Does Artistic Collaboration Ever Work?

How creativity is both nurtured and thwarted when people team up

How creativity is both nurtured and thwarted when people team up

AP Images

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.

Indeed, many visual artists and serious writers find it necessary to spend most of the time they devote to any given project working alone. "When psychologists examine the lives of the most creative people, they almost always find individuals who like to go off by themselves—who can tolerate the solitude that creativity requires," says Cain. "They are extroverted enough to exchange and advance ideas, but introverted enough to gestate them on their own." And as Barron says, "Novelists or painters are largely solo operators. When it is pure art or self-expression or a deeply original idea that needs to be developed, solitude serves."

There is a difference, however, between working independently and working in absolute solitude. Hammering away at some creative endeavor on your own is not the same as working in solitary confinement. Even Thoreau had plenty of visitors (including his mentor, Emerson) at Walden Pond; even Rilke, who wrote his unparalleled Dunio Elegies in "solitude," at Castle Dunio, near Trieste in Italy, had a staff of servants who surely helped keep him sane.

Cain says she wrote her entire book in a Greenwich Village cafe—the kind of place poet Mark Doty has also come to use as an atelier. During the Whiting Awards speech Doty gave earlier this year, he said, "Writers are perpetually alone with their work, no matter how embedded they are in communities." He went on to say that while he used to think he couldn't write unless he was completely alone, in a quiet corner of his house, working at home lost its appeal after he moved to New York City. "I found a coffee shop congenial to writing," he explained. "Soon I realized that in fact I liked having company. I liked some evidence of activity—milk steaming in the espresso machine, dishes rattling in the plastic bin where you'd put your empty coffee cup."

At the same time, certain "creative types"—those who put together television shows or come up with marketing campaigns, for instance—can't seem to get much done unless they're actively interacting with a room full of others, tossing out wild ideas and witty one-liners. It's also true that many artists—like a choreographer who must begin working with dancers to understand how her ideas about movement can translate to the stage, or a novelist who is ready for an editor--need to partner up once they reach a certain stage of the process.

What's more, two of the most revered collaborators of all-time—John Lennon and Paul McCartney—"wrote a lot of stuff together, one on one, eyeball to eyeball," early in their career, according to Lennon as quoted on While writing the song "I Want to Hold Your Hand," for instance, they would both get "on the piano at the same time," Lennon remarked, and start "playing into each other's noses." However, as time went on—and as their songs arguably became increasingly original and less jingle-like (albeit enchantingly jingle-like)—they began to function more as editors for each other than collaborators. By way of example, they, er, worked things out for "We Can Work It Out" this way: McCartney wrote the verses and chorus ("Try to see it my way!/Do I have to keep on talking until I can't go on" etc.) while John wrote the bridge ("Life is very short, and there's no time/For fussing and fighting, my friend"). And often, in later years, they only contributed minor flourishes to the other's songs.

(N.B.: I collaborated via email with my friend Brian Levinson, a Beatles expert and Jeopardy! champion, on the preceding paragraph.)

Of course, no songwriter in her right mind should kick a friend like John Lennon off the bench when trying to come up with a catchy new tune. But collaboration has become such a buzzword these days that we seem to have forgotten how important working independently can be, particularly when it comes to generating new and innovative ideas. "We overvalue the idea of collaboration," Cain argues. "I call this The New Groupthink—the idea that creativity and productivity comes from an oddly gregarious place."

Perhaps part of the reason collaboration has gained such cachet is because it can be so germinative in the realm of business and commerce. The Silicon Valley culture, for instance, seems to run almost entirely on collaborative fumes. And as Barron puts it, "For a business effort, collaboration is useful because the product develops out of exchange."

But if you're trying to think deeply about something, or you are more introverted, as many artists tend to be, having someone yakking in your ear isn't always productive. As Cain says:

In the age of the Internet, the word "collaboration" has taken on a sacred dimension. Through the miracle of electronic crowdsourcing, the Internet produced astonishing collective creations, such as Wikipedia. But these things were created by individuals sitting alone in their offices, communicating with other individuals across wires and cables. Electronic collaboration is very different from the in-person kind, but we act as if they're one and the same.

Many serious writers and visual artists benefit most from a virtual dialogue that doesn't require a computer—an ongoing mental conversation with a loved one, dead or alive, who "fosters the psychological courage that can feed creativity," as Barron puts it. It's important, she notes, "to have a supportive, trusted, loving other in your life, whether it is someone you hold onto in your heart and head or someone in the flesh—even if they are not directly involved in making the work—in order to create." Unknowingly echoing Ginzberg's words, she adds, "This allows for freedom in the mind and less fear or shame about inept offerings." Which is to say: While most serious writers and artists don't make their best creations working with other people standing over them—or next to them, paint-brush in hand—they are almost always telling a story to, or making beauty for, someone specific.

Basquiat had Warhol, one of his heroes, in his head well before they met; his early work and artistic efforts were clearly influenced by the man who would become his mentor. But perhaps Basquiat would've been better off had he kept Warhol in mind only while he painted—and kept him away from his canvases.