The Brilliance and Symbolism of Basquiat’s 'Flesh and Spirit'
“I get my facts from books,” declared Jean-Michel Basquiat. A voracious reader who “ate up every word that appeared in front of him,” as downtown critic Glenn O’Brien said, Basquiat processed it all “into a bebop Cubist Pop art cartoon gospel.” O’Brien’s brilliant description captures the velocity and ambition of Basquiat’s Flesh and Spirit, 1982–83, a masterpiece that has been virtually unseen since it was first shown in 1983 and is now a highlight of Sotheby’s New York 16 May Contemporary Art Evening auction.
The title of the work riffs on that of Robert Farris Thompson’s Flash of the Spirit: African & Afro-American Art and Philosophy. Published in 1983, the book was hugely influential on the young Basquiat, who would meet and befriend Thompson, a Yale art historian who wrote widely about the artist and was a keen interpreter of his work, declaring that the painter “took all the street energies and translated them into high art.” With Flesh and Spirit, Basquiat does just that, synthesizing Thompson’s revelatory investigation of African iconography with his own artistic lexicon: themes of race, the body and language. The heavily worked surface of oil stick, gesso, acrylic and paper collage is a richly material expression of Basquiat’s searing inquiry into the human condition.
First exhibited at Tony Shafrazi Gallery in New York in a pivotal 1983 group show called Champions, Flesh and Spirit was acquired that same year by visionary collector and patron of the arts Dolores Ormandy Neumann. A distinguished figure in the arts, Dolores Ormandy Neumann was perhaps best known as a collector and early champion of graffiti artists. In fact, it was her discovery and encouragement of graffiti art that presciently drove the influence and recognition of these emerging artists in downtown New York in the early 80s, leading to their embrace by an audience outside of the East Village.
The present work, Flesh and Spirit, is a symbol of her support in this arena. Acquired from the famed Champions exhibition for $15,000, the painting has remained in the family collection since.