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  • Articles by Sonali

    Theatre review: The Collaboration

    Andy Warhol’s Shot Sage Blue Marilyn fetched £158 million in May at Christie’s New York to become the most expensive 20th century artwork sold at auction, overtaking Jean Michel Basquiat’s Untitled which sold for £90 million in 2017. In fact Warhol and Basquiat knew each other and they even worked together. The artists were introduced by art dealer Bruno Bischofberger who persuaded them to co-produce a series of paintings from 1983-85 for an exhibition.

    A new play called The Collaboration at the Young Vic Theatre– written by Anthony McCarten and directed by Kwame Kwei–Armah – speculates on what might have happened in a reimagining of their relationship.

    At the main stage of the Young Vic the audience take their seats to the sounds of Old School Hip Hop and Grace Jones spun by in-house DJ/VJ Xana: tracks played at the New York nightclub Danceteria, a favourite haunt of Basquiat in the early 1980s.

    The music stops abruptly when Andy Warhol played by Paul Bettany enters wearing a black leather jacket, jeans and trademark fright wig followed by Bischofberger (Alec Newman) at a Soho gallery in New York. Images of the city are projected as if the audience is looking through the windows of the gallery; and paintings are displayed on the back wall while the front of the stage is kept clear for the actors and the ensuing dialogue.

    Bischofberger explains to Warhol his plan for the collaboration: to create a buzz bringing a mutual benefit to their respective careers. He hopes the alliance will reignite Warhol’s waning career. Warhol had closed down the Factory after being shot in 1968 and is perceived by many, including his assailant, as a callous voyeur. Basquiat, on the other hand, paints prolifically and has a rock star reputation. His works fetch astronomical sums but he is in need of mentoring and kudos.

    At first Warhol is against the idea. He says Basquiat’s paintings are ‘so ugly and angry’. In reply Bischofberger says it might get Warhol painting again after twenty three years.

    The two artists first meet at Warhol’s loft apartment: his Marilyn Monroe silk screens on the back wall. Basquiat, as played by Jeremy Pope, is wide eyed with a restless energy and erratic mannerisms. What follows is the exchange of background information which is for the benefit of the audience but makes the dialogue seem clunky. Warhol points out that Basquiat hails from an affluent Haitian-Puerto Rican background despite his humble beginnings as a street artist. Warhol’s family were working class immigrants from Poland.

    Basquiat seems awestruck by Warhol but the first half the play is more of a sparring match between them, highlighting their different philosophies on life and art rather than a collaboration. In fact, the exhibition is billed as a boxing match on the marketing poster. According to Bischofberger ‘painters are like boxers, both smear their blood on the canvas’.

    Basquiat questions Warhol’s obsession with surfaces, brands and commercialism and his distance from his working process. He is aloof and germ phobic and works from photographs while his assistants complete the silkscreen printing process. Basquiat (messy and chaotic) paints with spontaneity, passion and at a feverish speed. The prickly atmosphere is heightened when Warhol begins to film him on his video camera. He persuades Warhol to swap his video camera for a paintbrush and paints into the air.

    The play’s second half is set 3 years later after the exhibition when Warhol visits Basquiat’s loft apartment. Warhol seems at ease letting himself into the empty flat, stepping over bottles of Kristal Champagne which litter the floor. Stacks of dollar bills are stored in the fridge (next to the caviar) as Basquiat does not trust banks.

    When Basquiat returns he looks much more dishevelled and disoriented that he did in the first half. He is in shock because a fellow African-American graffiti artist, Michael Stewart, is in a coma and later dies after being taken into police custody. We have not seen or heard of Stewart before this and the sudden appearance of his ex-girlfriend, Maya, seems random and disjointed. 

    The scene does serve to highlight his sense of being an outsider in the art world due to his background. Warhol shares these insecurities. He was originally Andy Warhola from Pittsburgh, a small industrial town, feeling out of place in the New York art scene.

    Here Bettany and Pope should be commended for performances that transcend the limitations of the script giving us a glimpse of how the artists related to each other and their easy rapport.

    Bettany captures Warhol’s droll wit and aloofness but he also shows his more caring side in his concern for Basquiat whose substance abuse has clearly spiralled out of control. Pope deftly portrays Basquiat’s vulnerability and his resentment at being stereotyped as an African-American artist. His naïve style of painting was defined as ‘primal’ by critics.

    The exhibition was panned by the critics but Warhol and Basquiat continued their friendship for the rest of their lives. Warhol died in 1987 of gall bladder complications stemming from his shooting. Basquiat died of an overdose in August 1988 at the age of 27.

    It is a tribute to the enduring popularity of both artists that there was not an empty seat in the theatre. The audience was diverse in terms of ethnicity and age and there was a sense of informality surrounding the production making it in many ways a unique theatre experience.