Ohen the first exhibition of collaborative paintings by Andy Warhol and Jean-Michel Basquiat premiered in 1985, it was met with critical acclaim. Notoriously, Vivien Raynor of The New York Times called Basquiat, a street artist in his 20s, the “mascot” for aging pop art pioneer Warhol. Critical reaction tore the artists apart, and they barely spoke before Warhol’s death just 18 months later. Only three years after the exhibition, Basquiat would also have died at the age of 27 from a heroin overdose.
When I last spoke to Broadway star Jeremy Pope, in early 2020, he was promoting his first big TV role in Ryan Murphy’s Hollywood, a big, brassy reimagining of 1940s Tinseltown. spoke quietly but was obviously excited, even in the midst of the rapidly developing pandemic. Once the reviews started rolling in, Hollywood — like Warhol and Basquiat’s show — was dealt a critical blow. The Guardian called it a “crushing disappointment” for its 1940s Tinseltown revisionism, while Variety considered it a show with “little to say”.
Two years later, Pope speaks to me via video call, framed by a pair of loud mushroom-patterned curtains that were provided as part of his excavations on London’s South Bank. He’s in town for the next three months to play Basquiat in a new play by The Two Popes writer Anthony McCarten, directed by Young Vic artistic director Kwame Kwei-Armah. The play, The Collaboration, tells the story of that ill-fated 1985 exhibition and stars Paul Bettany as Warhol.
So what was it like reading Hollywood reviews and inhabiting Basquiat during his own critical turmoil? “I’m Cancer, so I’m sensitive,” Pope says with a smile. It seems prudent to remain magnanimous, lest critics have something to cling to. “We do what we do because we love it and I think that should be good enough, rather than being based on someone’s subjective opinion.” He pauses. “But that’s art, it’s a conversation. Regardless of what anyone says, you have to show up the next day and tell that story on stage because you believe it. I choose to hope that a person is affected in a positive way [by Hollywood]the same way I was affected when I read the script.
Pope is no stranger to accolades, just as he is to critics. Back-to-back starring roles in writer Moonlight Tarell Alvin McCraney’s tale of self-discovery Choir Boy, and Ain’t Too Proud, a jukebox musical about the Temptations, earned him two 2019 Tony Award nominations. That makes him only the sixth person in the Tonys’ 73-year history to be in contention for two gongs in one season.
Tackling Basquiat, however, is a new challenge. “He was a mysterious soul whose image and images are so available, but the person behind them can be an enigma,” Pope says. Rather than get bogged down in biographies, Pope instead turned to Basquiat’s art as the key to understanding the man. “There was such a direct connection between his mind and heart and the canvas. It seems the most honest and true expression of him.
If Basquiat is an enigma, so is his relationship with Warhol. The pair first met when Basquiat was a teenager in the early 80s, hanging out at Warhol’s Factory studio and trying to get a glimpse of his celebrity social set. A lunch hosted by art dealer Bruno Bischofberger in 1982 then sparked the beginning of a friendship and collaboration that would span the next three years.
Warhol had seen his star wane throughout the 1970s, while Basquiat was the subversive street artist newly introduced to the gallery world and ready to deliver new intrigue. It made a powerful combination, one that artist Keith Haring described as “every [artist] inspire the other to surpass the next”. Seen as either an older artist’s vampiric attempt to maintain relevance or a tale of mentorship stained by public disapproval, playing such a complex dynamic could surely lead to its own complications between Pope and his co-starring partner. on-stage training Bettany?
“I’m not saying this just because we currently live across from each other, but Paul has been such a light and has embraced me in a way that is not required for the job,” says -he. “We’re both committed to playing these men and we dig deep – when we’re not rehearsing, we spend evenings going through the script and getting to the heart of the relationship.”
It’s an unshakable connection they’ll be exploring for some time to come – the play has already been revived for a film adaptation, with the pair reprising their roles – and a relationship Pope thinks Basquiat and Warhol once had as well. “There was so much love in their relationship,” he says. “There are so many pictures of them clowning around together or getting pedicures and you can’t deny that there was a real basis of friendship and respect for each other.”
So how did a handful of critics get Basquiat to stop visiting Warhol for their regular factory painting sessions, and for the pair to finally stop talking before Warhol’s sudden death in 1987? “Because what people say and how they see you determines how you can support yourself, especially for Jean as a black man trying to make it in a white art world,” Pope says.
This pressure to maintain relevance as a minority artist is something Pope relates to today. “There is a cost to being an artist and it carries the weight of the black and queer communities that I represent,” says Pope. “It may seem burdensome to acknowledge this responsibility. Often I wonder if I’m doing enough? Or how can I do more? And it was the proliferation of these questions that, according to Pope, led to Basquiat’s own downfall. “His addiction started because there was this pressure to stay relevant and it wasn’t about fame; it was about having a stake in the conversation and being seen,” he says.
For Pope, however, it is in the work of playing others that he finds a sense of solace in himself. “I work in healing because art can heal and change the way you think,” he says. “Playing Jean made me feel free, which is a beautiful thing as an artist. I feel supported and I just hope that people who come to see us can also feel loved or healed.
And what about those pesky reviews? “That experience is something I will cherish forever – it was fucking exciting,” Pope says. “No exam can change that.”
The Collaboration is at the Young Vic, London, until April 2.
Brushes with genie
Jonathan Jones picks his favorite dramatic performances from artists
Doctor Who: Vincent and the Doctor (2010)
Tony Curran is a truly believable Van Gogh in this moving Doctor Who story. The Doctor and Amy can’t change history to prevent his suicide, but take him to today’s Musée d’Orsay, where he hears critic Bill Nighy praise him as one of the greatest artists of all the time. Tears.
Salma Hayek broke with conventional roles to play the visionary Mexican artist in a film that struggles to do justice to her pain, disabilities and challenge. Julie Taymor’s direction is sometimes too pretty for its own good, but Hayek imagines her path to becoming Kahlo, in all her rage and generosity.
Mister Turner (2014)
It took the quirky originality of writer-director Mike Leigh to find dramatic material in the private and inflexible persona of English landscape painter JMW Turner. But Timothy Spall brilliantly inhabits this fish out of water of the Regency company, working genius in an upscale environment.
Red (created in 2009)
Deeply unhappy abstract expressionist Mark Rothko is another difficult character to romanticize, but John Logan’s play focuses on a dramatic emotional turn, when an order to decorate a Manhattan restaurant led the painter (in a role played for the first time by Alfred Molina) in moral agonies. disgust.
There are accidentally comic moments in Derek Jarman’s deliberately Brechtian and unrealistic life of the painter and murderer who took Baroque Italy by storm, but Nigel Terry’s Caravaggio and his model, played by Sean Bean, make explicit the strange courage of the artist as he negotiates the palaces of Rome. and wicked streets.