoted in V. Bockris, Warhol: The Biography, Cambridge, 2003, pp. 461-2). The pair soon became a fixture on the New York art-world party circuit and the ‘couple’ was frequently pictured together on the cover of magazines, on television, and in the newspapers. The two memorialized their friendship in art. Warhol recorded their first meeting in his diary: “And so had lunch with [Basquiat and the art dealer, Bruno Bischofberger] and then I took a Polaroid and [Basquiat] went home and within two hours a painting was back, still wet, of him and me together” (A. Warhol, The Andy Warhol Diaries, ed., P. Hackett, New York, 1989, p. 462). Impressed by Basquiat’s dexterity, the painting sparked an intense, often volatile friendship. Basquiat paid tribute to Warhol in Portrait of Andy Warhol in 1984 and in turn, in the same year Warhol conceived Reel Basquiat. Here, in the striking, almost violent color, and fragmented composition Basquiat’s influence over Warhol is palpable. Inspired by Basquiat’s explosive palette and energetic visual language, Warhol was amazed by the bravado of the young artist’s execution. He observed, “Jean-Michel got me into painting differently, and that’s a good thing” (A. Warhol, quoted in J.D. Ketner II, Andy Warhol, London, 2013, p. 104).
Casting Basquiat in David’s famous contapposto pose Warhol locates both himself and his subject within the canon of Classical Western art, invoking the history of the standing male nude from the kouros type of Greco-Roman Classical Antiquity, to the appropriation of this form by masters of the High Renaissance, including Leonardo da Vinci, Raphael, and Michelangelo himself. With this elevated, even fetishized, composition Warhol comments on both his own and the art world’s infatuation with the young artist who, despite his youth, had accrued an almost mythic stature. By looking to classical ideals of male strength and beauty Warhol mythologizes Basquiat as though an ancient sculpture, conjuring the same principles of idealized heroism and grandeur. Warhol eternalizes Basquiat, not just as the artist who captured the Zeitgeist of 1980s Neo-Expressionism, but for posterity, as an artist whose influence would prevail in the same manner as the lasting legacy of Michelangelo’s David. Yet, with its precariously balanced building blocks like the crumbling bricks of an ancient ruin, in Reel Basquiat Warhol returns to his constant theme, most famously explored in his silkscreened Marilyn paintings executed twenty years previously: the cult of celebrity and the fallibility of fame. Offering a critique of the projected image of celebrity, Reel Basquiat makes an ironic nod to what is ‘real’ and what is constructed. Warhol’s prescience – although he could not have foreseen Basquiat’s premature death aged just twenty-seven from a heroin overdose – predicts Basquiat’s fall from grace and the expiration of his proverbial “fifteen minutes of fame.”
Despite its allusions to the traditions of Classical sculpture, unlike the anatomical accuracy of David, the figure in Reel Basquiat is made up of pieced together fragments in rectangular segments, like translucent black-and-white X-rays, or a collection of disparate Polaroid photographs roughly patched together to make a whole. Presenting a Modernist interpretation of a Classical model, in spite of Basquiat’s athletic figure and confident expression his fragmented body underlines the vulnerability of an artist and celebrity at the pinnacle of his fame. Indeed, both Warhol and Basquiat were known to project a constructed persona as a defense mechanism with which to cope with the pressures of fame; Warhol frequently refers to ‘gluing himself together’ in his diaries. Yet, this broken composition refers also to Warhol’s fascination with photography and movement. Inspired by Eadweard Muybridge’s pioneering motion studies, making use of stop-motion photographs to capture the essence of movement, in the serial composition of Reel Basquiat Warhol plays with the notion of the film reel, the ‘reel’ to which the title refers. In fact, Warhol owned two plates from Muybridge’s seminal Animal Locomotion series. Multiplied body parts, such as the third phantom-like arm which hangs on the figure’s right hand side, serve to underline the vivacity of the subject, regardless of his sculptural pose.
By 1985 Warhol and Basquiat’s friendship had come to a crashing halt following the publication of an article in The New York Times that described Basquiat as Warhol’s ‘mascot.’ Nevertheless, Basquiat was distraught by the news of Warhol’s unexpected death in February 1987. Basquiat’s biographer, Phoebe Hogan, notes that in a sense Basquiat died alongside Warhol “According to those who knew him best, he never recovered from Warhol’s death” (P. Hogan, Basquiat: A Quick Killing in Art, New York, 1998, p. 283). With the death of his great mentor and collaborator Basquiat felt more alone than ever before; totally grief-stricken he plunged into a continuous drug binge, using heroin as a coping mechanism with which to deal with his overwhelming sense of loss. Keith Haring, friend to both Warhol and Basquiat, said in 1988, “For an artist, the most important and most delicate relationship he can have with another artist is one in which he is constantly challenged and intimidated... Jean-Michel and Andy had achieved a healthy balance” (K. Haring, ‘Painting the Third Mind’, Collaborations: Andy Warhol and Jean-Michel Basquiat, exh. cat., Mayor Rowan Gallery, London, 1988). Through this fractured, yet composed, portrayal of Basquiat, Warhol reworks the Classical canon of art into a commentary on the complexities of modern identity and fame. In doing so, he not only sustains his own interest in the artifice of representation but also creates a lasting testimony to a troubled and brilliant young artist who would never grow old.