For me, the paintings which resulted from this collaboration are the perfect testimony to the depth and importance of their friendship. The quality of the painting mirrors the quality of the relationship. 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 in "Painting the Third Man'', 1988 reprinted in: Exh. Cat., Milwaukee Art Museum, Andy Warhol: The Last Decade, 2009, p. 205)
Zurich-based dealer Bruno Bischofberger could hardly have known to what degree the partnership would mutually enhance both artists' careers when he suggested a collaboration between Jean-Michel Basquiat and Andy Warhol. Bischofberger's idea for a collaboration, which would eventually grow to include Francesco Clemente and Keith Haring, two other artists whom Bischofberger represented, was based in memories both of grade school assignments, in which each student was responsible for a part of the class mural, and of the Surrealist tradition of the "exquisite corpse," a composition by artists who drew spontaneous images on different folds of the same piece of paper without showing them to each other until a sort of constituent hybrid was created.
Though the teenage Basquiat had pursued Warhol and had already been to the Factory several times by 1980, Warhol initially remained aloof, at first perceiving Basquiat as a naïf of yet to be determined talent. Gradually, Warhol's respect for Basquiat solidified, and their friendship prospered. Untitled (General Electric II), a collaboration from 1984-85, is a prime example of their symbiotic relationship. To create the present work, Warhol laid down the silkscreened background of the canvas and later added his readymade graphic imagery, the General Electric logo. Basquiat responded, reacted, modified by filling in nearly the entire canvas with childlike scrawls, painted blocks of color and the final addition of a central figure done in his signature style. Continuing to riff on Middle American mores and culture, Warhol illustrates the recognizable GE brand logo, a symbol of American economy that Warhol repeats in his collaborations with Basquiat. This central image that dominates the canvas is mechanically rendered by Warhol’s silkscreen technique and has little trace of individualism, yet it screams Warhol and is a motif repeated throughout his late body of work. In contrast, Basquiat’s main contribution, the figure of a man at the bottom center of the canvas, is quite the opposite of Warhol’s industrial mark; indeed, the figure is an archetypical Basquiat motif, with one profound difference: the color of his skin. In the majority of his paintings, Basquiat’s protagonist is predominantly black-skinned, a kind of proxy for the artist himself. By portraying a white figure in Untitled (General Electric II), perhaps Basquiat points toward the homogeny and supremacy of the white American middle class, signified by the American conglomerate GE’s logo.
Both artists, though so strikingly different, were outsiders to a degree – Warhol a wounded celebrity who preferred to affect the pose of an enigmatic voyeur and Basquiat a young African-American wünderkind with growing reputation but no formal art training. Both looked to popular culture for imagery – Warhol to advertising, newspapers and Hollywood stars; Basquiat to jazz musicians and professional athletes. Though the raw mental material was similar, their artistic styles couldn't have been more different. Describing their collaboration in a 1985 interview, the same year as the present work, Basquiat remarks: "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. I would try to get him to do at least two things, you know [laughing]? He likes to do just one hit and then have me do all the work after that." (Basquiat in Exh. Cat., Basel, Foundation Beyeler, Basquiat, 2010, p. 47)
The combination of Warhol's mechanically reproducible, flat images and Basquiat's hand-painted physicality and purposeful primitivism served both artists well. Though teaming up with the legendary Warhol was certainly a coup for the twenty-three year old Basquiat, the reciprocity of the collaboration should not be underestimated. Basquiat's powerful imagery, poetic symbolism, and youthful frenzy reinvigorated Warhol, whose career had been relatively quiescent for the previous decade. With regards to both artistic spirit and commercial career, the collaboration could not have come at a better time for either: "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." (Ronny Cutrone in Victor Bockris, Warhol: The Biography, Cambridge, 2003, p. 461-2)
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