Pin It

The inside story of the new play about Warhol and Basquiat

Director Kwame Kwei-Armah discusses The Collaboration, a new play exploring the relationship between Andy Warhol and Jean-Michel Basquiat, which has just opened at the Young Vic

By the early 1980s, Andy Warhol’s 15 minutes of fame were just about up. After two decades as the darling of the art world, he was falling out of favour. In a curious twist of fate, the King of Pop Art was lambasted as a “business artist” just as the seeds of neoliberalism were being planted along Wall Street and Madison Avenue.

The art world, which had struggled to find its footing during the 1970s, came back with a vengeance as prices began to skyrocket. Frenetically searching for America’s next hot artist, gallerists and art dealers quickly scooped up a hot young Haitian-Puerto Rican artist named Jean-Michel Basquiat, then 24 years old. Hailing from Brooklyn, Basquiat first made his name writing SAMO® on the walls of Soho, before soon becoming the youngest American artist to exhibit at Documenta and the Whitney Biennial.

Although the historically white art world did not fully grasp Basquiat’s Neo-Expressonist paintings that confronted issues of race, colonisation, representation, and Black life using enigmatic iconography and word play, they understood the bottom line: there was money to be made. Warhol, on the other hand, was struggling. His ongoing appropriation of corporate symbols and celebrity portraits, once subversive, had become synonymous with the system itself. But Basquiat had a masterplan, one that would benefit both their careers in ways they could never dream, and suggested they collaborate on a series of paintings.

This is where the new play The Collaboration begins. Intrigued by the men behind the myth, playwright Anthony McCarten (Bohemian Rhapsody, The Theory of Everything) dives beneath the shimmering surfaces to explore the explosive inner lives of artists who went to extraordinary lengths to curate their public personas in order to protect themselves. Opening February 16, The Collaboration is directed by Kwame Kwei-Armah, artistic director of the Young Vic, and starring Paul Bettany as Warhol and Jeremy Pope as Basquiat.

The Collaboration takes us inside the studio where the two artists spar, battling it out for the title of “Greatest of All Time.” Although seeming opposites in every sense of the word, they are perfectly balanced as yin and yang. Their shared ambition, desire, and need have cemented their legacy some 35 years since their deaths just 18 months apart. Here Kwame Kwei-Armah reflects on the connections that bridge the divide.

To begin, did you feel a connection to the work of Basquiat or Warhol as a teen growing up in 80s London?

Kwame Kwei-Armah: Definitely Basquiat. Not at all Andy, to be honest – I understood it, but I didn’t relate. I don’t know that I fully understood Basquiat but he was funky and I just responded to energy that was coming out of the work. It felt a little P-Funk, which was the music we loved at the time. When I was older I saw the film where David Bowie played Warhol and Jeffrey Wright played Basquiat. I really started looking into his art and trying to understand where he was coming from because it struck me as being filled with a spirit I couldn’t quite understand intellectually, but I could feel in my heart.

What do you make of the way their deaths have shaped their respective legacies over the past 35 years?

Kwame Kwei-Armah: We live in a culture where we worship youth and market forces tell us that once you’re dead, you’re not going to get another piece of art from them so the price skyrockets. When I read The Andy Warhol Diaries, and then later when I read this play, I got to understand Andy was someone who was actually protecting his soul and changing a world that bullied him into a world that worshipped him. That to me was an act of magic. I got to understand and applaud how he used art to fix his own life.

Could you speak about 1980s New York as the perfect place and time for a drama that prefigures so many of the things we are dealing with today, such as issues around identity, police brutality, corporations, branding, the art market?

Kwame Kwei-Armah: I absolutely believe that many or most of the answers to things we are dealing with lie in the past because we are creatures of habit. As a species, we just go round and round. I think that we are in a world right now where we are amid the identity politics that is fought out in this play. Jean says, “Tell me the truth. You wanna be cool again, steal my identity.” And Andy says, “This is art, identity has no place.” I think we are seeing those culture wars happening right now.

I also think about Madonna being produced by Nile Rodgers, and there is something about setting the rules around your own tribe that feels really akin today. People have to find their tribe, and I think that’s what Basquiat and Warhol were – how to identify their tribe; how to define their identity and either bring people closer or push them away.

What qualities do you think Basquiat and Warhol share that forms the foundation for their connection?

Kwame Kwei-Armah: I think artists across the world – no matter who they are or their backgrounds –share the common insecurity: Will my work exist beyond my years on this earth? Is my work bigger than me? And therefore who am I?

I think that common question sits between both of them – who am I? And where is my work, not just in the context of the here and now but in tomorrow? They also share a sense of competition. Who is the greatest? More importantly, they’re both art theorists and it’s “Whose theory do we both recognise?” Are they separate from each other or actually, can they complement each other? I think the play is about the investigation of that.

They have these two different philosophies, commercial versus the spiritual, which reflects a long-standing schism in the art world of “art for art’s sake” and art for money and fame. But maybe it’s both a business and a calling?

Kwame Kwei-Armah: Jean never said to anyone, “Please don’t pay me for my art.” He just put the money in his fridge and spent it wildly. But he took the money so he understood art as a business. Whether that corrupted his soul and made it quite hard for him to negotiate living, I think that is up for debate. But art is business and business is art, there is no separating it. Otherwise, we as artists would just do what we do and leave it in our homes.

But you know that in order to get that vibration out into the world, you are going to have to interface with the business of bringing an audience to your work. The easiest kind of artists for me are those who understand that what they do with their wealth is almost as important as what they do with their art.

Can you speak about working with Jeremy Pope and Paul Bettany, and what they brought to the characters?

Kwame Kwei-Armah: Working with Jeremy and Paul has been one of the purest times I’ve had in a rehearsal room. They are such beautiful artists that every day, they come into work and they leave their soul on the floor. It really is quite extraordinary. I feel blessed to have done this process.

Can you speak about working with Anthony McCarten?

Kwame Kwei-Armah: Anthony was magnificently open during rehearsal. One of the honours is working with actors who have dramaturgical intelligence. Both Jeremy and Paul would come to the floor and do what Anthony had written and then, when they heard or sensed there was a little vibration of exposition, they would present it to us with their best acting chops. That would allow us to see, oh, that’s got a little exposition and so then it’s on us. Anthony would hear it and then all of us would sit down and rub it down with sandpaper.

Were there any particular revelations in the story that helped you to really understand Basquiat and Warhol?

Kwame Kwei-Armah: When Andy talks about being ugly in front of the mirror, that is the beauty of Jean that really touched me. It made me begin to see Andy in a slightly different light. I began to understand the construction that is Andy, and how we all live in worlds of construction – how we all placed those walls around us, he just happened to do it magnificently.

The other thing that I found really interesting was discovering that Jean was from quite a privileged background. His father was an accountant. He grew up in a brownstone and went to private school. I really liked that we kind of have this wild Bob Marley-esque image of this relatively middle-class young man in terms of his birth. He went away from it as soon as he could. I love that he was doing a thing that Amari Baraka did where they can speak through the lens of western art and philosophy, but recognise that lens is not broad enough so they have to bring in their own cultural lens as well. That makes me fall in love with him.

I love that you brought up Amiri Baraka. Why do you think Basquiat is heralded as the first great Black American painter when there was a whole Black Arts Movement going in the 1960s and 70s?

Kwame Kwei-Armah: It’s very interesting. I think he got the blessing of the Pope, didn’t he? His narrative is brilliant, because it interweaved with Andy’s. Andy, who understood marketing, and the making and promoting of a commodity – that brush with the weight and authority of the gods of the art world allowed Jean to be seen in a way that maybe others weren’t. He’s a rock star and I think that’s what allowed him to stand above many others who may not have as blessed a narrative.

Can you speak about the subject of exploitation, which has dogged both artists in different ways, and how perhaps their collaboration allowed them a reprieve from this power dynamic?

Kwame Kwei-Armah: Without a shadow of a doubt, systemic racism was endemic and part of the art world, creating an “exotic Jean” for consumption that he was partly party to. But we also have to remember that Jean studied Andy. He knew who Andy was. He was outside of his home and he went in and sold pictures to Andy. Jean understood how being in the shade or even close to the light that was Andy was part of the gig.

For Andy, being with the hottest, youngest thing keeps him relevant and funky – and I think Andy ultimately benefited the most. However, it would be naïve to think Jean didn’t understand that just being in the orbit of the most famous artist of his age wouldn’t be beneficial. But he does say very clearly, “Don’t look down on me or we can’t see each other. Ever again. We’re equal. Or we’re nothing. Never look down on me.” It’s almost like he pulled himself into the room and said, “See me the way I see me.”

Could you speak about the importance of incorporating Michael Stewart into the story as the third character, who is present through his absence?

Kwame Kwei-Armah: Michael Stewart is not just the example of police brutality throughout the ages, but actually more as a conscience prick for Jean to consider questions like: I’m on the inside, what am I doing? Why was I chosen? What is the cost of being chosen? What is the psychic tax of being chosen? What is the pain of being alienated from the people that I grew with? Jean now sits somewhere between two worlds – the world of who he was and the world of who he'd like to be, but knowing that in any environment, he’s still an alien.

Why do you think Basquiat and Warhol have such enduring influence on both art and culture?

Kwame Kwei-Armah: There is something about how they put themselves together, either as a symbol of rebellion or a symbol of critique that is ice-cold cool. There is something about the way that they allowed their art and their coolness to merge into one that is everlasting about challenging the system and winning or losing tragically.

The Collaboration is at The Young Vic in London from February 16 – April 2, 2022