‘Warhol wanted Robert Mapplethorpe’—photographer of famous boxing shoot with Jean-Michel Basquiat on how it came to be

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The photographer who captured Andy Warhol and Jean-Michel Basquiat as boxing champions for a series of publicity pictures says that Robert Mapplethorpe was initially lined up to take the famous photos. Michael Halsband’s “Boxing Gloves” series of photographs—produced for the poster of the Basquiat and Warhol exhibition in September 1985 at Tony Shafrazi gallery in New York—are on show in the blockbuster exhibition Basquiat x Warhol. Painting Four Hands at the Fondation Louis Vuitton in Paris (until 28 August).

“Basquiat chose Halsband—whose work with singer Klaus Nomi had caught his attention—to take the photo for the poster. The image was to evoke a boxing match. On 10 July [1985], Basquiat and Warhol arrived at Halsband’s studio with gloves and shorts. Three of the images were finally selected to promote the exhibition; the photographer shares 80 of them [in the exhibition],” a press statement says.

But Halsband says that when he attended a dinner that July attended by Basquiat and other artists, Warhol put forward Robert Mapplethorpe for the boxing shoot. “I don’t know what I’m doing at this dinner anyway; I felt like I’m just going to be sitting alone here with nobody talking to me. But when I sat down, right away Jean [Basquiat] turned to me and he said, ‘Hey, I’ve been a big fan of your work for five years,’”, Halsband tells The Art Newspaper.

“And he said, ‘Would you come to the bathroom with me?’ There was this little door behind us, a really teeny little door. It was big enough for one person. And we closed the door and he started to explain to me that he and Andy were collaborating on these paintings, and they were going to have an exhibition at Tony Shafrazi’s gallery. And they wanted to do a poster in the style of a traditional boxing poster, and would I be interested in making the pictures? And I said, yeah, sure. But in my mind, I was thinking, I’m never going to get this.”

But Warhol was not keen. “Andy said, ‘Oh, but we already asked Robert Mapplethorpe to do it,’ and Jean said, ‘No, Michael’s going to do it.’ And Andy said, ‘Oh, well, I love Michael’s portraits. That’ll be great.’ I mean, I’d been working with Interview for about seven years at that point. He knew my work, it was just right out there in the open.”

Halsband had become acquainted with Basquiat at a photo shoot in April 1985 when he took a group photo of many high-profile artists of the day—including David Hockney and Keith Haring—on the steps of Mr. Chow restaurant in New York. The gathering marked the launch of Area nightclub in Manhattan; in the image, Basquiat is standing behind Darius Azari, co-founder of Area.

“He [Basquiat] wanted to drip the sauce on his plate onto Darius’s head who was sitting below him. And Jean wanted me to catch a stream of sauce. I looked at him. He looked at me, I looked at him, and we kind of established really quickly this shorthand communication. He started to tip the plate, but then that took my attention away from the rest of the group.”

Michael Halsband’s Andy Warhol and Jean-Michel Basquiat #143 (1985)

Courtesy of the artist

The boxing shoot later that year with both artists was very much a work-in progress with Basquiat’s confidence a foil to Warhol’s reticence. “Andy’s always kind of quiet and looked a bit lost in the sense that he was leaving a lot up to Jean and to me, which was good in the sense that right away, Jean took responsibility for initiating it and kind of getting it off the ground,” Halsband says.

“They sort of put their hands in the gloves, didn’t really lace them up right away, and they were just sort of feeling it out, testing it out. And then I was just following them. And I knew that we had to get two single pictures for the poster, but really my agenda was like, I really got to get a great picture of the two of them together,” he adds.

“Jean came up with the idea of laying his face on the glove, posing Andy, physically positioning Andy and then laying his face on the glove and making this expression of being punched in the face, mouth open, the whole thing.”

Halsband explains that only a few images have been shown in public previously. “Then I started to print out some pictures that I liked personally, specifically the one of Jean-Michel trying to pull up his boxers, the Everlast trunks with his gloves on. It was just a favourite of mine because he has this sort of little boy sort of smile, and he’s very animated.”

And how have these recognisable works affected him? “The life of these pictures has really become something where I feel like I’m still connected to him [Basquiat] in this crazy way. And I do feel that there isn’t a day that goes by where I don’t look at him and Andy.”

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