I I still have a painting that I bought at a flea market in Los Angeles in 1993. I got it for a low price; $25 and it was in the back of my sold out convertible. It turned out to be a copy of Bronzino Portrait of a young man with a book. In 16th century Florence, if you wanted your portrait painted, he was your man, for one simple reason: he made you stand out. His particular gift—and shrewd business decision—was to imbue his wealthy subjects with swagger, confidence, and even some weight loss.
Three centuries before they could sit in front of a photographer and more than four before they could take a selfie, wealthy Florentines would sit for days and think that Bronzino would do for them what he had done for their wealthy neighbors, for Dante . It paid to flatter.
In recent years I have had as a screenwriter to struggle with the extent to which the artist should or should not seek to serve the vanity of the subject and have now done so through an array of ‘sitters’, Popes Francis and Benedict to Stephen Hawking…and now Andy Warhol and Jean-Michel Basquiat.
I take it for granted that I serve art, not biography; that the facts alone, insofar as they can be known, simply will not suffice. Where is the place for interpretation, for “my” representation?
These questions were very much in my mind when I started writing my play about Warhol and Basquiat, two men with carefully managed personalities. How could I capture them as a whole – not as they wished to be seen but in a way that tells us something we don’t already know, precisely because they didn’t want us to know.
In the case of Warhol, one could almost say that he was only persona. His greatest creation was his own image. His journey, from America’s pale runt of steel town to the wig-wearing aesthete presiding over American art, was entirely one of painful self-creation. He believed that art should do nothing but give you a nice little nudge, “like when you see a celebrity on the street.” It should only be surfaces because as such it reflected that modern life had become all surface, not substance.
Basquiat also barely booed in public. He was the first high profile black painter America had ever seen and he was young when he rose to fame, so young it almost hurt. In fact, his fame hurt him. The attention that came so quickly overwhelmed him as the money poured in and he tried to maintain his air of hobo chic, slap-addicted street performer turned gallery genius in splashy Armani suits paint.
Although he had been rough sleeping on the devastated streets of New York’s Lower East Side when he first crossed the river from Brooklyn, his father was actually a successful accountant and he had lived in a house in brownstone throughout his childhood and had been educated in an expensive private home. school. Here again, personality meets reality and produces an enticing shortfall.
So how do you get under the hood of such guys who, presumably, would rather sit for a Bronzino than a Lucian Freud?
In the case of Warhol, a quick reading of his diaries convinced me that I could create, on stage, a talkative Andy, a rival Andy, a tireless chatterbox. Because here, in his entries, was a totally different character than any I’d seen drawn: a talkative, torrential name-dropper and bubble reputation popper who was just as bitchy as his old crush, Truman Capote. .
Basquiat was a harder nut to crack in that very few of his statements and beliefs exist. And yet we have the thousand paintings he left before his death from an accidental heroin overdose at the age of 27. From these, I thought, a representation could be made.
The paintings, I think, tell us a lot about the burden he carried. His works teem with playful but troubled questioning, inviting the conclusion that unlike Warhol, he believed in the power of art to transform both artist and viewer.
So if someone in my position is to offer anything of value beyond the biography, strict rules must be followed. The portrait must be drawn from extensive research (sorry, Bronzino) but it cannot abdicate its interpretive responsibilities. Whether it’s unreliable entries left in a diary or just obscure marks on a canvas, real lives can still be discerned in the mists.