Through an off-hand entry in Andy Warhol’s diary we gain the first insight into the momentous union of the indisputable legend of the avant-garde and a then rising star of the New York art scene. On October 4, 1982 Warhol wrote: “Down to meet Bruno Bischofberger (cab $7.50). He brought Jean Michel Basquiat with him. He’s the kid who used the name 'Samo' when he used to sit on the sidewalk in Greenwich Village and paint T-shirts…he was just one of those kids who drove me crazy…he’s black but some people say he’s Puerto Rican so I don’t know…And so had lunch for them and then I took a Polaroid and he went home and within two hours a painting was back, still wet, of him and me together.” (Pat Hackett, Ed., The Andy Warhol Diaries, New York, 1989, p. 462) Whilst in the early 1980s Basquiat had frequented The Factory in an effort to infiltrate its magnetic social scene, this fascinating anecdote signals the beginning of the young and ambitious Basquiat’s professional courtship of Warhol, inaugurated through Basquiat’s theatrically expedient gift of a double portrait of the two. Associating him only with his street-art roots, Warhol had previously distanced himself from the enigmatic Basquiat. However Basquiat’s endorsement by Swiss power-dealer Bruno Bischofberger encouraged Warhol to recognize the young artist as the serious force that he would come to be known as.
Emerging as a revolutionary figure in the 1960s, Warhol had been at the heart of the art establishment for over twenty years by the time he met Basquiat. However, as noted by Robert Pincus Witten, it seemed that “In the ‘70s, Warholism had superseded Warhol” as he received critical admonishment for a decade dominated by the portrait commissions. Fastidiously concerned about his public reception, at the dawn of the 1980s the artist was desperate to inaugurate “the Return of Andy Warhol.” (Robert Pincus-Witten, "Entries: Big History, Little History," Arts Magazine, 54, April 1980, p. 184) Schooled by the graffiti of the streets rather than the academy, Basquiat and his fresh perspective offered the essential injection of life that Warhol was looking for to revive his career. On the other hand, the well-connected Warhol offered Basquiat the notoriety and network to establish his critical reputation. As fellow pop artist Ronnie Cutrone recounted, "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." (Ronnie Cutrone cited in Victor Bockris, Warhol: The Biography, Cambridge, 2003, pp. 461-462) The late 1980s would later become some of the most productive of Warhol’s career, resulting in some of his greatest works such as the legendary series of Fright Wig self-portraits. As explained by Keith Haring, “Jean brought back a much-needed touch of mischief that had been disappearing from the Factory agenda. But, he also brought an atmosphere of obsessive production that left its mark long after the collaborations had stopped." (Keith Haring, "Painting the Third Man,'' a 1988 text reprinted in Exh. Cat., Milwaukee Art Museum, Andy Warhol: The Last Decade, 2009, p. 205)
Haring was well positioned to comment on the nature of the partnership as he was also enlisted by Zurich-based Bischofberger into the wider project of artist collaborations along with Francesco Clemente. Warhol and Basquiat produced the first joint works, creating a limited corpus initially executed over the period of 1983-84. In Wood we are presented with the wild reprisal of the classical landscape genre as a quotidian vista of trees is bombarded with the calamitous symbols of the artists’ playful imaginations. Working separately on the canvas as part of an ongoing exchange, Warhol would typically lay down the silkscreen background. Basquiat recalled, "He would put something very concrete or recognizable, like a newspaper headline or a product logo, and then I would try and deface it, and then I would try and get him to work some more on it." (the artist cited in Exh. Cat., Basel, Fondation Beyeler, Basquiat, 2010, p. 47) Here we see the most smooth and delicate surface of Warhol’s two central trees, engulfed at first in swathes of gestural white that evoke both artist's Abstract Expressionist forebears. Over these base elements consciously naïve scrawls bear the inimitable character of Jean-Michel Basquiat. Typically reveling in visual puns and expressing his interest in anatomy, two vertical forms identified as 'FEET' provide a formal parallel to the roots of Warhol’s trees. Enlivening the top of the canvas, a mysterious creature breathes fire, drawing from Basquiat’s repertoire of comic book imagery. Moreover, employing his signature scrawl, Basquiat deliberately labeled a selection of compositional components here - 'CYLINDER (WOODEN),' 'FEET,' 'WOOD,' 'EYE' - effectively commodifying them in apparent homage to Pop Art's early focus on the pervasive language of commercial advertising. A nod to brand identity is specifically made through the “EYE” emblem that adorns his beast like a trademark, expressing an interest in consumer products that would permeate the remainder of Basquiat’s oeuvre.
The limited number of collaborations between Basquiat and Warhol have come to embody a profoundly symbiotic relationship. Evidenced in the present work, the contrast between the artist’s two most iconic mediums – Warhol’s consciously flat silkscreen and Basquiat’s coarse, textured oilstick – is completely subsumed within a wholly blended pictorial style. Just as Basquiat harnesses the graphic directness of Pop, Warhol has abandoned photographic reproduction and reengaged with the sentimental style of illustration that preceded his mature breakthrough. Whilst individual characteristics can be identified, Wood is the product of a shared vision that is, once again, most perfectly summarized by friend and collaborator Keith Haring: “The sense of humor which permeates all of the works recalls the laughter which surrounded them while they were being made. They are truly an invention of what William S. Burroughs called "The Third Mind" - two amazing minds fusing together to create a third, totally separate and unique mind." (Keith Haring, "Painting the Third Man,'' in Op. Cit., p. 205)
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