Learn about Andy Warhol, Jean-Michel Basquiat, and their artwork that inspired 'The Collaboration'
The New York-premiere play stages an imagined version of the artists' partnership in the '80s.
Two iconic artists, one highly anticipated exhibit. That's the most basic gist of The Collaboration, the latest stage play by four-time Oscar-nominated writer Anthony McCarten. He's known for semi-fictionalized biopics like Bohemian Rhapsody and The Theory of Everything, and now, he's telling the story of artists Andy Warhol and Jean-Michel Basquiat. The two were tasked with creating a joint art exhibit, and McCarten's show imagines the conversations about art and its place in the world that they may have had in the studio.
The show premiered in London earlier in 2022, and Manhattan Theatre Club is now mounting The Collaboration on Broadway with its two original stars: two-time Tony nominee Jeremy Pope as Basquiat and Marvel film star Paul Bettany as Warhol. But the history of this show goes back further than that, to the mid-20th century, when these men were alive and in their artistic heyday.
The Collaboration only shows a small sliver of these men's life and work, so learn more about their art styles below, along with the fate of their joint exhibit and facts about their careers you won't see on stage.
The Collaboration begins Broadway performances November 29 at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre.
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Andy Warhol and pop art
Lots of artists were independently experimenting with pop art starting in the 1960s, but Andy Warhol didn't just join the crowd — he became the genre's most famous practicioner, earning him the unofficial nickname "The Pope of Pop." Pop art has everyday images from popular culture as its subjects, encompassing anything from movie characters to advertisements to books to drugstore products. Warhol's two most famous works alone reflect this range — the Marilyn series, of A-list movie star Marilyn Monroe, and Campbell's Soup Cans, a mundane object. Both artworks debuted in 1962. Brightly colored, yet realistic, silkscreen portraits became Warhol's signature creation method, and he used it to depict lots of diverse subjects, from popular singers to scenes from tragic news stories.
Shortly after his 1962 career high, he took a hiatus from art and returned to it in 1972. From then on, though, he created art regularly until his sudden death in 1987. In those later years, when The Collaboration takes place, it was Basquiat who encouraged him to make hand-painted art again after using silkscreens for more than 20 years. (Many of Warhol's other works featured painted backgrounds, but he used silkscreens dipped in ink to transfer existing photos of his subjects onto the canvas, rather than repainting those pictures himself.)
Warhol and Basquiat's conversations about the commercialization of art also feature heavily in The Collaboration. Warhol and pop art were all about marrying consumer culture and creativity, so it's fitting that Warhol would posthumously become one of the bestselling artists of all time. In 2022, when his 1964 painting Shot Sage Blue Marilyn sold for $195 million, it became the most expensive work by an American artist to be sold at an auction.
Fun facts about Andy Warhol
Learn more details about Warhol's wide-ranging artistic career that you won't see in The Collaboration.
- Warhol was also a filmmaker, director, and producer of more than 60 indie and non-commercial art movies. This side of his career isn't featured in The Collaboration, but the London production included projections as a homage to his interest in film.
- Warhol managed the band the Velvet Underground when they were first starting out; he tapped them to perform at a multimedia art show of his, which put them on the music scene.
- The Collaboration is one of dozens of plays, documentaries, books, and more published about Warhol's life and career. Warhol also wrote a single play himself, Andy Warhol's Pork, which played for two weeks at New York's La MaMa Experimental Theatre Club downtown.
- Warhol made a cameo in the 1982 movie Tootsie, starring Dustin Hoffman. A musical adaptation of that movie premiered on Broadway in 2019.
- Before Warhol was a pop artist, he was an illustrator for magazine articles and ads. He later co-founded his own magazine, Interview, which still exists today.
- Warhol's career inspired David Bowie, and a song on Bowie's first album is named for him. Bowie went on to play the artist in the 1996 film Basquiat, which also dramatizes Warhol and Basquiat's collaboration.
Jean-Michel Basquiat and Neo-expressionism
Before Warhol's artwork became the most expensive ever sold at auction, that record belonged to Jean-Michel Basquiat — an untitled 1982 painting of his sold for $110.5 million in 2017. But before he became a bestselling artist and a pop culture icon, Basquiat was a street artist in Manhattan's Lower East Side.
He and his friend Al Diaz graffitied satirical ad slogans and together called themselves SAMO, an abbreviation of "same old crap." Their graffiti got attention as a larger part of the growing punk and hip-hop subculture on the rise in the late '70s and early '80s. His first solo break was as part of The Times Square Show multi-artist exhibit in 1980, showcasing early work in which Basquiat painted on found objects. His work caught the eye of multiple art dealers, and the rest is history.
Basquiat's rise to fame was meteoric — and short-lived. There were only eight years between when he got discovered and when he died of a heroin overdose. He turned to drugs amid stress about his sudden fame and the demands of his career, especially as a Black man fighting for recognition in a white-dominated industry.
He remains known as a major figure of Neo-expressionism, an art style that emerged from German Expressionism in the late '70s. In some ways, Neo-expressionism was similar to Warhol's pop art: works in both styles depicted common objects in bright colors. Neo-expressionist painters like Basquiat, however, drew these objects more abstractly and roughly. This style of art is all about conveying raw emotion, rather than clean realism.
For Basquiat, Neo-expressionism was his vehicle for social commentary as a Black Puerto Rican-Haitian man. His work, which combined abstract imagery of the human body with poetry, often conveyed outrage at systemic racism, colonialism, and white power, within and outside the art world.
Fun facts about Jean-Michel Basquiat
The Collaboration doesn't cover all of the young artist's life and career — learn more Basquiat facts below.
- The first painting Basquiat ever sold was Cadillac Moon in 1981. Blondie's lead singer, Debbie Harry, with whom Basquiat appeared in the indie film Downtown 81, bought it for $200.
- Basquiat dated Madonna for a short time before either one of them became extremely famous.
- Basquiat's most famous symbol is a three-pointed crown. He was inspired by the logo of King World Productions, the company that syndicated the TV show The Little Rascals, which Basquiat loved. There's no agreed-upon definition for what it means in his artwork, and it likely varies from piece to piece. The crown is said to represent Basquiat's fame and ambition, and is also seen as a social commentary. When painted atop the head of a Black subject, the crown shows them as powerful instead of oppressed.
- Though Basquiat was against the commercialization of art, he had a thing for high fashion. He reportedly wore Armani suits while painting, posed for designer Issey Miyake, walked in fashion shows in New York and Paris, and was on GQ's 2007 list of the 50 Most Stylish Men of the Past 50 Years. It's fitting, as one of Basquiat's early successes was getting his hand-painted upcycled clothing line, MAN MADE, sold at a high-end boutique.
- SAMO didn't just do street art — Basquiat and Diaz also drew cartoons for their high school newspaper.
Bruno Bischofberger and the artists' first meeting
Bruno Bischofberger was Warhol and Basquiat's shared agent and art dealer; it was his idea for the artists to work together. Bischofberger became Warhol's primary art dealer in 1968, two years after they first met. He started showing Basquiat's work in the late 1970s and became his exclusive art dealer in 1982. It was later that year, on October 4, that Bischofberger arranged Basquiat and Warhol's first official meeting. ("Official" because Basquiat had once sold Warhol a postcard at a Manhattan restaurant years earlier.)
Bischofberger is a minor character at the beginning of The Collaboration, shown exaggerating to Warhol how much Basquiat liked his work, and vice versa, to convince them to join forces. His real motive, however, is setting up the greatest showdown in art history. He compares the exhibition to a boxing match, hoping it will spark public debate — and perhaps a consensus — over which artist is better.
Basquiat reportedly created a painting of himself and Warhol within hours of that initial meeting, presumably to show his excitement about their collaboration. Warhol later responded with a portrait of Basquiat (infamously created with paint, silkscreen, and urine), which Basquiat framed in his house alongside his own artwork.
One thing The Collaboration leaves out is that two years later, in 1984, Bischofberger brought a third collaborator into the mix: Italian artist Francesco Clemente. He exhibited collaborative works from the trio in Germany that year. After that show, though, Warhol and Basquiat kept working together without telling Clemente, quietly pushing him out of the partnership.
Basquiat and Warhol's partnership
The Collaboration is a largely fictional imagining of Warhol and Basquiat's conversations in the art studio while working on paintings together. We don't know for sure what they talked about. What we do know, though, is that their artistic partnership endured for three years, though it wasn't without its ups and downs.
Lots of people criticized their friendship right from the start. Some thought Basquiat was just using Warhol and his worldwide fame to jumpstart his own career. Others thought Warhol was the opportunist, wanting to hitch his wagon to a rising art star now that his heyday had passed. Plus, they had a world of differences beyond art style: Warhol was 30 years older than Basquiat, Warhol was white and Basquiat was Black, Warhol was neat and Basquiat was messy.
Those differences created some tension between the men, which The Collaboration dramatizes. For one, Warhol makes some racially charged comments about Basquiat's Puerto Rican-Haitian heritage and the "primal" quality of his art. And Basquiat doesn't hold back his shock that Warhol hasn't painted in years, or his distaste for Warhol's views on art as a commercialized brand. But amid their sparring, the play also sees them philosophizing about art, showing what they supposedly had in common that kept their friendship alive: a passion for their work and a strong belief in art's importance in the world.
The Paintings exhibit
The men's friendship didn't last forever, though, and the very exhibit that brought them together tore them apart. Remember how Bruno Bischofberger saw the event as a boxing competition? He leaned into that literally — Warhol and Basquiat did a photoshoot where they posed as boxers, and those photos were used on flyers promoting the exhibit. The show was titled simply Paintings, and it certainly pitted the artists against each other in the public eye.
Paintings went up for a month in fall 1985 at the Tony Shafrazi Gallery in Manhattan's Chelsea neighborhood. It consisted of 16 paintings, all untitled. In most of them, Warhol's pop-art imagery — like foods, sale tags, and movie studio logos — was arranged in chaotic collages amid more abstract images from Basquiat, inspired by African culture and cartoons.
The exhibit received almost entirely negative reviews. A New York Times critic wrote, "The social comment implicit in [Basquiat's] previous work has now become obvious and rather silly... The collaboration looks like one of Warhol's manipulations... Basquiat, meanwhile, comes across as the all too willing accessory." Other critics condemned Warhol, like they did for his befriending Basquiat in the first place, for seemingly using Basquiat to make himself relevant again. These reviews bred resentment between the men. They never created art together after that, and they almost never spoke again, either, before both dying a few years later.
Though the exhibit was poorly received in its time, Warhol and Basquiat's works, together and separately, have now become iconic pieces of art and pop culture history. And with the story of their creation being staged in The Collaboration, they're a part of theatre history, too.
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