Does Artistic Collaboration Ever Work?

How creativity is both nurtured and thwarted when people team up

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Unlike many other people in the art world, Keith Haring was enthusiastic about the paintings that Jean-Michel Basquiat and Andy Warhol made together between 1983 and 1985. "[The Collaboration Paintings are] a physical conversation happening in paint instead of words," Haring said. "The sense of humor, the snide remarks, the profound realizations, the simple chit-chat all happened with paint and brushes."

Critics, however, were nowhere near as enthusiastic about the work that Basquiat and Warhol created in tandem. Writing in the New York Times, Vivienne Raynor also used a conversation metaphor to describe the paintings—but she called them "large, bright, messy, full of private jokes and inconclusive." Forfeiting his earlier promise, Basquiat had turned into an "art world mascot," she complained.

Looking at "Olympic Rings"—an enormous Basquiat-and-Warhol acrylic and silkscreen on canvas, roughly 7 feet by 15, that will be on display through August 11 at London's Gagosian Gallery, coinciding with this season's games—one might get the impression that what Basquiat became, at least during his collaborative period, was something closer to what Warhol, arguably, was never much more than. An advertising genius, that is.

One commentator, after seeing the 1985 show at which the Basquiat-and-Warhol's paintings were publicly exhibited for the first time, griped, ''Everything . . . is infused with banality. Who is using whom here?''

Perhaps they were both using—or hoping to benefit from—each other. The godfather of Pop Art was "always seeking the advice and ideas of friends for possible subjects in his art," says Matt Wrbican, chief archivist at The Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh. "Working with the younger artists such as Basquiat, [Francesco] Clemente, and Haring invigorated his work." What's more, in 1983 Basquiat inspired Warhol to paint "free-hand" with a brush—without using a silkscreen, stencil, or other device—for the first time in more than 20 years.

The younger artist got something out of the relationship too: a parental figure who helped to promote his career and enhance his star quality. But whether Warhol deterred the young painter—who died of a heroin overdose at age 27, in 1988—or helped him to develop his exceptional talent is another question.

When do artistic collaborations work well, then? Though it's difficult to generalize, it seems to depend on how far along in the process an artist is, what he or she is trying to create, and his or her personality, according to the authors of two new books that consider how and why creative people thrive.

In the earliest stages of creation, when a person is trying to come up with an idea for a work—a new dance, a new novel, a new piece of visual art—or attempting to flesh out the bare bones of a inchoate concept, spending time with friends or intimates who serve as muses or sounding boards can be invaluable. "Being around other artists [often] stimulates idea-generation," says Susan Cain, author of Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking. "It's part of the reason Andy Warhol created his Factory."

Renowned Italian essayist Natalia Ginzburg certainly seems to have benefited from the company of a like-minded friend as she was crafting the pieces in her 1989 collection, Little Virtues. In the foreword, she describes with gratitude how much a certain unnamed confidante helped to inspire the pieces found within. "He is not present in any of these essays, nevertheless he is the person to whom most of them are secretly addressed," she writes. "Many of these essays would not have been written if I had not had various conversations with him. He gave a legitimacy and freedom of expression to certain things I had been turning over in my mind."

Cain also cites research that shows creativity can often be sparked by something as simple as a chance encounter. Or, as Carrie Barron, author of The Creativity Cure, puts it: "A random interaction—someone who says something to you on a street corner—is often enough to set off a cascade of creativity."

But conversing with someone is different from having him looking over your shoulder as you write—and once an original thinker has come up with a strong idea, retreating into his or her workshop for a period is typically essential so that he or she can get through a strong first iteration of a work.

"Checking too often with someone else—pausing for feedback with each bit of output—can inhibit or confuse us," Cain points out. "We can lose our natural trajectory, intuition, or instinctual aim." Other people's reactions, if they're not enthusiastic, can all too easily cause an artist to become inhibited or demoralized; as Cain notes, exposure to other people's reactions can be so obfuscatory that we lose hold of our own convictions and can no longer see our own work clearly. Fiction writers are so sensitive to other people's influence that they will often avoid reading other people's novels when working on their own books, for fear of having their inner voices metaphorically shouted down—and they frequently put off asking for critiques until after they've completed an entire first draft, even of a lengthy work.

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Maura Kelly is the author of Much Ado About Loving: What Our Favorite Novels Can Teach You About Date Expectations, Not-So-Great Gatsbys and Love in the Time of Internet Personals, a hybrid of advice column and literary criticism. Her op-eds, essays, and other writings have appeared in the New York Times, the Guardian, the Daily, Slate, and Salon.

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