Olympic Rings (1985) is certainly arresting. The large centrepiece of the exhibition, the collaborative work of Andy Warhol and Jean-Michel Basquiat, was their artistic response to the 1984 Olympic Games held in Los Angeles. Now, it has been resurrected by the Gagosian gallery to celebrate the coming of the Olympics to London this summer, and stands proudly asserting itself through the Gagosian’s distinctive full-length windows.
For those familiar with the artists, it is immediately clear which are Warhol’s contributions and which are Basquiat’s. The Olympic rings that dominate the canvas are seemingly left unfinished; they are rendered in the traditional primary colours of the Olympic logo, but are left with unpainted spaces within them. These rings are thus imperfect in their replication of the traditionally ready-made Olympic logo; it is obvious that they have been hand-painted from their asymmetry and relatively rough brushstrokes, as well as having been slightly repositioned in order to add a dimension of disarray to the instantly recognisable symbol. The way in which the rings are repeated within the canvas itself is a somewhat interesting comment on the mass reproduction of an icon, the Olympic logo – a comment that is, of course, quintessentially Warholian.
Then, imposing itself between these rough clusters of Olympic rings is a dark, bold head that resembles a traditional African mask. In Basquiat’s distinctive graffiti style, the face is a striking intervention in the otherwise relatively harmonious composition. It seems to stare at you as you walk around the gallery space, adding a distinctly figurative dimension to the abstract, symbolic logo in the background – the human aspect of the Olympic games, athlete and artist alike. It is thought to be an allusion to great African-American Olympic athletes in history, such as Jesse Owens, Carl Lewis and John Carlos, but it could also be seen as self-referential. The two elements of the painting – the rings and the mask – are in constant dialogue with each other, interacting through the violent nature of their execution, as though they stand apart from, and yet also augment each other. So it is that the presence of the artists can be seen in every brushstroke, making the correspondence between the two artists all the more dynamic, and the status of the artist within the context of the Games more prominent.
On either side of this work are photographs taken by Michael Halsband of the two artists posing together, outfitted in boxing gear and mimicking fights. Although much smaller, and perhaps for this reason less immediately gripping than Olympic Rings, they are interesting in their depiction of sports photography. For example, Andy Warhol & Jean-Michel Basquiat #133 New York City, July 10, 1985 (1985) is so awkward, and so self-consciously composed that it would be obvious, even if one were completely unaware that these two protagonists were artists, that they were not athletes. Warhol in particular, in this image, appears almost to be flinching as he ‘punches’ Basquiat in the jaw. He is also, of course, shot wearing his black turtleneck sweater, which is not particularly athletic attire. In the second Halsbend image, Andy Warhol & Jean-Michel Basquiat #143 New York City, July 10, 1985 (1985), Warhol’s stance seems to project an image of defensiveness rather than bravado, whilst Basquiat has his hip cocked and wears a barely-perceptible half smile, in a kind of self-mockery.
The incredible self-consciousness of these images, however, only adds to their charm. They are more like works of performance art rather than sports photography, which, in conjunction with Olympic Rings, is a perfect demonstration of how the Olympics is not merely concerned with athletics – here, we can see the harmonious amalgamation of the Olympic Games and high art. A small show, but a great way to see London 2012.