The Collaboration – Mutual Survival

I’m told by an art expert that at auction, Andy Warhol (1928-1987) and Jean-Michael Basquiat (1960-1988) are today the two most expensive American artists. Recent sale of a Basquiat painting garnered $110.5 million dollars; Warhol’s came in at $195 million.

Disco lights, roving spots, on-the-street films, loud music and a live DJ at a raised platform set the period. It’s an ersatz recreation of Warhol’s Plastic Exploding Inevitable multimedia gatherings mounted by The Velvet Underground and the artist.

An Andy Warhol exhibition waits on stage at Galerie Bruno (Bruno Bischofberger). It’s 1984. Warhol (Paul Bettany) has been contacted by Bruno (Erik Jensen) with an idea to reinvigorate marketability that took a dive when the artist stopped painting and turned to film. The gallerist wants his famous, but fading client, to collaborate with rising star Jean-Michel Basquiat (Jeremy Pope). Warhol is aghast. “I’ve never collaborated!” Beat. “You mean paint with brushes?” (It’s been 25 years.)

Jeremy Pope (Basquiat), Paul Bettany (Warhol)

Separately approached, the young painter reacts in kind. Each artist is told the other is excited and has agreed. Warhol, who thinks of Basquiat as a flash in the pan who scribbles, will only participate if he’s allowed to film. The newbe (an established street painter) calls his senior “a piano that plays the same tune over and over,” but is piqued when Bruno says, “Andy is afraid you’re overtaking him.” They reluctantly meet at Warhol’s studio. Basquiat arrives with a Miles Davis tape. “Jazz? It’s just jazz goes on so long,” Warhol whines. They snipe at each other.

Warhol won’t put down the camera to which Basquiat has not agreed. It’s like pushing a boulder uphill to get him to paint. “I usually have an assistant do that.” The young man seems a free spirit. He’s constantly in balletic, coltish movement and anxious to start. Each artist explains his approach. “Some critic recently called me nothingness incarnate – like it’s a bad thing,” Warhol says. “I’m trying to make art that forces you to ignore it…I broke down the wall between art and business. It’s all about branding.” Scary but often true.

On the one hand, Basquiat appears compelled to create images and text that reflect social commentary – tackling wealth versus poverty, racism, violence, and spirituality – yet when directly asked, he replies, “I make art because I can’t make shoes or taco chips…” as if practically motivated. His passion is something Warhol can’t fathom. The icon envies Basquiat’s energy and beauty, thinking of himself as repulsive. (As a child Warhol had  a nervous system disease that causes involuntary movements of the extremities, and skin pigmentation blotchiness.) Playwright McCarten conjectures this particular insecurity as having been compounded by large, unsightly scars left after Warhol’s 1968 shooting by radical feminist Valerie Solanas and his having to subsequently wear a surgical corset.

Paul Bettany, Jeremy Pope

Trying to get him to talk, Basquiat asks Warhol what he did last night. Initial response is a desultory reference to feeding pigeons. When disparaged, the artist delivers a long winded description of successive celebrity encounters (apparently garnered from his diaries) indicative of immersion in the personality cult aspect of the era. In return, Basquiat says he found the dead body of a wineo on his doorstep. Undoubtedly true.

Despite friction, they gradually get to know and respect one another as we learn about them. Basquiat reveals how he got interested in art. So-called competitors are brought up – Schnabel, Clemente, Twombly – and commented upon. The young man bargains for Warhol’s brushwork at one point agreeing to take his shirt off. “How do you deal with all the emotions that come up when you paint?” Warhol asks camera in hand. “Andy, you’re coloring in the General Electric logo!” comes the response.

Jean-Michel Basquiat’s parents were Haitian and Puerto Rican. He grew up creative and precocious in a Brooklyn brownstone attending private school. The boy’s mother encouraged artistic interest. When she was incarcerated for mental illness, his trajectory seems to have tipped. Rebellion got him expelled. His father threw him out at 17. Joining with street artist Al Diaz, Basquiat developed the tag and pseudonym SAMO© (Same Old Shit) for their outlaw graffiti art. He knocked around the Lower East Side until Public Access television helped him to be “discovered.” Basquiat died of an overdose at the age of 28.

Krysta Rodriguez, Jeremy Pope

Andy Warhol (Andrew Warhola, Jr.) was raised blue collar in Pittsburgh, the son of devout Catholic immigrants from Czechoslovakia. He began as a commercial illustrator, then established The Factory – a hub for drag queens, writers, street people, counterculture artists, Hollywood celebrities and wealthy patrons. The artist is credited with referring to everyone’s “fifteen minutes of fame.” Pursuing a Pop vision, his painting of a can of a Campbell’s soup initially cost $1,500 while each autographed can sold for three for $18, $6.50 each. He was an early adapter of silk screen employed in fine art. Warhol died at 58 after post operative complications of gall bladder surgery.

The two grow close. Bruno periodically nudges them. Basquiat’s main squeeze Maya (Krysta Rodriguez) enters the scene with revelations about him. The young artist loses his best friend and goes ballistic. He attempts to revive the victim by painting that channels the Voodoo god “Lwa”/loah who can cause or cure illness. Dramatic reaction manifests as internally puppeted movement, manic smile, despair, a pendulum swing of resolution and indecision. Drug paraphernalia is suddenly evident. Warhol’s reaction is not predictable. Argument erupts. The play ends deftly.

Paul Bettany, Erik Jensen

As to the joint 1985 exhibition, Vivian Raynor of The New York Times called it “…a version of the Oedipus story: Warhol, one of Pop’s pops, paints, say, General Electric’s logo… his 25-year-old protege (I would dispute the use of this term) adds to or subtracts from it with his more or less expressionistic imagery. The 16 results – all ”Untitleds,’ of course – are large, bright, messy, full of private jokes and inconclusive… collaboration…seems based on the Mencken theory about nobody going broke underestimating the public’s intelligence.”

Jeremy Pope looks very like Jean-Michel Basquiat. The Emmy and Tony nominated actor is marvelous. He moves like a graceful dancer or unselfconscious child vibrating when still. Eyes dart except when focused on art. Dialogue seems to emerge directly from internal conversation. Accent is subtle.

I would never have thought to cast Paul Bettany as Andy Warhol, but he’s equally terrific. The icon’s awkward posture, feminine, birdlike gestures, droll and bitchy delivery are spot on. Even the way he holds a video camera is accurate. Bettany creates a human being, not a cartoon or caricature.

Both Erik Jensen and Krysta Rodriguez are grounded and credible.

Paul Bettany, Jeremy Pope

Anthony McCarten must’ve pored through material to achieve this successful melding of what we know and what plausibly might’ve been. Every historical reference is spot on. The only exception I could find is moving the year of graffiti artist Michael Stewart’s being beat to a pulp by the NYPD to reflect the timing of Basquiet’s meltdown and possible return to heroin. Quotes are deftly embedded.

Artistic ideology is aired when pressed for by one or the other man rather than through pontificating ego. Both characters would rather their work speak for itself. The complicated relationship is explored with sensitivity, not sentimentality. Dark humor is often injected when a moment’s weight feels oppressive. None of it is gratuitous. This is a play about the attempt for new beginnings and resurrection.

Director Kwame Kwei-Armah offers a beautifully finessed study in contrast. Physical acting, even bearing, is as vibrant and specific as dialogue. Stage business, particularly parentheses of looking at artwork or painting, is imaginative and credible. The briefest moments of sexually tinged proximity are kept to just that. Tension, and agony are respectively palpable, tenderness restrained; challenging pacing pitch perfect. Referring back to videos of Warhol and Basquiat reconfirms excellent manifestation, yet we feel as if in real time.

Andy Warhol, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Bruno Bischofberger, Fransesco Clemente 1984 Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license.

When Blondie videoed their song The Rapture, the first to air on MTV and among the first of those we hear tonight, its DJ was played by Basqiat who subsequently designed her record art. It was the first rap song to go to #1 on the charts – curiously by a White band. The last played is The Message by Grand Master Flash: Broken glass everywhere/ People Pissing on the stairs, you know they just don’t care... Whoever chose the music for this piece had their finger on its pulse.

Anna Fleischle’s set and costume design are well researched and evocative. The organized mess of studios reads well. Wigs by Karicean “Karen” Dick and Carol Robinson add veracity.

Duncan McLean’s projection design adds context as well as decoration. Video during intermission is a treat.

Dialect/vocal coach Deborah Hecht deserves recognition for speech delivered with accent tenor of those portrayed.

Photos by Jeremy Daniel

Manhattan Theatre Club presents
The Collaboration by Anthony McCarten
Directed by Kwame Kwei-Armah

Samuel J. Friedman Theatre
Extended through February 11, 2023

About Alix Cohen (1433 Articles)
Alix Cohen is the recipient of ten New York Press Club Awards for work published on this venue. Her writing history began with poetry, segued into lyrics and took a commercial detour while holding executive positions in product development, merchandising, and design. A cultural sponge, she now turns her diverse personal and professional background to authoring pieces about culture/the arts with particular interest in artists/performers and entrepreneurs. Theater, music, art/design are lifelong areas of study and passion. She is a voting member of Drama Desk and Drama League. Alix’s professional experience in women’s fashion fuels writing in that area. Besides Woman Around Town, the journalist writes for Cabaret Scenes, Broadway World, TheaterLife, and Theater Pizzazz. Additional pieces have been published by The New York Post, The National Observer’s Playground Magazine, Pasadena Magazine, Times Square Chronicles, and ifashionnetwork. She lives in Manhattan. Of course.