Who will win the title of “Greatest Painter in the World Today”? That’s the premise at the heart of a vibrant new Broadway play that examines how two of the 20th-century’s greatest artists competed for supremacy while working together.
Opening December 20 at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre, The Collaboration explores how Andy Warhol, then an aging has-been in the latter portion of his career, and Jean-Michel Basquiat, the art world’s latest rising star whose semi-abstract canvases injected new life into painting and sold handsomely, planned a joint exhibition. Billed as a match between two heavyweights, the pair donned boxing gloves to advertise the show—a clash between the old guard and the new.
Directed by Kwame Kwei-Armah (Casualty), Paul Bettany (WandaVision) is chameleon-like as a sardonic Warhol and Jeremy Pope (Choir Boy, The Inspection) is solid as a tempestuous Basquiat. Both reprise their roles from the original production, staged earlier this year at the Young Vic Theatre in London, where Kwei-Armah is artistic director.
The spirit of a musical presents itself upon entering the Friedman Theatre, with a spinning disco ball and ’80s club music. A backdrop of footage from the era depicts a nostalgic New York City—the Odeon, a young Julian Schnabel, street signs marking the corner of Bowery and Great Jones Street, where Basquiat maintained his studio—setting the stage for a snapshot of the creatively fertile time, on Anna Fleischle’s dynamic set, filled with projections, onto white walls, of works done in Basquiat’s recognizable style.
Written by Anthony McCarten (The Two Popes, Bohemian Rhapsody), the script deftly takes on themes such as the function of art and the mercurial nature of the market, with the specter of death looming, foreshadowing the end for both men, soon after the collaboration.
The play opens with Warhol, chin in hand, taking in a Basquiat exhibit at the gallery of Swiss art dealer Bruno Bischofberger (Erik Jensen, For Life), who represented both artists at the time. Bischofberger approaches Warhol with the idea of a collaboration. (There’s no mention of an earlier venture that included a third artist, Francesco Clemente, and McCarten has taken certain creative liberties with the actual timeline and facts surrounding events portrayed.)
Now in his 50s, Warhol is a superstar whose social life fairly dominates his persona, churning out silkscreen portraits of celebrities, socialites, clients, and more. Joining forces could invigorate his stagnant creativity, and before parting, he agrees under the condition that he can film the hot new artist. Long interested in film, Warhol had recently been experimenting with television at the beginning of the decade. Bettany imbues Warhol with a sadness beneath his cynicism, as the artist is still physically and emotionally scarred from being shot in the chest by Valerie Solanas in 1968. (He would wear a medical corset for the rest of his life.)
Shortly thereafter, a youthful Basquiat enters and Bischofberger exaggerates Warhol’s adulation, and soon both men are on board for the collaboration, taking place at Warhol’s famed studio, The Factory, in Union Square. The two tentatively begin work for the show to be held at the Tony Shafrazi gallery in the fall of 1985.
Warhol ends his “celibacy” of not picking up a paintbrush for 25 years by tracing a projected General Electric logo. Basquiat incorporates his iconic images; crowns, masks, and dinosaurs cover Basquiat’s paintings, talismans for a spiritual invocation. Logos, everyday products, and consumer culture are Warhol’s subjects, however. In reproducing corporate images, Warhol says his goal is to comment in a “neutral way,” not “disturb the comfortable [and] comfort the disturbed” as Basquiat says he chooses to do. He adds that his mother inspired his famed “Campbell’s Soup Cans” series from the early ’60s, saying “Andy, you should do pictures of things that are recognizable to everyone.”
Basquiat’s mother, too, sparked his interest by giving him a copy of Gray’s Anatomy as a child when he was in the hospital after a car crash. He began drawing internal organs and skeletons, and, guided by his Haitian roots, practiced Vodou during a miraculously fast recovery.
The play offers an inside look into what transpired during this dialogue. The two interrogate each other, and as a result familiar and lesser-known biographical details emerge throughout their conversations, becoming a primer on the larger-than-life figures. How Warhol lost his skin pigment and the meaning of Basquiat’s “Samo” signature are two examples. They trade jabs and punches at each other’s ideology, but as the second act begins, the stakes are higher, and emotional volatility peaks, at high volume.
Maya (Krysta Rodriguez, Halston) is in love with Basquiat but knows he has other girlfriends, as well as a drug addiction. He owes her money, and since she can’t track him down, she approaches Warhol in Basquiat’s paint-splattered studio with her urgent request. Rich but miserly, the Pop artist haggles her down to $5,000 to buy a refrigerator covered with Basquiat’s drawings. Rodriguez plays the undeveloped role of an East Village creative to the hilt.
Warhol reports that Michael Stewart, an aspiring Black artist, was critically wounded by New York City cops for spraying graffiti in the subway. (Basquiat’s real-life girlfriend, Suzanne Mallouk, was involved in justice for the police brutality that killed her friend. The character of Maya, is apparently inspired by Mallouk.)
Basquiat returns to the stage, and while waiting for news from the hospital on Stewart’s condition after he was beaten unconscious while in police custody, he creates a painting dubbed Vandalize, that he believes might supernaturally save Stewart, with “the right colors and the right symbols, images, the right magical properties.” Warhol picks up his camera, and what appears to be the live video feed is projected on the studio’s walls.
Basquiat demands that he stop, but then filming continues, surreptitiously. He tells Warhol that the aim of his work is to “bring the dead back to life.” (Vandalize seems to be a stand-in for Defacement (The Death of Michael Stewart), the subject of an exhibition organized by Chaédria LaBouvier at the Guggenheim Museum in 2019.)
When bad news arrives that Stewart has died, Basquiat goes into a manic state and enraged, accuses Warhol of torpedoing the recovery by stealing the spirit of his painting by filming it.
In a heartbreaking finale, Basquiat, holding a syringe, cries out, “I’m not a junkie,” and tells Warhol he’ll go clean. Warhol affirms his partner’s mystical beliefs: “You’ve already brought me back to life,” he says. They look into each other’s eyes, portending the tragedy that lays ahead. The tone shifts and images from their 1985 collaborative show at Shafrazi appear, briefly, as an offstage auctioneer opens bidding at $57 million.
The beautifully performed play resonates with levity and sorrow. Warhol died unexpectedly in 1987, at age 58, after gall bladder surgery. Basquiat had a fatal heroin overdose in 1988, at age 27.