These Artists Know the Blessing and Curse of Warhol and Basquiat

For many of the ambitious young people who circled Andy Warhol, the enigmatic pop artist opened otherwise inaccessible doors but also cast an inescapable shadow.

Last month the photographer Paige Powell, a longtime close pal of Warhol’s, put a Jean-Michel Basquiat painting from her collection up for sale at Art Basel. Powell, who returned to her native Oregon in 1994, is still defined by her time in New York, where she arrived in late 1980. She started selling ads for Warhol’s Interview magazine a few months later. There she met Basquiat and was his girlfriend for a little more than a year.

In her photographs, Powell captured a fabled New York of the ’80s, at a time when, because of her connections, she had front-row access to the leading artists and scene makers. Her photographs are included in a Basquiat-Warhol exhibition this year at the Louis Vuitton Foundation in Paris and in a group show that has just opened at the ILY2 gallery in Portland. Her reputation, however, lies in her relationships with famous men: Basquiat, and especially Warhol.

The association with Warhol is even more salient for Brigid Berlin, an outsize personality from a privileged background on the Upper East Side, who died at 80 in 2020. She arrived at Warhol’s Factory in 1965 and stayed until Warhol’s fatal gallbladder surgery in 1987. They were best friends, referring to each other as Mr. and Mrs. Pork. Berlin, whose socialite mother had introduced her to amphetamines in hopes of slimming down the overweight girl, was known in that circle as Brigid Polk, a reference to her penchant for poking herself and others with a syringe dosed with speed.

“Brigid Berlin: The Heaviest,” at the Vito Schnabel Gallery in Manhattan’s West Village until Aug. 18, is the most extensive view of her work since a 1970 exhibition at Galerie Heiner Friedrich in Cologne, Germany, and it explores her varied pursuits. She is primarily remembered for documenting life at the Factory with a Polaroid camera and a tape recorder — two instruments that Warhol employed with avid devotion. It is uncertain who influenced whom.

“People at the Factory say she was first with making Polaroids and audiotapes, and Andy got it from her,” said Alison Gingeras, an independent curator who organized the Schnabel exhibition. “I’m always attracted to these women who fall outside the canonized art history. This show is a holistic view of the complex life and work of Brigid Berlin, to show that her agency was so much bigger than how she was taken up through the lens of Warhol.”

Describing both Powell and Berlin, Gingeras said, “They have this acolyte status, and their own agency and creation is not given their due.”

In very different ways, Powell and Berlin chronicled the people who intersected with Warhol. Powell’s approach was more conventional. She took photographs, mostly in black and white, first with a 35-millimeter camera, and then for a time with a medium-format Rolleiflex. A generous selection of her work is contained in a boxed set, “Beulah Land,” published in 2019. “Andy was really the one that inspired me,” Powell said. “He was just so encouraging. My photos were natural. They were not about documenting. I felt inspired.”

Despite Powell’s disclaimer, many of her photographs, especially those of Warhol, are invaluable documents: Warhol with Louise Bourgeois, Warhol with Basquiat, Warhol with Keith Haring dressed as Santa Claus. Others stick in the mind as human portraits regardless of whether the subject is celebrated. A soulful shot of the art dealer Leo Castelli in 1986, dressed elegantly as always, seated with hands clasped and a copy of Interview in his lap, evinces ineffable world weariness, a melancholy that photography is particularly suited for conveying. The art critic Edit DeAk poses in front of a Howard Chandler Christy mural from 1934 at the Café des Artistes. Her hair in bangs, her huge eyes echoing those of Christy’s water nymph, she looks just as romantic as the art.

Berlin’s output is more outré. As the exhibition title indicates, her ongoing battle to shed pounds was a central preoccupation, sabotaged by binges in which she could easily consume two Key lime pies slathered with whipped cream, one after the other. Another obsession was her mother, Muriel “Honey” Berlin, the wife of Richard Berlin, the powerful and wealthy head of the Hearst Corporation, who was bitterly disappointed that Brigid had not developed into the Upper East Side socialite she was bred to be. In a scathing voice that could scorch the bark off a tree (a snippet of a phone conversation that Brigid taped is included in an audio section of the show), she belittled and berated her adult daughter for her corpulence and louche lifestyle.

“It Is About the Weight,” proclaims a cushion stitched in needlepoint by Berlin. But it was also about Honey, whom Brigid, as she grew older, came to resemble in style, temperament and conservative Republican politics. One wall of the exhibition is covered in the custom wallpaper that Brigid installed in the East 28th Street apartment where she resided from 1986 until her death in 2020. It is the sort of color-saturated floral pattern usually seen in a proper matron’s chintz-heavy salon, but in this understatedly witty design, cabbage roses have been replaced by cabbages.

Other vestiges of her genteel surroundings, including a shadow box frame that she filled with the artfully placed collars of her beloved pugs, vie in the exhibition with the work that convulsed Honey in vituperative fits. Using her bare breasts as paintbrushes, Berlin, beginning in the ’70s, made “tit prints,” in which her pigment-laden aureoles produced forms that resemble balloons and angelfish. Even more scandalous are three of the chapbooks in which she kept drawings she cajoled artists into making of their penises. The self-illustrators include Jasper Johns, Leonard Cohen, Dennis Hopper, Robert Smithson and Brice Marden.

Artistically, Berlin was ahead of her time as a woman unabashedly indulging her sensual desires. Not that she would have called herself a feminist. “You can argue that her work has feminist content, but her conservative background works against that,” Gingeras said. “There’s so much internalized misogyny in her desire to be one of the guys and have that validation. She was making the ‘tit prints’ without thinking of burning her bra. What really matters is what is in the work.”

Like Powell, Berlin in many of her Polaroids documented the Warhol entourage. But Gingeras puts those pictures in context, as only part of Berlin’s abundant production, by arranging the Polaroids in three groups — one devoted to Warholiana, the others to self-portraits and to shots of eminent artists, including Willem de Kooning and John Cage. The show concludes with homages to Berlin made by artists today, including Francesco Clemente, Jenna Gribbon and Jane Kaplowitz.

Although both Berlin and Powell are now being considered outside their Warhol tie, they can never detach from it. All of the people in the Warhol constellation whom he heralded as “stars” were, with the notable exception of Lou Reed, really moons, illuminated by his reflected light.

Beyond the entree to the bohemian elite of New York, Warhol provided a philosophical underpinning to Powell and Berlin. Both women subscribed to his notion, lifted from Marcel Duchamp, that whatever an artist says is art is art. When I asked Powell if she thought of herself as a photographer, she replied, “I am an artist. I still do photography and video. I’m an art curator, too. It’s just like — I’m having artistic thoughts, thinking to make things happen.”

While Powell and I were speaking on the phone, a text message came in from the art dealer Jeffrey Deitch about the Basquiat painting she had consigned, in which the artist depicted himself and Powell as chimpanzees. The back story is that before coming to New York, Powell had, among other pursuits, taught American Sign Language to chimpanzees, including ones named Delilah and Leah, at the zoo in Portland.

“Jean-Michel was really fascinated that I was with chimpanzees,” she recalled. “He had a photograph, not even one I took, of Delilah and Leah, feeding each other. We would always feed each other when we would have dinner, with a spoon and fork.” The painting shows Powell and Basquiat as monkeys grooming each other. Deitch was reporting to Powell that he had sold it to a young collector for $5 million.

Powell was excited. “It’s $1.5 million less than what we asked for it, but I can live with it,” she said. The picture had been on long-term loan to the Portland Art Museum. “I decided to sell it because I wanted to buy a house where I could have a large room to build my archive,” she explained. “Also, just to move forward.”

Although Powell didn’t say so, she was proving herself to be a true Warholian artist, putting into practice one of the master’s most-quoted aphorisms: “Making money is art, and working is art, and good business is the best art.”