Ever since Tiffany’s released their new ad campaign with Beyonce and Jay-Z on the first day of Virgo season, it’s just been one thing after another. First, the giant yellow diamond necklace which Beyonce wears in the campaign is literally a blood diamond from South Africa. People also complained about the frantic tokenization of Beyonce as “the first Black woman” to wear the necklace. They’re mad about the $2 million tax write-off donation to HBCUs to smooth over the controversy. But the strongest ire has been for Tiffany’s use of a rarely-seen Jean-Michel Basquiat painting. The Basquiat painting was in private hands for decades, and it was used in the campaign because of Basquiat’s use of the robin’s egg blue, the signature color of Tiffany’s. The problem? Basquiat didn’t use that shade of blue as some kind of ode to Tiffany’s. And now Basquiat’s friends and former coworkers are speaking out:
For close friends of Basquiat’s who lived and worked with the late, trailblazing artist in the late ’70s and early ’80s, the answer is quite clear: Their loved one was not thinking about Tiffany’s at all while conjuring Equals Pi. “I’d seen the ad a couple days ago and I was horrified,” Alexis Adler tells The Daily Beast. Adler, who lived with Basquiat in his earlier years of art-making between 1979-1980, maintains that “the commercialization and commodification of Jean and his art at this point—it’s really not what Jean was about.”
At first glance, it might seem like the function of the ad, to sell a more modern Tiffany & Co. to their wealthy consumer base, might align with Basquiat’s desire to sell his art at a high price, but where his art was displayed mattered more so than the monetary transaction itself. “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?” asks Adler. “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.”
The fact that Equals Pi will permanently hang on the walls of Tiffany’s flagship boutique on Fifth Avenue proves a sore spot for artists like Al Diaz—who was a close friend of Basquiat’s and collaborated with him as a teenager on their street art duo SAMO—and Stephen Torton, who mixed paints, framed hundreds of Basquiat’s paintings, and worked as his assistant for many years. “People think that his association with luxury was because he was impressed with that shit, but he couldn’t care less,” Diaz explains. “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.”
But what’s happened in the last decade or so, as images of both Basquiat the face and Basquiat the aesthetic swarm brands like Avian, Urban Decay and Coach, is an overemphasis on the more lurid aspects of his biography—the party animal, the fashionisto, the drug addict—and a flattening of the art itself. “It’s lost in translation,” Diaz remarks, exasperated. “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.”
I get it. Tiffany’s has basically turned an anti-corporate, anti-homogenized-culture artist into a neutered, apolitical corporate mascot. The Daily Beast piece keeps going though, I learned something: Tiffany’s didn’t even trademark that “robin’s egg blue” color until 1998. Basquiat was using that color in his paintings long before it was trademarked for Tiffany’s. His friends also point out that he mixed his own colors and he often used that shade or similar shades of blue in other works and it had nothing to do with Tiffany’s.
Anyway, yes, this is a huge PR mess for not just Tiffany’s but the art world. I kind of wonder if Beyonce and Jay-Z regret their involvement too.
Photos courtesy of Tiffany’s.