It was a buzzy opening. Duran Duran keyboardist Nick Rhodes was there, along with magazine’s Paige Powell and renowned Swiss dealer Bruno Bischofberger who milled around excitedly beneath an amazing series of blown-up portraits of the show’s stars: Andy Warhol and Jean-Michel Basquiat, whose paradoxical collaborative paintings were the draw of the evening.
These paintings were the subject of another buzzy opening at Tony Shafrazi’s New York gallery in 1985. But the 2023 version, a slick affair sprawling across four floors of the Fondation Louis Vuitton’s Frank Gehry-designed mega-museum was a far cry from Shafrazi’s intentionally dingy Soho gallery. And it was the Parisian art-going public who turned up in droves for the opening of “Basquiat x Warhol: Painting Four Hands” to sip Moët and feast on a sense of proximity to Manhattan’s downtown art scene in the 1980s.
Michael Halsband’s electric black-and-white photographs capture the protagonists of that scene. His poster images of the pair wearing boxing gloves and fauxsparring, taken to promote the original show, are still genius. Warhol’s weedy figure and Basquiat’s soft good looks make them unlikely sparring partners. On the other hand, the exhibition itself—like all shows at the titanic museum associated with LVMH founder Bernard Arnault—was a true exercise in flexing one’s muscles.
Given their stature within 20th-century art history, and their own playful manipulation of their public images, Basquiat and Warhol’s relationship has been fictionalized on multiple occasions. Their collaboration is the subject of a dramatization currently on Broadway, which stages the partnership as a cynical pairing devised by their gallerist as a bid to revive Warhol’s floundering career by hitching him to Basquiat’s rising star; and it frames both parties as reluctant to play ball.
The reality was quite opposite. “Warhol’s reputation was still high at that time, but it had its highs and lows as it always had,” Bischofberger told Artnet News, speaking through an assistant. The dealer encouraged the collaboration in 1982, which originally included the Italian artist Francesco Clemente. “It was based on an interest in art history and deep knowledge of it, pure interest in the artists and their work, and in experiencing what new comes out of a collaboration between three artists of completely different characters, natures, and approaches, living in the same city and society and being friends.”
In fact, Basquiat admired Warhol, and had orchestrated several casual encounters in an effort to enter his orbit. He first approached him in 1979 at a restaurant to cold sell him a postcard collage, then later angled for an invite to Warhol’s studio, The Factory. By the time Bischofberger formally introduced them, Basquiat was a star in his own right, dusting everything he touched.
They did make a series of works with Clemente, but it was Warhol and Basquiat who felt a lasting connection. United by trauma—friends dying of AIDS and being beaten to death by police—and their own recent brushes with death—Basquiat had been hit by a car, Warhol had been shot—the artists decided to continue working together in secret at Warhol’s vacant studio building, and only revealed their four-handed work to their dealer a year later.
In all, they worked together on around 160 paintings between 1983 and 1985. Around 70 of these jointly signed canvases are included in the Paris show, which is the largest number ever to be exhibited together. It also features 220 other works and archival documents, by the artists as individuals, and by others in their circle.
The enormous scale of some of the works—speaking to Warhol’s love of cinema-screen and billboard format and Basquiat’s experience painting on walls—goes some way towards explaining why there has not yet been an exhibition of this size despite their obvious pulling power with museum audiences. “Here, they can breathe, they can explode in their intensity,” said art historian Dieter Buchhart, who co-curated the exhibition with Anna Karina Hofbauer in partnership with the foundation’s in-house curator Olivier Michelon.
The show opens with a group of portraits of the artists. Among them, a Polaroid selfie of the two, and Basquiat’s now-iconic double portrait, , which the artist dashed off to paint after one of their first meetings at The Factory.
Some of the earliest collaborative works made with Clemente—looking somewhat like a cacophonous surrealist game of exquisite corpse—are included. But the duo works by Warhol and Basquiat are the substance of the exhibition—and not all are created equal. Some early ones just look like Basquiat had defaced Warhol’s paintings. The best examples are the more cohesive ones in which, as Warhol once said “you can’t tell who did which parts.” In , Warhol’s banal yellow car bonnet is transformed by Basquiat into social commentary: a taxicab driver curses a Black figure attempting to flag it down. Also interesting are the ones in which you can see a real back-and-forth dialogue developing between the artists. This can be seen in the 33-foot-long or in the humorous exchanges made in a series of images prominently featuring a dog motif.
A few connecting galleries with Street art by the likes of Keith Haring and Fab Five Freddy and other works by artists of the era, such as Jenny Holzer, add context to the collaboration. Photographs by Halsband and Powell provide a role call of the scene. A mind-bending group shot taken at Mr. Chow’s features dozens of now household names, with the likes of Haring, David Hockney, Alex Katz, and John Chamberlain all crammed into one frame. In another, a radiant Mary Boone holds hands with Basquiat. The gallerist, who also represented Basquiat at the time, gets another nod in one of Basquiat’s “punching bags”—an enigmatic piece embellished with her name and one of Basquiat’s trademark crowns. The show’s meaty catalog doesn’t offer any context for the inclusion, but it is interesting to note that Boone herself was never a fan of the joint works.
“I didn’t like the collaborative paintings. I thought it compromised both artists,” Boone told me over the phone. “I think that Bruno did it with the idea of invigorating the artists. I think that he wanted to inspire Andy. There’s a whole history of art dealers giving artists ideas and artists choosing to take them or not. But I just didn’t think the idea of encouraging artists to make paintings together, where they are just morphed into a third entity, was a good one.” Fortunately, for the collaborators, though: “Jean-Michel was a star, so there was no shortage of galleries wanting to show them.”
Regarding the punching bag work, Basquiat was a notorious prankster, and Boone said she took it as a joke.
As it turned out, Boone was far from the only skeptic of the work. In an oft-cited review, critic Vivian Raynor panned the Shafrazi show, writing: “The collaboration looks like one of Warhol’s manipulations, which increasingly seem based on the Mencken theory about nobody going broke underestimating the public’s intelligence.” Shafrazi only managed to sell three paintings from the show; two of which were returned after the negative reviews.
Curator Bucchart put the lukewarm reception down to the fact that Warhol had fallen out of favor with the press; he’d been accused of lacking in inventiveness after he turned towards celebrity portraits, and some historians suggest he lost his mojo in the decade after he was shot by Valerie Solanas in 1968. “Anything Warhol was doing in the ‘80s was criticized,” Buchhart said. “So it actually wasn’t personal, it was just unlucky that the greatest project in art history would fall under bad critique because of the circumstances.”
Queried on the sheer number of the works included in the exhibition, and whether they could all be such masterpieces, the curator doubled down on his sentiment. “It’s far away from showing everything,” he noted, citing the existence of more than 100 additional works in the world. “It’s far away from showing everything we got,” he added. “Look at the quality of the works. There are none that fail the highest standards of the Fondation Louis Vuitton.”
I’m not sure to what extent I would agree. A more cynical observer might find something to say in the fact that Galerie Bruno Bischofberger is one of the main lenders of the collaborative works, suggesting there is still unmoved inventory in the back room.
Perhaps the strongest works in the exhibition are those executed by the artists as individuals, albeit inspired by the other. These include the revelatory acrylic and silkscreen ink print collages of six Polaroids of Basquiat in his underwear posing as Michelangelo’s (loaned by Miami heavyweights Norman and Irma Braman). Equally strong is the somber assemblage by Basquiat, titled (1987, also a private collection), which pays homage to Warhol after his death. The work quotes the elder artist’s crosses, and is poetically, hauntingly, inscribed “perishable” as an ode to the ephemeral nature of being. Basquiat himself would die the following year of a heroin overdose, aged 27.
What is most enjoyable about the show is the fascinating historical context of the collaboration. Here we have two titans of art history working together, undeniably a momentous event, which offers clues about the varyingly inscrutable artists, their immediate environs, and their influence on each other. The experiment brought Warhol back to painting again, and their relationship offers insights into the chess game Basquiat was playing with his own brand.
All told, the exhibition may not demonstrate that everything they made together was amazing—but what is truly amazing is that they did it at all.