Exhibition in Bonn presents three of the most influential artists of the 1980s
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Exhibition in Bonn presents three of the most influential artists of the 1980s
Visitors look at the artwork 'Pole Star' (1984) by Andy Warhol, Jean-Michel Basquiat and Francesco Clemente displayed during the exhibition 'Menage a trois - Warhol, Basquiat, Clemente' at the Art and Exhibition Hall of the Federal Republic of Germany in Bonn, Germany. The exhibition runs from 10 February to 20 May 2012. EPA/HENNING KAISER.

BONN.- The New York art scene of the 1980s is the stuff of legend. Buoyant and creative, it was open to all kinds of new media and offered young talents a spectacular arena of opportunity. The quest for innovation meant that all traditions were up for grabs and relentlessly questioned. Graffiti artists took art to the streets, others brought the everyday into their studios. Painters and painting were at the forefront of this tremendous creative ferment.

This exhibition presents three of the most influential artists of the period: Andy Warhol (1928–1987), Jean-Michel Basquiat (1960–1988) and Francesco Clemente (b. 1952). At the heart of the show are the collaborative works by the three artists. The product of a period of intense interaction in the years between 1983 and 1985, they bear witness to the artists’ mutual appreciation. To highlight the three very different artistic temperaments, the exhibition also presents a wide range of non-collaborative works by each of the artists that exemplify their individual style.

Whereas Andy Warhol, one of the founding figures of American Pop Art, focused on the graphic and serial aspects of art, working in a clear and often seemingly detached manner, young Jean-Michel Basquiat burst upon the scene with a style that was as furious as it was expressive, a raw mix of symbols, pictograms and letters rooted in the urban graffiti idiom. The paintings by the Transavanguardia artist Francesco Clemente, on the other hand, often seem dream-like, mystical and almost surreal.

In 1983, Warhol was 55 years old and could already look back on a glamorous career that included the legendary Factory, the magazine Interview, The Velvet Underground and Studio 54. He had developed a clearly defined style that drew heavily on the collective visual memory, icons of art history and mass media. Basquiat, 23 years of age, had made a name for himself in the late 1970s as the graffiti artist SAMO (in collaboration with Al Diaz). He embarked on painting with a raw and unfiltered dynamism that was all his own, sampling and translating his environment and experience into a new aesthetics.

The Italian artist Francesco Clemente, then 31 years old, came from an entirely different background. Having spent extensive periods of time in India, where he discovered collaborative work as a coming together of different mindsets, he had arrived in New York in 1981. His paintings explore questions of interior and exterior, self and other, mind and body. By the same token, his work with contemporary writers–two examples are shown in this exhibition –bears witness to his different approach to the concept of collaborative creativity.

What makes the collaboration between Warhol, Basquiat and Clemente -‘physical conversations’ as Keith Haring put it 1988 –so fascinating is the fact that it brought together three very different artistic personalities with very distinct established profiles and interests.

Each of the three artists began with four paintings and one drawing, which were then handed on to one of the other two, challenging the recipient to respond to the opening move in whatever medium he wanted to. The collaboration was intense and extremely productive. Because of each artist’s distinctive style, it is fairly easy to distinguish their contributions: Warhol’s screenprints, Basquiat’s oilstick drawings and Xerox collages and Clemente’s painterly visions. Language and the written word played an important role for each of them.

The mutual influence between the artists –particularly between Warhol and Basquiat –also left its mark on their non-collaborative work. After more than twenty years, Warhol returned to painting by hand, and Basquiat began to experiment with screenprinting.

The collaborations bear eloquent witness to the sensitivity and respect with which the artists responded to one another. The modifications they did make and the passages of overpainting are testament to a working atmosphere of mutual appreciation and acceptance.

Our idea of art is predicated on uniqueness, individuality and, above all, on the notion of the artist’s very own subjective style. The collaborative works of the three artists playfully refute the concept of individuality – without repudiating the idea of authorship –and derive their singular appeal from the confluence of contrary painterly gestures. Richly faceted, the paintings reflect the era and the fame and pop star status of the artists who drew on art history, the everyday and the contemporary with equal aplomb; they reflect the artists’ values and ideals, their traditions, their different world views and their fascination with each other.

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February 12, 2012

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