The friendship between Andy Warhol (1928-1987) and Jean-Michel Basquiat (1960-1988) was complex, to say the least. When they first met, Warhol was around 50, Basquiat was in his teens. The younger man would sit on Greenwich Village sidewalks selling T-shirts he’d painted, and Warhol — as recorded in his diaries — ‘would give him $10 here and there’.
By the age of 21, however, Basquiat had become the most sought-after artist in New York. His bristling, graffiti-like paintings and drawings had made him a star. Soon he and Warhol became friends, and from around the middle of 1983 to the end of 1985, the pair were inseparable.
It was at the end of this period that Basquiat completed the work on paper, Untitled (Dynamic Tension), which Warhol promptly acquired. The younger artist was fond of combining a patchwork of different motifs in a single image. Here, a kind of pulley system has been superimposed over a weight of 250 lbs, beneath the words ‘Dynamic Tension’.
Though self-taught, Basquiat had a rich appreciation of art history, and his works are full of references to Leonardo da Vinci. The pulley and weight were partly inspired by the many examples sketched by the Renaissance master in his notebooks.
It’s also worth pointing out that weights of precisely 250 lbs crop up in a number of Basquiat’s images at this time. Why? Because in 1982, the artist had moved briefly to Los Angeles to work on an exhibition. He took a studio on Venice Beach, the birthplace of America’s physical workout boom, where he encountered fitness buffs — and their 250 lb dumbbells — on a daily basis.
The practice is certainly alluded to here, by both the weight and the two-word scrawl. Dynamic tension is a range of self-resistance exercises that was popularised in the 1950s and 1960s. In his typically ingenious way, Basquiat managed to fuse influences old and new, classic and contemporary, Florentine and Californian.
Interestingly, Warhol’s connection to the piece extended beyond just acquiring it. As recounted in his diaries, he and Basquiat lifted weights together regularly, under the guidance of his personal trainer, Lidija Cenjic. As such, Untitled (Dynamic Tension), with its workout theme, perhaps took on a special, personal significance.
Basquiat’s relationship with Warhol has occasionally been considered one between protégé and mentor. In the early days, the senior artist himself perhaps saw it this way, describing Basquiat as ‘just so nutty… cute and adorable’. They were also landlord and tenant, Warhol renting Basquiat a two-floor property of his on Great Jones Street, Manhattan, for use as an apartment and studio.
In the autumn of 1985, however, the pair presented themselves entirely as equals, producing 16 paintings together, which went on show in a much-hyped exhibition at Tony Shafrazi gallery. Their friend and fellow artist, Keith Haring, referred to the collaboration as one of ‘humour, profound realizations [and] simple chit-chat’.
Sign up today
Christie’s Online Magazine delivers our best features, videos, and auction news to your inbox every week
The show received mixed reviews, something which led the friendship between the pair to cool. In a diary entry from November 1985, Warhol wrote with no little sadness that ‘Jean-Michel hasn’t called me in a month, so I guess it really is over’. The following February, Warhol died suddenly, from complications following a gall-bladder operation.