Published: May 24, 2007
They were an unlikely artistic trio: Pop Art icon Andy Warhol, realist Jamie Wyeth and graffiti artist Jean-Michel Basquiat. But in the 1970s and 1980s, Warhol collaborated with the two young artists from opposite poles of the art world in ways that augmented their reputations and reenergized the older man’s work.
“Factory Work: Warhol, Wyeth and Basquiat” traces how Warhol (1928‱987), an established art megastar, invited first Wyeth (b 1946) and later Basquiat (1960‱988) to paint at the “Factory,” his New York studio. Warhol mentored the two younger artists, and they, in turn, enabled him to connect with new audiences in the changing art world.
The exhibition, comprising more than 80 paintings, works on paper and artifacts, was organized by the Brandywine River Museum, and seen there last year and more recently at the Marion Koogler McNay Art Museum in San Antonio, Texas. It will be on view at the Farnsworth Art Museum through August 26. The show is guest curated by Joyce Hill Stoner, director of the preservation studies program at the University of Delaware.
Warhol, the Pittsburgh-born eccentric, studied art at the Carnegie Institute of Technology before coming to New York City to work as an illustrator and commercial artist in the 1950s. In 1960, he began to execute paintings based on comic strip characters, like Superman, and multiple images of commercial products, such as Campbell’s soup cans and Coca-Cola bottles. He then began to use the photo-silkscreen process to make pictures based on preexisting mass communications and advertising images. He famously turned out repetitive portraits of celebrities like Marilyn Monroe, Elizabeth Taylor, Jacqueline Kennedy as widow and Chairman Mao Zedong.
Warhol transformed everyday imagery †supermarket products, celebrity photographs and tabloid covers †into a new kind of art that seemed as superficial and devoid of comment as the things he chose to represent. As art critic Robert Hughes has written, Warhol “was a conduit for a sort of collective American state of mind in which celebrity †the famous image of a person, the famous brand name †had completely replaced both sacredness and solidity.” What matters, Warhol observed, was that “in the future, everybody will be world famous for 15 minutes.”
In the 1960s, Warhol established an enormous studio, the Factory, where friends and assistants carried out much of his work and helped him sell artlike products off an assembly line. Fascinated by stardom and abetted by his entourage, Warhol cultivated his image as a cultural celebrity.
In 1968, as Warhol’s career began to take off, a psychotic young woman walked into the Factory and shot him. Because he almost died, he, along with slain public leaders of his time, became a symbol of those who paid a price for leading the country into a new era.
By 1970, Warhol’s imaginative work and carefully cultivated public persona put him on top of the art scene. In this context, it is fascinating that Warhol reached out to two younger artists, Wyeth and Basquiat, whose worlds could not have been more different than his. Rosenblum suggests that their relationships “help[ed] rejuvenate the aging master.”
The third-generation famed painter in the Wyeth family, following his grandfather, distinguished illustrator/painter N.C., and his father, celebrated painter Andrew, Jamie Wyeth grew up in Chadds Ford, Penn., and midcoastal Maine. Like his father, he was tutored at home, including art training, primarily with his aunt, Carolyn Wyeth, a talented artist in her own right.
In 1963, the teenaged Wyeth moved to New York City, where he dissected and drew cadavers in a morgue to hone his talents. Like his father, he achieved early success, starting with a solo show at Knoedler’s in 1966 when he was 20.
From the start, Jamie Wyeth executed acclaimed, realistic portraits. His austere 1969 likeness of his father, posed against a dark backdrop, conveys a sense of the sitter’s introspection and determination. Young Wyeth’s stunning portrait of a pensive John F. Kennedy, painted posthumously in 1967, was and is admired as one of the best likenesses of the slain president.
Wyeth’s paintings of birds and animals continue to be highly popular. “Portrait of Pig,” 1970, a favorite of visitors to the Brandywine River Museum, captures the feel of the ponderous subject in telling detail. In “Angus,” 1974, a herd of large black cattle stare menacingly at the viewer. Wyeth also painted numerous watercolors of houses, people and birds around his summer home on Monhegan Island, Maine.
Although a distant and far different personality, Warhol established a close and artistically productive relationship with Wyeth, 18 years his junior. By this time, as art historian Robert Rosenblum observes in the exhibition catalog, “the family name, Wyeth, had become synonymous with the enemies of modern art&[Jamie] was a card-carrying member of a Yankee dynasty of three generations of ultra-WASP artists who clung firmly to images of rural America and to an allegiance to the meticulous, hyperrealist craftsmanship that seemed&lissfully unaware of the revolutions defining Twentieth Century art&”
Curator Stoner, notes, however, that Warhol collected realist artwork and said Andrew Wyeth and John Sloan were among his favorite painters. He was “intrigued by traditional painting techniques and skills,” such as the younger Wyeth’s.
In 1975, they agreed that Wyeth would paint Warhol’s portrait, and Warhol invited Wyeth to paint in the Factory the following year. Wyeth created several likenesses of the older artist, notably a head-on oil that unsparingly delineates Warhol’s ghostly white hair, deathly pallor, red-lidded eyes and pockmarked skin. It is painted, says Stoner, like “a Nineteenth Century phrenologist might, warts and all.”
Warhol snapped Polaroids of Wyeth at work, leading to a “celebrity portrait” that, says Rosenblum, “presents this archetypical American as the handsomest boy in the class and not, as Warhol had thought of himself, the ugliest.”
A Coe Kerr Gallery exhibition of Warhol-Wyeth portraits in 1976, dubbed “The Patriarch of Pop Paints the Prince of Realism,” drew large crowds and generated many sales.
In addition to painting each other, Warhol and Wyeth attended openings, shopped together for antiques and taxidermy specimens, discussed popular culture and exchanged ideas on making art.
Wyeth used techniques learned from Warhol in a series of compelling views of Russian dancer Rudolf Nureyev, who became a good friend. Particularly notable is a large combined media on brown cardboard frontal view of the ultrafit performer, nude from the waist up. Warhol, whom Nureyev did not like, had a harder time creating a head shot of the Russian defector.
Warhol and Wyeth also did images of bodybuilder Arnold Schwarzenegger and President Jimmy Carter. The work of each artist was accessible enough and they were famous enough to attract commissions for covers of prestigious periodicals. Wyeth’s drawing of the incoming chief executive Carter talking on the phone in Plains, Ga., became a Time magazine cover, and Warhol’s silkscreen of Carter made the cover of The New York Times Magazine.
Their discussions about anatomy prompted Warhol to use a human skull he had owned for years in a “double” self-portrait of 1977 that evoked the specter of decay and death with his ghostly, pallid face topped by a green skull.
In the wake of their interchanges at the Factory in the late 1970s, aspects of Warhol’s Pop Art aesthetic influenced Wyeth’s animal paintings. Rather than placing his subjects as before in natural settings †fields, rocks, water †in 1981 Wyeth depicted chickens ensconced in commercial cardboard boxes, as in “10 W 30.” As former Farnsworth director Chris Crosman once noted, “Wyeth’s various paintings of chickens nesting in used commercial cartons may&e a direct reference to and gentle dig at Warhol’s use of commercial packaging as one of the prime sources of Pop Art. But rather than repeat the packaging, Wyeth repeats the chicken, itself a commercial staple that in its ultimate fate lies packaged and stacked on shelves as ordinary and undifferentiated as rows of Campbell’s soup cans and just as lifeless.”
Warhol’s interest in monumental pictures encouraged Wyeth to create large paintings like “Raven,” 1980, which measures 60 by 72 inches. Depicted in exquisite, closeup detail, this is one of Wyeth’s most memorable portraits. Elusive, carnivorous ravens have become an enduring subject for Wyeth, based on observations as they feasted on cow carcasses he acquired to attract them.
Even as his fame grew and his subject matter broadened, Wyeth continued with his “Warhol dossier” after the older artist’s death in 1987. Wyeth’s colorful, almost surreal view of a Maine youngster and her goat amid swirling gusts, “The Wind,” 1999, is an homage to Warhol’s ownership of a painting on a similar subject, “The Wind,” by British artist David Forrester Wilson, says Stoner.
“Lunch at the Factory,” 1976/2000, shows Warhol under a stuffed moose head that was part of his taxidermy collection. “1342 Lexington Avenue,” painted last year, recalls Wyeth’s final visit with Warhol’s former partner, Fred Hughes, paralyzed with multiple sclerosis. So Wyeth continues to recollect, in his appealing, perceptive style, his experiences with Warhol and his entourage.
Basquiat, who hooked up with Warhol in his early 20s, was a charismatic, streetwise, multiracial wunderkind who created knowing, ferociously comic artwork that was a mix of graffiti, photographic images and collage. An art-world phenom with great ambition, considerable talent and an enormous appetite for publicity, he burned out on drugs at the age of 27. The career of the “radiant child” artist spanned less than a decade.
Born in Brooklyn, N.Y., of a Puerto Rican mother and Haitian father who was a middle-class accountant, Basquiat attended public and parochial schools there and in Puerto Rico, but left a year before graduating to live on the streets and in abandoned buildings.
Basquiat emerged from the early hip-hop scene as a teenage graffiti artist who spray-painted images and enigmatic aphorisms relating to racism and the wealthy on city walls. He sold T-shirts on the streets, snorted cocaine and heroin, and used a garbage-can lid as a palette.
Basquiat grabbed the attention of the art world with brightly colored canvases in which he combined words and symbols that reflected the cultural and ethnic world around him. Utilizing a bold sense of color and composition, he created eye-catching, stream-of-consciousness works that resonated with broad references to Jean Dubuffet, Cy Twombly, Bill Traylor, popular culture, his African and Hispanic heritage and Pop Art.
By the time he sought out Warhol, the reigning art star, Basquiat was an accomplished professional artist with successful solo exhibitions in this country and Europe.
The bond between the effete Warhol, an habitué of East Side townhouses, private jets and the paparazzi, and Basquiat, the dark-skinned, homeless outsider from Brooklyn, was remarkable. The two became acquainted after Basquiat’s art dealer organized an unsuccessful, joint Warhol/Basquiat/Francesco Clemente exhibition in 1983.
Warhol came to respect the younger man’s talent and inventiveness, and envied his youth and energy. Younger by 32 years, Basquiat sought to emulate Warhol’s commercial success and celebrity status.
Basquiat celebrated on canvas his first formal meeting with Warhol in “Dos Cabezas (Two Heads),” 1982, a large double portrait pairing the older artist’s huge, pale head with his own, darker, wild-haired image. “Given the more careful treatment of Warhol’s head,” writes art historian Margaret Rose Vendryes in the catalog, “Basquiat revealed his sense that he was initially less important than Warhol, as well as his optimism that working with Warhol would prove the old adage that two heads are better than one.”
Increasingly preoccupied with death, particularly in the wake of his near-fatal shooting, Warhol responded with a painting of the handsome, exotic Basquiat that is marred by the chemical decomposition of the image. This was caused, says Rosenblum, when Warhol’s chums would urinate on “canvases covered with copper paint, producing the effect, both grisly and beautiful, of something rotting away before our eyes.” Indeed, the splashes and swirls of various colors superimposed on the younger man’s face and the exaggeration of his unruly dreadlocks make for an unsettling portrait. It was, in fact, prescient: Basquiat died four years later.
The two collaborated, uneasily, on a series of idiosyncratic paintings, spoofing Arm & Hammer baking soda and other subjects. In most cases, Basquiat seemingly imposed his ideas about organization and emphasis. According to Vendryes, Warhol would make the first marks, which Basquiat would then overwhelm with “graffiti language, the fill that would animate and ultimately supersede Warhol’s contribution.”
The competitive nature of their relationship was exploited in posters for an exhibition of their 1984 collaborations at the Tony Shafrazi Gallery that showed them in boxing shorts and gloves as if about to go at it in the ring. After their collaboration fell flat with critics, both men were deflated, but Basquiat emerged in better shape because he gained increased visibility.
They drifted apart after that. Basquiat, reaping impressive prices for his work, turned from drug user to drug addict, although he continued to paint significant canvases. Strung out and self-destructive, especially after Warhol’s death in 1987, Basquiat’s work became increasingly haphazard, spare and repetitive. In August 1988, shortly before his 28th birthday, he was pronounced dead of a heroin overdose.
The legend of the doomed child genius, along with the compelling nature of his art, continues to generate interest in and appreciation for Basquiat’s off-beat oeuvre. He has been the subject of retrospectives at the Whitney Museum of Art and the Brooklyn Museum.
The unusual interrelationships among Warhol, Wyeth and Basquiat constitute a unique chapter in America’s art history. As this interesting and thought-provoking exhibition documents, the younger artists benefited from their collaboration with the megastar, who in turn rejuvenated his work.
The exhibition catalog contains essays by curator Stoner, Rosenblum and Vendryes, and a technical examination of Warhol’s oxidation paintings by art conservator Christine Daulton. Published by the Farnsworth and distributed by University Press of New England, it sells for $35 (softcover). The Farnsworth Art Museum and Wyeth Center is at 16 Museum Street. For information, 207-596-6457 or www.farnsworthartmuseum.org .
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