Those who knew the artist Jean-Michel Basquiat through personal and professional relationships are speaking out against the latest use of one of his paintings. His friends and collaborators have shared commentary against the debut of the painting entitled Equals Pi in a Tiffany & Co. ad featuring power couple Jay-Z and Beyoncé. The painting will be permanently on display in Tiffany’s flagship Fifth Avenue store in New York City, according to WWD.
Alexis Adler, a former roommate of Basquiat from 1979 to 1980, told The Daily Beast, “I’d seen the ad a couple days ago and I was horrified,” adding, “The commercialization and commodification of Jean and his art at this point—it’s really not what Jean was about.”
“Unfortunately, the museums came to Jean’s art late, so most of his art is in private hands and people don’t get to see that art except for the shows. Why show it as a prop to an ad?” asked Adler, continuing, “Loan it out to a museum. In a time where there were very few Black artists represented in Western museums, that was his goal: to get to a museum.”
During an interview with WWD, Alexandre Arnault, Executive Vice President of Product & Communications at Tiffany & Co., shared how the brand developed the idea of the painting being “Tiffany Blue,” the namesake turquoise hue made famous by the jewelry company trademarked in 1998.
“We don’t have any literature that says he made the painting for Tiffany,” Arnault admitted. “But we know a little bit about Basquiat. We know his family. We did an exhibition of his work at the Louis Vuitton Foundation a few years back. We know he loved New York, and that he loved luxury and he loved jewelry. My guess is that the [blue painting] is not by chance. The color is so specific that it has to be some kind of homage.”
A longtime curator of Basquiat’s paintings spoke to The Daily Beast under the condition of anonymity. They dissected the theory of Equals Pi being painted in reference to the high-end jewelry company.
“Let’s say he did reference that color on purpose—which seems out of character for him to do something that simple—I think it really flattens his artistic approach. He was a really deep thinker. His work wasn’t like, this symbolizes this. Everything references something but then it tells a story of that thing. But let’s say he did though… to use it in an ad, it wouldn’t have been the context. It wouldn’t be used to sell Tiffany’s but to say something critical, maybe about blood diamond-extraction or something. I just think it’s a reach,” shared the source.
Stephen Torton, Basquiat’s assistant, also spoke out against the ad campaign on social media. Torton uploaded a screenshot from Arnault’s own Instagram in which the original caption called the artwork “Jean-Michel Basquiat’s Tiffany Blue painting.”
“I designed and built stretchers, painted backgrounds, glued drawings down on canvas, chauffeured, travelled extensively, spoke freely about many topics and worked endless hours side by side in silence . The idea that this blue background , which I mixed and applied was in any way related to Tiffany Blue is so absurd that at first I chose not to comment . But this very perverse appropriation of the artist’s inspiration is too much,” he wrote on Instagram.
Torton continued, “« They » tortured his legacy with condescending bulls**t in The LV show in Paris. Check out the incoherent, inaccurate gibberish on the audio tour if still available. That « They » speculate and monetize, commercialize and manipulate every manifestation of this rebellious genius is not to my taste but that is the game. But leave deciphering his message to those who know or leave it alone.”
Torton also spoke with DB on the matter, saying, “They wouldn’t have let Jean-Michel into a Tiffany’s if he wanted to use the bathroom, or, if he went to buy an engagement ring and pulled a wad of cash out of his pocket. We couldn’t even get a cab.”
Al Diaz, another close friend of Basquiat, who also collaborated with him as a teenager on their street art duo SAMO, spoke to the artist’s relationship with the concept of luxury and how his personal ideals may have been skewed by outside parties.
“People think that his association with luxury was because he was impressed with that s**t, but he couldn’t care less,” recalled Diaz. “It’s not just about wearing an Armani suit. If he wore it, it’s because he could buy it and f**k it up, it wasn’t because the stitches were fabulous or well-made.”
He added, “People won’t see the depth. At this point the only people that could afford a Basquiat are people he was targeting. Like, you’re the oppressor. They buy it out so that it becomes meaningless.”
Tiffany & Co. is not the first, and likely not the last company to use Basquiat’s artwork in their branding. In recent years, his art has been used in collaborations with Coach, Forever 21, Yves Saint Laurent, Comme des Garçons, Uniqlo, Supreme, Dr. Martens, and Urban Decay.
The campaign, titled “ABOUT LOVE” was issued by the billion-dollar jeweler with a $2 million commitment to Historically Black Colleges and Universities. This is a notably small amount considering the iconic diamond necklace worn in the ads by Beyoncé is valued at an estimated $30 million.
“ABOUT LOVE” also includes an accompanying film scheduled to launch on Tiffany’s website on Sept. 15 with additional films created by director Dikayl Rimmasch and second unit director, Derek Milton to follow.
The estate of Jean-Michel Basquiat was administered by Gerard Basquiat, the late artist’s father until his passing in 2013, and is currently administered by his sisters, Jeanine Heriveaux and Lisane Basquiat.