An amalgam of two of the most well-respected artists of the late twentieth century, and a testament to their close friendship, Andy Warhol and Jean-Michel Basquiat’s aptly-titled Collaboration is a bold canvas that borrows from each artist’s mature style to striking effect. Working together at the behest of Basquiat’s dealer, Bruno Bischofberger, the two created several works that were shown at Tony Shafrazi Gallery in Soho in 1985, and at Bischofberger’s own gallery, from which this particular painting hails. In the tradition of the Surrealist game of exquisite corpse, these blended compositions marry Warhol’s commentary on the capitalist art world with Basquiat’s graffiti-based visual language.
A combination of Warhol’s silkscreen polymer paint, and Basquiat’s oilstick, this arresting canvas features a brilliant orange backdrop that has been overlaid with a contrasting coat of vivid green. On top of these color fields, a white line drawing of a face is emphasized with strokes of red and gray that make each feature in the toothy mask pop. Its large mouth slightly askew and its eyes narrowed to slits, this countenance is assuredly Basquiat’s contribution to the joint effort. With the almost skull-like quality of this addition, it alludes to other works by the young artist like Boy and Dog in a Johnnypump, 1982, or Profit I, 1982. Clearly visible behind this gestural visage is one of Warhol’s iconic silkscreened dollar signs. Similar in form to Dollar Sign (1981), one of his compositions featuring the more antiquated double strikethrough, the bright, monochromatic background and the sketchy nature of the silkscreened ‘$’ act as an anchor for Basquiat’s loose line work. David Bourdon reflects, “Warhol’s Dollar Signs are brazen, perhaps even insolent reminders that pictures by brand-name artists are metaphors for money, a situation that never bothered him” (D. Bourdon, Warhol, New York 1989, p. 384). By using the dollar sign as a basis for this work with Basquiat, Warhol both links the younger artist to himself and brings Basquiat into the art market conversation surrounding Pop.
Introduced by the Zurich art dealer Bruno Bischofberger (who represented Basquiat), Warhol and Basquiat became close friends and worked on several projects together between 1983 and 1985. Their partnership was actually prompted by Bischofberger as a collaborative effort between the two artists and the painter Francesco Clemente. Each of the artists was to create a canvas and then pass it along so that the others could modify and add to the composition. This worked for a brief while until Warhol and Basquiat negated Clemente’s participation by working exclusively with each other. One of these joint ventures between the two artists, Collaboration is a perfect example of how each artist’s style was at odds with the other, often to terrific effect. Warhol’s choice of using the dollar sign imagery is an interesting one. The dollar sign works were all based on marker pen and ink drawings that the Warhol did himself, and this subtle allusion to the artist’s hand coupled with Basquiat’s signature style makes for a striking commentary. In some similar works like Collaboration (Dollar Sign, Don’t Tread on Me), Warhol’s capitalistic fervor is underscored by Basquiat’s sinister hanging snake. The sheen of Pop is painted over and the ultimate reading becomes much darker.
About their working methods, Basquiat said, "[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" (J. Basquiat quoted in T. Davis, Jean-Michel Basquiat: The Radiant Child, 2010).
Basquiat had always idolized Warhol, and when the latter took the young artist under his wing, it was an unstoppable combination. Employing his keen understanding of the art market and Pop sensibility, Warhol was able to help craft a persona for Basquiat, one which the painter readily built upon and made his own. Warhol was already known for mingling with the avant-garde of the New York art world, and by allying himself with Basquiat he both passed on some of that aura while also connecting himself with an up-and-coming talent. Ronnie Cutrone, an assistant at Warhol’s Factory, noted, “Their relationship was symbiotic. Jean-Michel thought that he needed Andy’s celebrity, and Andy thought he needed Jean-Michel’s new blood, he represented an image of revolt for him” (R. Cutrone quoted in V. Bockris, Warhol: The Biography, Cambridge, 2003, p. 461-62). This relationship is clearly visible in their collaborative works where the measured, reproducible format of Warhol’s screenprinting technique sitting alongside Basquiat’s stylized freehand. The mask-like grin at the forefront of Collaboration seems to steal the spotlight from Warhol’s contribution, but perhaps it is the idea of the solid base, here represented by the provocative dollar sign, that makes it all the more telling of the two artists’ vibrant relationship.