A Minute with Ricky Powell

[NOW: December 4, 2016 — VS — THEN: September 14, 1985]



We’re here on the west side of Mercer Street looking north toward Houston. When I first eyeballed photographer Ricky Powell’s (1961-2021) snapshot of Jean-Michel Basquiat (1960-1988) and Andy Warhol (1928-1987) here I was pulled to the spot. Thanks to the creation of the Soho-Cast Iron Historic District in 1973, most of the landscape details are still intact and help conjure up the artists again. 

In an interview with writer George Leonidou for the now vanished website 1981.nyc, Powell described the birth of his image like this:


Went to this fuckin’ Basquiat and Warhol show and I ended up taking pictures of one of my favorite graffiti dynamic duos ZEPHYR and REVOLT across the street while waiting for Warhol and Basquiat to come to this thing. We’re looking at the whole crowd outside of Tony Shafrazi Gallery on Mercer Street, and you see ‘em coming, so I said hold up. 

Loped across Mercer Street to Warhol and Baquiat as they were approaching from Houston Street going south, with the crowd behind me. I kind of did, y’know, a little passing route in between them and them.

So I stopped [Basquiat and Warhol], and said, “Yo, you mind if I get a flick?”

Basquiat says to Warhol, “Yeah, he’s cool.”

They posed for me and I took that flick of them. I said thanks and they walked on.

I then walked back to ZEPHYR and you see the crowd go bananas on them. I went and ZEPHYR and REVOLT were like, “Oh shit.”


I’d probably have used the “oh shit” line too after that encounter. 



When and Where

Now Tony Shafrazi’s gallery was located at 163 Mercer, just behind Powell’s camera set up. In 1985, Shafrazi and art dealer Bruno Bischofberger produced an exhibition there called “Warhol & Basquiat: Paintings.” Featuring 16 scenes the artists drew together, the show ran from September 14th to October 19th. Powell didn’t give the exact date for his photo, but I place it on the first night of the proceedings: September 14th. Let me explain. 

In his book Jean-Michel Basquiat: A Biography [2010], author Eric Fretz replayed the showcase at Shafrazi’s like this:


On September 14, 1985, when Warhol arrived at the opening by cab, he found the gallery packed. A doorman was needed to police the crowd that was spilled out onto Mercer Street, where idling limousines waited.


So Fretz established the date Warhol was there, but how about Basquiat? Well, his report continued with 


Basquiat, wearing a shimmering blue shirt and his hair tucked into his hat, seemed to enjoy the buzz. But he did not talk to Warhol at the opening and was conspicuously absent from the night’s dinner party at his favorite restaurant, Mr. Chow’s.


In Powell’s shot, Basquiat is both wearing a “shimmering blue shirt” and has his hair “tucked into into his hat,” so the 14th has to be right. 

But to assuage my typically skeptical conscience, let’s consult another source.

In The Andy Warhol Diaries [1989], editor Pat Hackett included the following passage in Warhol’s entry for September 14th: 


Called Jean-Michel and said I’d pick him up and did. Went over to the Tony Shafrazi Gallery (cab $5) and it was wall to wall. I was wearing the Stefano jacket with Jean-Michel’s picture painted on the back, but I’ve decided I can’t wear odd things, I look like a weirdo. I’m going to stay in basic black.


Again, in Powell’s print, Warhol is wearing the jacket with one of Basquiat’s face drawings that made him feel “like a weirdo.” (Haha! Sorry, I can’t get over his admission.) Now Fretz and Warhol seem to be at odds over how the two artists actually met up on Mercer, but this much is true: Basquiat and Warhol were side by side for their close-up on September 14th. 

But wait! How did people respond to the show?

Well, check out a fragment of what New York Times reviewer Vivien Raynor (1927-2009) conveyed a few days later. On September 20th, she scribed:


LAST year, I wrote of Jean-Michel Basquiat that he had a chance of becoming a very good painter providing he didn’t succumb to the forces that would make him an art world mascot. This year, it appears that those forces have prevailed, for Basquiat is now onstage at the Tony Shafrazi Gallery at 163 Mercer Street, doing a pas de deux with Andy Warhol, a mentor who assisted in his rise to fame.

Actually, it’s a version of the Oedipus story: Warhol, one of Pop’s pops, paints, say, General Electric’s logo, a New York Post headline or his own image of dentures; his 25-year-old protege adds to or subtracts from it with his more or less expressionistic imagery. The 16 results — all “Untitleds,” of course — are large, bright, messy, full of private jokes and inconclusive.




But here and now, [their] collaboration looks like one of Warhol’s manipulations, which increasingly seem based on the Mencken theory about nobody going broke underestimating the public’s intelligence. Basquiat, meanwhile, comes across as the all too willing accessory.

Offered in the same spirit as the show’s poster featuring photographs of the artists dressed as boxers at the ready, the verdict is: “Warhol, TKO in 16 rounds.”


Wow. I wonder how Basquait took that “art world mascot” taxonomy?

In an entry dated Thursday, September 19th, however, we do know how Warhol reacted to the label. He confided this to his diary:


When we were at the Odeon [Restaurant] I asked for the paper, and there in Friday’s Times I saw a big headline: “Basquiat and Warhol in Pas de Deux.” And I just read one line — that Jean-Michel was my “mascot.” 

Oh God.



On Mercer Street looking north toward West Houston. 

(NOW)  Photo by Rick Stachura. December 4, 2016.

(THEN)  Photo by Ricky Powell. Courtesy of artsy.net. September 14, 1985. 

(This story was originally published to my old Tumblr site on February 11, 2017.)



Share your thoughts...