‘It was surreal': the day I met Andy Warhol and Jean-Michel Basquiat
State Of The Art was a Channel 4 series I made, as a writer, with producer John Wyver and director Geoff Dunlop – the man crouching down on the far right. This was the early days of the channel; six hours of primetime TV on contemporary art wouldn’t happen now. Each episode was thematic: the final one, featuring Jean-Michel Basquiat, was on identity, culture and power.
We filmed him working and did an interview in his studio in Great Jones Street, New York. I remember us sitting in a cafe late one night, waiting for him to come home – I’m pretty sure we weren’t the only media people in there. By 1985, Basquiat had shot to fame. He was still regarded as an artist connected to the Lower East Side music and street-art scene, yet was being exhibited in galleries. It happened really quickly: I first saw his work in the Times Square Show in 1980, when he was considered part of a new generation of talent, along with Keith Haring and Jenny Holzer. His work was striking: it had a graphic quality and a strangeness, full of words, symbols and colour. As a man, he was charming, but enigmatic and a little guarded. By the time we interviewed him, he was already swirling in myth.
This photograph was taken by Paula Court shortly after that meeting, at the Tony Shafrazi Gallery, which was staging a show of Warhol and Basquiat – behind us is one of their collaborations. It was a surreal day: the pair were being shot and filmed for the Japanese magazine Brutus, and we were filming it all. We wanted to capture the buzz around them, to convey their fame. Basquiat turned up on a bike 45 minutes late, and Warhol an hour late. This picture was taken between takes: Geoff was chatting to Basquiat, and I was talking to Warhol. He was exactly as you’d expect – calm, clipped, polite and very controlled. Basquiat looks a bit sullen, but it was a relaxed morning, and they were joking around.
For me, this photograph captures two of the world’s most outstanding artists at that time, who had become close. Warhol was more of a legendary figure, using emblems and signs in his works, but with Basquiat, you could feel the immediacy of his hands in his art.
State Of The Art was broadcast in early 1987. Television critics hated it: with no presenter, and its thematic structure, it was too postmodern for them. Warhol died in February that year, and Basquiat in August 1988, from a heroin overdose. When an artist dies so young – he was 27 – they leave only so much work, so he has always been collectible. The majority of his art is still in private hands; a few of the collectors who discovered and supported him in the early 80s have hung on to his pieces. When they do come up for auction, they can fetch extraordinary sums: this May, a 1982 painting of his sold for $110.5m, a record for an American artist.
I was flicking through the book of the series recently, and in my introduction to the second edition of 1990, I noted how much had changed. The Berlin Wall had fallen, and Warhol and Basquiat were dead. Without setting out to, we ended up catching an important moment.
• Basquiat: Boom For Real is at the Barbican Art Gallery, London EC2, from 21 September to 28 January 2018.
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