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In ‘The Collaboration,’ Paul Bettany and Jeremy Pope Take On Warhol and Basquiat

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The posters framed it as a fight; a challenge between two heavyweights. At left was Andy Warhol, wearing shiny Everlast boxing gloves, shorts, a black turtleneck, and a vaguely haunted look on his face—he was, by then, a frail 56—his arms crossed like Tutankhamen’s. At his side was Jean-Michel Basquiat, shirtless, impassive, and not yet 25, in the same gloves, shorts, and stance. In other imagery, their gloves are raised, or Warhol (softly) lands a blow on Basquiat’s jaw. It was 1985, and paintings from a collaboration between the two artists—orchestrated by Swiss art dealer Bruno Bischofberger, who formally introduced them in 1982—were headed to Tony Shafrazi’s gallery on Mercer Street.

The critical response to their project was not warm. When, the year before, paintings that Warhol, Basquiat, and Italian artist Francesco Clemente worked on together were shown in Zurich, Artforum deemed them “disappointing…Basquiat’s scribbles, Clemente’s sensuous figures and faces, and Warhol’s silkscreen techniques all display visual brilliance, but rarely do they engage in any real dialogue”; and after the Shafrazi show opened in September, The New York Times called its 16 untitled canvases “large, bright, messy, full of private jokes and inconclusive.” (The insinuation, in the same review, that Basquiat had become a feckless “art world mascot” proved especially hurtful; he broke ties with Warhol not long afterward.)

In the end it was less a creative showdown, pitting Pop art’s studied flatness against the barely controlled chaos of neo-expressionism, than the creation, at least for a while, of an unlikely friendship. That’s the subject of The Collaboration, Anthony McCarten’s absorbing new play starring Paul Bettany and Jeremy Pope and directed by Kwame Kwei-Armah. After a buzzy run at London’s Young Vic (where Kwei-Armah is the artistic director), it begins previews at New York’s Samuel J. Friedman Theatre this month; a film adaptation with the same main cast, director, and writer is also in progress.

The Collaboration is the second entry in what McCarten calls his “Worship Trilogy,” focused on stories about “two people who occupy the same métier but who have, often, diametrically opposed positions.” His first was The Pope, about Popes Francis and Benedict XVI (later adapted into Fernando Meirelles’s Oscar-nominated film The Two Popes); the next will be a project about Warren Buffett and Bill Gates. In each work, the dialogue that emerges is the point. “Here was a master in his 50s who had done everything and was right at the top, and here was a young, brilliant new prince about to be crowned king,” says Kwei-Armah of Warhol and Basquiat, The Collaboration’s two poles, “and there is something about them both looking at each other and seeing a bit of themselves in the other person.” Bettany, who will make his Broadway debut at “the blushing age of 51” with this production, calls The Collaboration a play “about two people, with seemingly no common ground at all, finding common ground and kind of falling in love.”

It’s also about fame, race, addiction, police brutality, and, of course, art—what it’s for, who it’s for—spending most of its time in either Warhol’s Factory, or at the loft he loaned to Basquiat on Great Jones Street. Fear is in there, too, at least on Warhol’s end; he hadn’t put paintbrush to canvas in about 20 years when he began working with Basquiat.

Bettany, who has been a mainstay of the Marvel Cinematic Universe since 2008, lately as the superhero Vision, could understand the feeling: Before the play opened at the Young Vic in February, he hadn’t been onstage since 1998. Yet his queasiness about portraying Warhol had other underpinnings. “A dear old friend of mine, Denis O’Sullivan, a producer, he called me up and he said, ‘Do you wanna play Andy Warhol?’ And I said, ‘Absolutely not,’ ” Bettany recalls, his lanky frame folded into an armchair at New York’s Lowell Hotel. He had long admired the artist’s work, but was put off by the persona. “I didn’t know if I could get out from underneath the wig and the glasses and the monosyllabic thing.”

Photographed by Tess Ayano, Vogue, November 2022.

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