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  • Jonathan Kalb

Apology for the Hand

Painting—being 2D, static, and typically practiced alone—isn’t a natural subject for theater. But that hasn’t stopped any number of art-besotted dramatists from trying. The extraordinary Sunday in the Park with George aside, almost all my experiences of popular plays about painters and paintings have been disappointing, alas. Remember Art and Red? One was a buddy play that pandered to bourgeois shibboleths about the swindle of modern art and the other was a star vehicle for Alfred Molina that flogged tired clichés of the tortured solitary genius.

Now we have Anthony McCarten’s The Collaboration, a twin-star vehicle about Andy Warhol and Jean-Michel Basquiat that tries valiantly to rise above the quicksands just mentioned, with mixed results. Some of its ideas are indeed interesting, but that’s not what most people are likely to care about. The inevitable headline here is that both stars—Jeremy Pope and Paul Bettany—are extraordinary.

In 1984, Warhol and Basquiat made 16 paintings together in an unlikely convergence of their very different natures and artistic attitudes. The exhibition that resulted was famously advertised as a prize fight, with both artists posed in boxing gloves, presumably duking it out for the title of Greatest Living Artist. In the play, directed by Kwame Kwei-Armah, the gallerist Bruno Bischofberger (drolly played by Erik Jensen) is the driving force behind the show idea, introducing the 24-year-old rising star (Basquiat) to the 56-year-old fading comet (Warhol) and cajoling them into working together.

This isn’t really how the project started in real life, but never mind—you can look that up if you want. McCarten uses the situation to imagine a fragile and fractious friendship arising between a young, Black, dope-addicted, inspired wielder of brushes and a white, fame-addicted, bullet-weakened, established cultural disrupter who hadn’t used a brush creatively in decades. (Warhol’s silkscreens were produced mechanically by Factory minions.) McCarter’s Warhol and Basquiat are attracted to one another sexually, it seems, even though Basquiat supposedly has a girlfriend (Maya, played by Krysta Rodriguez), and even though Warhol is always quashing intimacy and spontaneity by trying to film his ostensible partner. Their conversation descends often into tense arguments over handicraft, individual vision, branding, consumerism and sundry other issues that resonate in both the 1980s and our era.

It must be said that there’s a lot of clumsy writing in The Collaboration. This is the sort of play where characters speak the scenario rather than plausibly real thoughts, just to get background info out. Inorganic passages like this abound:

BRUNO: You’re the greatest painter in the world, there’s absolutely no question. And everyone loves you, the world over—

ANDY: Stop saying that. It's really not true. My reputation is in tatters, museums won’t take my works anymore, my prices are falling, they say I've ruined art for everybody. Nobody loves me, Bruno, and it's rotten of you to get my hopes up.

Another blemish is that McCarten, a white author, sentimentalizes the human, emotionally driven rebellion Basquiat poses to Warhol’s mechanistic, surface-driven art (“I want to be a machine”) and the art establishment that idolizes his brand. The play nods to the violence and pain Basquiat’s work channels (one scene is built around the police-murder of graffiti-artist Michael Stewart, Basquiat’s close friend), but it has little to say about Black influence beyond the dehumanization of such racist assaults. Nothing, for instance, about the astonishing profusion of African-American art historical references Basquiat forced into the art conversation in the 1980s and beyond, which helped blast open the Eurocentric establishment’s standards of value.

Despite all this, as mentioned, Pope and Bettany are so intensely watchable they make everything else seem secondary. Pope’s Basquiat is a beautifully brilliant imp, now coy, now brazen, now sullen, now bubbly, emitting sudden, unexpected bursts of warmth that thoroughly disarm and divert Warhol. Bettany’s Warhol seems to blush through his chalky pallor whenever a Basquiat remark catches him off guard. Bettany, in contrast, plays Warhol as an arch and brittle needler and provocateur, just as emotionally evasive and captious as you’d expect, but also anomalously vulnerable sometimes. The show’s most moving moments are the fleeting glimpses of Warhol’s terror at holding a brush again, which humanize his notoriously icy persona. (Amazing as both these actors are, Bettany surely had the harder acting task because he had less to go on. Warhol’s deliberately deadened front was all he usually let the public see.)

And that brings me back to the plane of ideas. What raises The Collaboration above other art plays I’ve seen is the sustained challenge it poses to Warhol and his credo of unabashed vacuity. Some viewers, I’m sure, will come away from the show at the Friedman Theatre thinking of Warhol and Basquiat as comparable opportunistic figures simply competing for big money and visibility in the same overheated 1980s art market. But the play doesn’t actually accept that neat parallelism at face value. It treats the boxing-bout poster, for instance, as the pandering stunt it truly was. More important, it refuses to ignore the uniquely pernicious effect Warhol had in cultural history. He was, after all, the prime earthquake behind the postmodern tsunami of pedestalized superficiality, appropriation, irony, anti-humanism and anti-criticality. “Criticism is so old fashioned. Why don’t you just put in a lot of gossip,” he once said in Interview magazine.

Here is McCarter’s Warhol in a similar vein, on his first day collaborating with Basquiat:

All these screaming black figures you many screaming black faces can you do? Well I guess you can do them forever. I suppose that's how anyone gets famous nowadays – you do one thing till you get noticed for it, and you don't stop even when it's boring you to death – you have to go on and on with the same thing until finally you're a household name...which, now that excellence has lost its meaning, is all we've got left to aspire to.

And here is the play’s Basquiat excoriating Warhol for those anti-values:

You want me to live? WHAT ABOUT YOU, ANDY?! You gotta have a camera everywhere you go? Man, you’re so afraid to live you put a camera and a tape recorder between you and everything else . . . You make death. You’re not living . . . “Produce”? You re-produce. You’re the champ, Andy, the King of repetition, of structure, of order . . . the champ of “pretty,” boom . . . the champ of “famous,” boom . . . the champ of the invisible, of surfaces . . . what about mysteries, man . . . dreams you know . . . pain, shit, blood, magic, the divine? What about miracles?!

Well I, for one, am willing to swallow a lot of sentimentality, clumsy exposition, and historical simplification for a play that takes Warhol and Warholism to task in this way. And McCarter isn’t equivocal. He dares to take a side.

Painting and theater, it’s worth remembering, are both labor-intensive, handicraft arts struggling more and more for visibility, value, and survival in our time as the culture is gripped by ascendant new technologies. If you’re not a tad worried about the encroachment of “creative” AI today—even more than you might have been yesterday about, say, digital photography, film or video—then you haven’t been paying attention. The arrival of The Collaboration feels welcome in this atmosphere, and weightier than it probably would have felt even a few years ago.

Photos: Jeremy Daniel, 2022

The Collaboration by Anthony McCarten directed by Kwame Kwei-Armah

Manhattan Theatre Club/Samuel J. Friedman Theatre

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