The Mystery of That Basquiat Painting — and Its Tiffany Blue

According to a Tiffany spokeswoman, this was not a joke — and indeed, some seem to have taken it as a challenge: to the integrity of art, and the artist. Basquiat died in 1988 at 27, but in the last few days all sorts of people with various relationships to both him and his work have come out with their own theories on the painting’s origin story.

It started with a man called Stephen Torton, who identified himself as a former assistant of Basquiat’s and posted an Instagram statement saying, “I designed and built stretchers, painted backgrounds, glued drawings down on canvas, chauffeured, traveled 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.”

The controversy has even drawn out the first owner of the painting. Anne Dayton was advertising director of the magazine Artforum when she went to a show at the Fun Gallery on East 10th Street in 1982 and the gallery’s owner, Patti Astor, showed her the painting, then called “Still Pi,” Ms. Dayton recently told The New York Times. She bought it for $7,000 (she still has the bill of sale).

Tiffany never came up in the discussions around what was so exciting about the painting, she said.

“At no moment whatsoever was there any connection between ‘Equal Pi’ and Tiffany’s blue box,” she wrote in an email. “It is blasphemy to even consider it. Basquiat’s raw, visceral and subversive power was the antithesis of the traditional classicalism of the Tiffany standard.”

Indeed, she wrote, while fashion and the art were close at the time — the Artforum cover for February 1982 featured Issey Miyake — the designers that were part of the scene “were all breaking rules,” including Yohji Yamamoto, Comme des Garçons, Kenzo and Gianni Versace. “Tiffany’s was as far away from the scene as it could possibly be,” Ms. Dayton noted.

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