The Warhol Foundation’s Basquiat and Mine

Andy Warhol, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Bruno Bischofberger, and Francesco Clemente in 1984. Photograph Source: 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.

My play ran at Theater for the New City from Dec. 23rd, 2021-Jan. 9th, 2022. It played to healthy audiences and was scheduled to return to New York in December, but because the play refers to Annina Nosei, who, according to witnesses, exploited Basquiat, Nosei threatened to sue. Basquiat says that he was her victim and that she sold paintings that weren’t finished. His complaint appears in The Jean-Michel Basquiat Reader, edited by Jordana Moore Saggese.

Nosei’s friend, Linda Yablonsky, did a hit job on my play in The Art Newspaper that was so excessively negative that she apologized. [iv] As a result, the return engagement scheduled for December was canceled. All is not lost because we made a video of the play available for renting. (Contact Ishmael Reed at ireedpub@yahoo.com.)

Also, another production of the play, by the African American Shakespeare Company, will be streamed with a San Francisco cast. L Peter Callender will direct.

In October, Crystal Field will produce four live virtual readings of my newest play, “The Conductor,” about how white nationalist Tech billionaires cynically divide minorities in school board elections in San Francisco and elsewhere. The Theater streamed the readings from October 13-16, 2022.

The Warhol Foundation endorsed Anthony McCarten’s play, “The Collaboration,” in which Warhol is a kind of male nurse to Basquiat, an irresponsible waif. In the play, Warhol attempts to civilize Basquiat to no avail. This script amounts to a cover-up, and the playwright Anthony McCarten has a reputation as a cleaner for the powerful. He did the TV series “The Two Popes,” which sanitizes Pope Benedict, who sought to hush up the church’s pedophilia scandal. McCarten also hosed down Churchill with his “Darkest Hour.” Churchill’s policies led to the starvation of millions in India. (See Tariq Ali’s Churchill: His Times, His Crimes)

My play depicts Warhol as a depraved and decadent leader of a death/suicide cult. He didn’t care whether the young people he exploited lived or died, yet in McCarten’s play, Warhol says to Basquiat: “Is that why your paintings are filled with so much death?” Warhol merchandised death. Car crashes. Executions. Andy Warhol appropriated a picture of Evelyn McHale’s suicide for his “Suicide: Fallen Body” (1962). His response to the suicide of his actress Edie Sedgewick and dancer Freddie Herko was that he wished he’d been there to film their suicides.

When he received an urgent plea from one of those who truly cared for Basquiat, Paige Powell, that Basquiat’s cocaine addiction had become life-threatening, Warhol quipped: “Maybe he wants to be the first to go out early.” However, in “The Collaboration,” Warhol is portrayed as a naive, clean, church-going individual who cares about Basquiat’s welfare.

Andy: Because Jean, you have to live. And I get it, you’ve already convinced the market you’re gonna die soon from doing so much heroin, and nothing pushes up prices like the promise of early death, nothing. But you don’t have to do that, Jean. You can be great and live to see it.”

Warhol found Basquiat disgusting. He called him “dirty” and regarded him as a nuisance. This and other negative views of Basquiat held by Warhol are published in Warhol On Basquiat, edited by Michael Dayton Hermann.

 Warhol’s screenwriter Ronald Tavel thought Warhol lacked compassion. He said, “Sometimes I admit that his coldness was shocking. Some of his responses that he made to the deaths at the Factory I could not believe.” Tavel tried to sue for payment for his screenwriting. Warhol’s hiring of a fancy lawyer discouraged him.

In my play, “The Slave Who Loved Caviar,” I mention an incident in Italy where Warhol physically assaulted Basquiat because he was getting more attention than Warhol. Warhol boasted about the assault. While dwelling upon Basquiat’s drug addiction, “The Collaboration” shows Warhol abstaining from drugs. Warhol was addicted to amphetamines. [v]

The Warhol Foundation’s play, “The Collaboration,” has an Ebony and Ivory ending.

Andy: But Jean you’ve already brought me back to life, which is super great because God’s had it his own way for far too long. They look into each other’s eyes.

Andy: Jean-Michel Basquiat . . . I order you to live forever . . . forever and ever. And with all that extra time you simply have to learn how to use a vacuum cleaner.

Jean: (laughing)I love you Andy.

Andy: Oh shut up and paint. Just paint. Or we’ll never be finished. Curtain.

With the millions behind “The Collaboration,” the play and the movie will become a hit. The film marks the directorial debut of Kwame Kwei-Armah, with Paul Bettany playing the artist Andy Warhol and Jeremy Pope playing Jean-Michel Basquiat. The film will go into production later this year with McCarten producing through his Muse of Fire Productions along with oft-producing partner Denis O’Sullivan. Exploited while he was alive, the exploitation of Basquiat continues. People are making money from fake Basquiats.

And now this play and film.

The New York Times, which ignored my play, is building momentum for “The Collaboration,” but as Joe Louis said, “You Can Run, But You Can’t Hide.” My play, “The Slave Who Loved Caviar,” will shadow “The Collaboration” just as my play, “The Haunting of Lin-Manuel Miranda,” continues to shadow “Hamilton,” another mega-hit that redeems a person whose brand was cruelty.

Notes.

[i] Basquiat, Jean-Michel, Basquiat-isms, Princeton University Press, Princeton and Oxford, 2019

[ii] Clement, Jennifer. Widow Basquiat: A Love Story. New York: Broadway Books, 2000, 2014.

[iii] https://www.nytimes.com/2022/03/28/us/politics/supreme-court-andy-warhol-prince.html

[iv] https://www.theartnewspaper.com/2022/01/28/what-really-killed-basquiat-ishmael-reed-has-a-theory

[v] Giorno, John. Great Demon Kings: A Memoir of Poetry, Sex, Art, Death, and Enlightenment

Ishmael Reed’s latest play is “The Conductor.”