Jean-Michel Basquiat was already well-known in the SoHo art world and downtown club scene as a member of the graffiti art collective called SAMO, but his first show at Mary Boone in 1984 marked his arrival as A-list artist whose sought-after paintings commanded high prices.
Basquiat’s work was immediately and warmly received by dealers, critics, and collectors because it was imbued with the conventions of high modernism to the same degree it was informed by the street. His middle-class family had encouraged his talents and supported his art education so that when he began spray painting walls in lower Manhattan, he was already self-conscious about the place his medium and style occupied within a tradition. Basquiat’s dual-citizenship in both the street and the gallery and his fluency in the visual languages of both high and low art, effectively neutralized charges of dilettantism and of selling out.
Although Basquiat ceased to be a graffiti artist when SAMO disbanded in 1981, the iconography and graphic style of street art were carried over to his studio art. More importantly, the ability to address the public directly through language and image, in an improvised, rhetorical manner allowed Basquiat to present politically-charged content with a low-key confidence and authority honed by practice. The 1980s were notorious for the proliferation of unenlightening politicized art and for ugly racial confrontations, yet Basquiat’s work was able to speak persuasively and compellingly to major historical and cultural issues like the legacy of slavery, racial inequality and identity politics not because he was a man of color (an essentialist fallacy that marred much of the political art made by his contemporaries), but because he had five years of experience in public speaking before he began making politically-charged art.
Understanding the rhetorical nature of Basquiat’s art helps to explain why his collaborations with mentor (and landlord) Andy Warhol were not successful. Warhol’s impersonal use of found and reproduced imagery derived its power not from addressing the public from a position outside of it with the intent to persuade, but by appropriating the imagery and passive point of view of that public for ironic and subversive purposes. Next to Basquiat’s discursive engagement and bravura painterly style, Warhol’s contributions seemed anemic and evasive.
Jean-Michel Basquiat died of a heroin overdose in New York City on 12 August 1988, at the age of 28. On 13 May 2013, Basquiat’s Dustheads (1982) was sold at a Christie’s auction for a record $48.8 million.
Andy Warhol consistently made use of imagery related to Communism, the Cold War, and Marxism throughout his career.
In 1972, President Richard Nixon made a historic state visit to China, where he met with Communist Party Chairman Mao Zedong. The summit established diplomatic ties between the two nations and inaugurated a series of cultural exchanges. In 1973, Warhol began an extensive series of paintings and prints based on the official portrait of Chairman Mao, visible everywhere in China at the time.
Responding to Mao’s vanity and global fame, Warhol used the format and style of his commissioned portraits of socialites, celebrities, and capitalist entrepreneurs to depict the ascetic Communist leader. The plain grey worker’s clothing and neutral background are transformed by beautifully-harmonized colors and extravagant, painterly brushwork, while the impassive face is given a makeover. Taken as a whole, the sumptuous and glamorous Mao paintings were the most unabashedly beautiful images Warhol had made to date.
Warhol also used Mao’s image as a wall paper design, his official reason being that Mao rhymed with cow, the image used in Warhol’s first foray into wallpaper design in 1965.
Warhol visited China in 1982, where to his surprise, no one knew who he was.
The number of photographs of Andy Warhol mingling at parties and with friend’s and celebrities dwarfs the number of images of the artist making art. This imbalance reflects Warhol’s highly successful effort to keep the spotlight on his official public persona and away from his personal and creative self, especially after 1968. There are, however, revealing images of Warhol at work, almost exclusively from the 1960s.
This sequence, taken in March, 1965, shows Warhol and studio assistant Gerard Malanga silkscreening and painting one of the Flower series. The scale of the painting, the physicality of the large-format silkscreen process, and the placement of the canvas on the studio floor, to be worked from all sides are striking, and remind us that despite the differences in content and medium, Warhol’s painting practice clearly was clearly influenced by the scale and working techniques of the Abstract Expressionists, particularly Jackson Pollock, whose working methods were captured on film by Hans Namuth in a documentary film of 1950.
The map of art history shows a huge chasm yawning between Abstract Expressionism and Pop Art, but these images of Warhol remind us that the distance between the New York art world of 1950 from that of 1965 is not very great, and that for many reasons, it would have been impossible for Pop Art to succeed, had it not carried over key aspects of Abstract Expressionism.
Being born is like being kidnapped. And then sold into slavery.
—Andy Warhol, The Philosophy of Andy Warhol (1975)
Andy Warhol was born on 6 August 1928 in Pittsburgh, PA. Tomorrow would have been his 86th birthday, had he not died while undergoing gall bladder surgery in New York City on 27 February 1987. On his 6 August 1945, his 17th birthday, the first atom bomb was dropped on Hiroshima; from that point onward he thought of “A-Bomb” as his cypher.
I have lots of Warhol images, film clips, quotations and reminiscence for you tomorrow so be sure to drop in.