The Warhol Foundation’s Basquiat and mine


Andy Warhol, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Bruno Bischofberger, and Francesco Clemente in 1984. PHOTO/Galerie Bruno Bischofberger – CC BY-SA 4.0

My play, “The Slave Who Loved Caviar,” challenged the perception promoted by the Manhattan art industry that painter Jean Michel Basquiat was Andy Warhol’s “mascot.” Or it was because of Warhol’s beneficence that Basquiat, born of Haitian and Puerto Rican parents, became famous.

Warhol’s reputation was on the decline when he began the collaboration, and according to some observers, Basquiat’s “new blood” resurrected Warhol. Basquiat said that he did most of the work during their collaboration and that Warhol was “lazy.” [i] Yet in “The Collaboration,” a play by Anthony McCarten endorsed by the Warhol Foundation, Warhol and Basquiat are seen contributing equal amounts of work to the project. Basquiat knew what was happening to him. He said they viewed him as a “monkey man.” But the critics who disparaged him were operating from a narrow Euro-American-centric frame of reference and were incapable of identifying some of the traditions that influenced him.

From the beginning, my play ran into trouble. The Warhol Foundation objected to a flier that I created. In one of Basquiat’s paintings, the words “parasite” and “leeches” are repeated. I took the top half of Warhol’s portrait of Basquiat, where Basquiat poses like Michelangelo’s David while wearing only a jockstrap, and inserted pictures of leeches on Basquiat’s body. Inside each leech, I included a photo of Warhol.

Warhol benefitted from the collaboration in more ways than one. Basquiat got him to paint again, and he even charged Basquiat rent.

Was Basquiat thinking of the gallery owners, the hangers-on, and the intimates who exploited him when he invoked “parasites and leeches?” A girlfriend sold a refrigerator that Basquiat covered with his ‘doodles’ to Christie’s for $5,000. In “The Collaboration,” a character named Maya says she needs the money to pay for an abortion because Basquiat has impregnated her. Maya is based on one of Basquiat’s girlfriends, Jennifer Clement. [ii] In Widow Basquiat: A Love Story by Jennifer Clement, she says she sold the refrigerator but didn’t mention that it was to pay for an abortion. She says that she can’t have children. Was this poetic license or use of the old Black male corrupting white woman trope, which titillates audiences that can afford to buy theater tickets? One of the “parasites” that Basquiat might have had in mind was Mary Boone. Though depicted as Basquiat’s agent in “The Collaboration,” omitted from the play is Mary Boone’s prison sentence for tax evasion due to extravagant spending on clothes and apartment improvements.

Ironically, the Warhol Foundation, which has millions at its disposal, threatened to sue me over my flier because Warhol’s career was founded on “transforming” the works of others. A lower court decided that his use of a poster made by Lynn Goldsmith of her 1981 photograph of the pop star Prince wasn’t transformed enough and was a copyright infringement. The Warhol Foundation appealed to The Supreme Court, which will hear the case. [iii]

So why couldn’t I “transform” one of his works by incorporating it into a flier? Warhol was constantly sued for plagiarism.

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