Basquiat, Haring, Warhol and the Art of 1980s NYC

Basquiat, Haring, Warhol and the Art of 1980s NYC

10/16/2023     General, Modern & Contemporary Art, General Paintings

NEW YORK, NY -- In 1965, Tony Shafrazi, a Royal College of Art student of Iranian and Armenian descent, made a solo trip to New York City. While unpacking at his hotel, he noticed a group of people casually smoking on the fire escape, and quickly realized he was across the street from the Factory, Andy Warhol’s legendary art space. Taking incredible initiative, Shafrazi, who was in the process of finishing his thesis statement – on Warhol, no less – forced his way into the Factory, even finding a way to meet the artist himself. From this chance meeting, Warhol and Shafrazi would become good friends and remain so through the end of Warhol’s life.

Following a period acting as art advisor for the Shah of Iran, Shafrazi would return to New York for good, opening a gallery in 1981 at 163 Mercer Street, his first New York outpost. In preparing for its initial opening, students from SVA were hired to help paint the walls of the gallery, including a young man from Kutztown, PA named Keith Haring. Never mentioning his own work during his time assisting the gallery, Shafrazi did not see – or really even become aware of – Haring’s work until visiting Club 57 in the summer of 1980. Struck by Haring’s incredible all-over Pop-tinged compositions, Shafrazi would comment that “It is as if one is seeing an animated language of signs, communicated by beings of another world.”

As New York City struggled through bankruptcy, rising crime rates and white flight in the late '70s and early '80s, young artists, performers and creatives found opportunity in the faltering metropolis, with Club 57 a prime example of their efforts. A church basement rec room on St. Mark’s Place, Club 57 was a not-necessarily-legal purveyor of alcoholic beverages, though was better known as a mixed-media, anything goes, DIY arts space. Overseen by downtown impresario Ann Magnusson, artists, musicians, filmmakers and performers would utilize Club 57 as a platform for new projects. Suddenly, it seemed, New York had a number of spaces that found a way around the gatekeepers of the fine art world. Suddenly, there was a venue – and an audience – for poetry, spoken word, alternative theater, music, painting and sculpture. “My vision was that it was like a giant television set, and every night is a different channel,” Magnusson would explain. PS 122 was another vitally important arts space, as were, of course, the subways. Haring had made himself an art world folk hero before ever showing in the sorts of galleries the rest of the art world assumed was their only possible route to bring their work to the public.

Another emerging street art folk hero at that time was a young Jean-Michel Basquiat, tagging city walls with the nom-de-plume SAMO alongside his collaborator and lifelong friend Al Diaz. Shafrazi, like Warhol, would meet Basquiat when the young artist was attempting to sell his Anti Product Baseball Cards, small xeroxed works that are now often referred to as “postcards.”

In addition to the more permanent DIY art spaces like Club 57, PS 122, the Mudd Club and other venues, pop-up exhibitions were occurring throughout the city in growing regularity. A defunct massage parlor on West 41st and 7th Avenue would be the site of the landmark Times Square Show for the month of June in 1980. Organized and curated by Co-Lab Projects – the artist collective run by painter Jane Dickson (lots 200, 201) and her filmmaker/artist/historian husband Charlie Ahearn – the multi-floor exhibition would introduce the art world to Co-Lab Projects artists such as Tom Otterness (lot 210), Judy Rifka and Kiki Smith. Fab 5 Freddy would also exhibit his artwork, years before his run as host of Yo! MTV Raps, the weekly program that took the Hip-Hop scene from the Bronx and Queens and helped make it a global phenomenon. Two other promising young artists would also be included – Basquiat would exhibit his art at the Times Square Show, as would Keith Haring, collaborating on a video piece with close friend and college roommate Kenny Scharf. In writing a glowing review in the pages of Art in America, Jeffrey Deitch would not only provide documentation of this generation-defining exhibition, but would also find his own trajectory changed permanently by the fresh discoveries and new relationships he would begin at the Times Square Show.

Both Deitch and Shafrazi would remain close with Haring and Basquiat, with Shafrazi launching his 1983 exhibition Champions, an all-star roster representing many of the best young artists in the city – Donald Baechler, John Ahearn (sculptor and twin brother of Co-Lab’s Charlie), graffiti legend Futura 2000, Warhol’s assistant Ronnie Cutrone, Kenny Scharf (lot 185) and of course, Jean-Michel Basquiat and Keith Haring.

1983 would be an incredibly important year for Basquiat, and not only for his inclusion in that year’s Whitney Biennial. Back of the Neck (lot 178), created just after his 1982 solo shows at the Annina Nosei Gallery in New York and Gagosian in Los Angeles, would be printed as an edition of massive scale. Larry Gagosian had introduced Basquiat to art dealer Fred Hoffman, who was also deeply enamored with the young artist’s work. Hoffman would produce five editions of prints published by New City Editions, including an edition of 24 prints and 3 artist’s proofs for Back of the Neck. Number 23 in that edition is included in Doyle's November 1 auction, from the Estate of a Prominent New York Chef.

Given a copy of Grey’s Anatomy at age seven by his mother while recuperating in the hospital with a broken arm, the medical journal would supply Basquiat with a vocabulary of images that would be employed throughout much of his work to come. In Back of the Neck, we see three of these anatomical elements together, yet still mysteriously disjointed. Basquiat has stated he was “interested in painting the Black person, he’s the protagonist in most of my paintings.” Yet, in Back of the Neck, the subject has been disassembled, potentially without a persona or identity – reduced to spare anatomical parts. At lower center is a copyright symbol, similarly without context – Basquiat’s commentary on the commodification of his work? Or is Basquiat talking more broadly about the value of a Black person in society? A spin on Warhol’s factory brand output of consumable art goods? All or none of these could be true. A crown, one of Basquiat’s most memorable graphics, rests in full gold at top center, radiating. The crown also appears in the unique oil stick work Untitled (Jackie Robinson), (lot 179) also from the Estate of a Prominent New York Chef. Also comprising a face – assumed a portrait of baseball legend Jackie Robinson – and the trademark block lettering Jackie Robinson/Versus, the work features three of Basquiat’s most iconic elements in one image.

In 1985, Shafrazi would mount the legendary Warhol/Basquiat collaboration show. Largely panned by the art world at the time, as the attitude was that Warhol, then the elder statesman, was riding the coattails of the young Basquiat to renewed favor. In the subsequent years to come, their collaborative efforts have been further studied and exhibited, with the opinion largely changing and recognizing the works’ unique accomplishments; the compromises inherent in two artists working together on a single canvas.

Meanwhile, Keith Haring’s work was similarly exploding in popularity, on a global scale. 1983 marked his first solo exhibition in Japan, followed by a Tokyo installation of his famed Pop Shop in 1988. Vanity Fair and Newsweek would both put Haring on their covers in 1984, the same year he would participate in the Venice Biennale. The United Nations would commission Haring to create a First Day Cover for the UN stamp in honor of International Youth Year in 1985. Comprising lot 189 and lot 190 is a group of related ephemera and correspondence from the Former Director, Office of Licensing and Office of Stamps, Wilbur “Pete” Davidson Jr. who worked closely to develop the UN stamp with Haring, remaining friends following the project’s completion. A padded manila envelope sent by Haring to Davidson features a giant magic marker rendition of the Radiant Baby, one of Keith’s most memorable figures.

Gifts to friends and fans were common for Haring, who loved to share his art with people. “At the beginning, no one had any money, so he would trade or give his art away,” Ann Magnusson would explain. “One of our Club 57 core members recently sold a piece of his to pay off their house. We knew he would have been okay with that. He loved hanging out with Andy Warhol and all that, but he’d give you the shirt off his back. Usually the one with the radiant baby on it.”

Both Haring and Basquiat led remarkable yet tragically short lives. Their attitude, perseverance and of course, their artwork would usher in new art movements, and the sort of DIY alternative art spaces they helped foster would become mainstream, not only in New York, but globally. Images by both Haring and Basquiat are as easy to view in major museums as it is to find on t-shirts and coffee mugs, now permanently part of not only art history, but pop culture.

Coincidences and chance meetings, unorthodox art spaces and artist-run programs would largely be what came to define the New York art world of the 1980s. Warhol, in his final years, had the opportunity to meet and mentor two of the greatest artists of the last half of the 20th century in Haring and Basquiat, and Shafrazi would often be their gallerist, showcasing and documenting much of the best new art of the city. But most importantly, friendship and collaboration was key. Shafrazi would explain “I respected his [Basquiat’s] and Keith Haring’s friendship, which was remarkable to watch. They were cool. They would go clubbing. They knew about music. They knew about the latest things. They were different races. One was gay, the other was straight. It didn’t matter. It was the most remarkable kind of friendship, born out of the respect that they had for each other. And they maintained that all the way to the end. As well, their approach to art-making was so remarkably, innovatively revolutionary and raw. That is what drew Andy Warhol to become their very good friend.”

'80s NYC

Auction Wednesday, November 1, 2023 at 11am
Exhibition October 28 - 30

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Angelo Madrigale

Angelo Madrigale

SVP / Director of Paintings / Director of Contemporary Art