Contemporary Art

Dr. Robert Farris Thompson Remembers the Spirit of Basquiat

By Sotheby's
An Interview with Dr. Robert Farris Thompson, May 2020

Sotheby's is honored to present works by Jean-Michel Basquiat and Keith Haring from the collection of legendary art historian Dr. Robert Farris Thompson in its Contemporary Art Evening and Day Auctions this June in New York. Dr. Robert Farris Thompson is Professor Emeritus in the History of Art and African American Studies at Yale University. He has devoted his life to the study of the art history of the Afro-Atlantic World. He has authored such notable publications as Black Gods and Kings (1977), Flash of the Spirit (1983), and Tango: The Art History of Love (2006). In addition, he has published several texts on the works of Jean-Michel Basquiat and Keith Haring.

Robert Farris Thompson photographed in his home with Jean-Michel Basquiat’s Untitled (Lot 117 in Contemporary Evening Sale). Art © Estate of Jean-Michel Basquiat. Licensed by Artestar, New York

David Galperin:
Tell me about the first time you met Basquiat. When did he give you this painting?

Dr. Robert Farris Thompson:
Jean-Michel got a copy of my book, Flash of the Spirit, which came out at about that time, and he loved it. He sent a graffiti guy to look for me while I was interviewing Afrika Bambaataa in the South Bronx. And so the guy went looking for me and he found me, and he said, "Jean-Michel wants to meet you." I didn't even know who Jean-Michel was.

Meanwhile, I had rented a car, except that they didn't have any cars to rent—they only had a truck, and I said, "I'll take it." So with this blue truck, we drove down to Jean-Michel's studio on the Bowery. The door opened, and I would say it was like The Wizard of Oz. There were Japanese critics, there were Swiss clients… The place was alive. Jean-Michel shook my hand and said, "I'll be right with you. Just, here, have some wine.” He gave me some sort of tropical fruit—starfruit. So I sat there and relaxed. Then he came and he told me how much he loved my book. He said, "It's one of my favorite books, and I want to give you this, because of what you put into it." He pulled the painting out of a series of shelves. And then I realized why it was a good idea that I had rented a truck and not a car: because the painting would not have fit in a car, but it fit just right in the back of my blue truck.

Jean-Michel Basquiat, Untitled, 1985. Estimate $1,500,000–2,000,000.

That was the first time I met him. We talked more and more, and we became more and more friendly. He invited me to come back, and I came back. He said, "I want to invite you to breakfast.” I said, "Oh great. When, around noon?” He said, "Noon? Are you mad? I don't have breakfast until three.”

"He dug the fact that I was Afro-centric, much more than an art historian. There were just certain words that would never occur to me to describe him, like primitive. Jean-Michel, my God, he's one of the most sophisticated persons I ever met."

So I came, and we just got tighter and tighter. On that trip, he said, "You know, I'll need a catalogue for my show at Mary Boone's, would you write one for me?" I said of course. So I interviewed him several times, and got his words and his ideas down pat for the article and the catalogue, and he loved them too. From then on, I would see him every two or three weeks, and it just got better and better. But then one day he overdosed, and that was it.

KEITH HARING, UNTITLED, 1982, $400,000–600,000.

What was he like in person?

So many times, his hair was in his own style of dreadlocks, and he was dressed in an expensive Comme des Garçons suit, except that there was paint spilled all over it. But it was great— I liked that. It just showed how real he was, and willing to get painted up.
Basquiat famously said that your book, Flash of the Spirit, was the best thing he ever read. Many of the images, phrases, and icons in this painting and other important works of his, are in fact either direct citations from your book. What is it about your text that you think Basquiat related to and so consumed his visual imagination?
Up until I was brought into his world, art historians were always trying to relate him to something white and Western and European or American. One guy says, "Oh, he's conceptual.” Another guy says, "Oh no, he's an Abstract Expressionist.” But I said, “He's Afro-Atlantic.” Believe it or not, that was the first time that his work had ever been looked at from the point of view of his Blackness, instead of trying to relate it to Western art styles.
The chapters of my book depict the art styles of the Yoruba, the Dahomeans, the Ejagham, the Mandé, and particularly the Kongo. These traditions can all be seen as powerful intellectual influences on him.
He dug the fact that I was Afro-centric, much more than an art historian. There were just certain words that would never occur to me to describe him, like primitive. Jean-Michel, my God, he's one of the most sophisticated persons I ever met.

The cover of Robert Farris Thompson's 1983 book Flash of the Spirit.

Where does the title “Flash of the Spirit” originate?

The “Flash of the Spirit” is the essence of Kongo art. I had been reading about a guy who was making a charm—an African-American good luck charm—in the city of St. Louis at about the turn of the century. The guy said, "As I make it, I put a little bit of metallic paper into the ingredients so that the spirit will be caught in the flash of the tinfoil." When I read that I thought, “Whoa!”-- it opened up so many avenues.

The flash of the spirit comes to us in so many forms. One of the most dramatic forms is lightning: the flash of the ultimate spirit that lights up the heavens. But then there are other forms. For example, one night I was at the Palladium Ballroom: in between bands, after Tito Puente had played and then Tito Rodriguez, this young dude—about 14 or 15 years old—he jumped up on the stage and before anybody could stop him, he started chanting a Kongo Atlantic chant, which translated to “the first strong shower in May”. I thought, “Whoa, this must have racial implications.” It certainly did, because not just Jean-Michel but hundreds of black people in the New World, with the first shower in May they run out and capture the rain in a vessel and drink from it. They get the luck that comes from something falling direct from heaven. So “Flash of the Spirit” cuts into traditions like that—i think one reason why Jean- Michel liked the book so much is he saw himself in it.

What is it that makes Basquiat’s paintings so powerful?

JEAN-MICHEL BASQUIAT, UNTITLED (detail), 1985. ESTIMATE $1,500,000–2,000,000.

Jean-Michel's paintings contain spiraling active forces, and these forces are a constant. One force is script. Nothing makes him more righteously angry than to get this question, "Tell me about your graffiti.” What Jean-Michel did was not graffiti. There were statements, there were epigrams, and he wanted you to see them so he wrote it out always in capital letters. That is one current always flowing.

Another current is the head. Sometimes a portrait with dreadlocks, but many times not. But that's also a constant.

Then there are what look like Franz Kline diagonals in black. They became stronger and stronger until one day he hit the jackpot and the Franz Kline-like passage turned into a building: the once-abstract black areas were beginning to look real. It seemed to turn into a lot of things. Most of all, it gave to his paintings for the first time a perspective, because those black areas got smaller and smaller as they reached the horizon line. He was actually quoting the Florentine painters in their use of perspective. But there is this constant spiraling of text in capital letters, of the heads guarding over the painting and guarding over the painter, and then the huge blocks of colors in their strongest usage.

I guess it's a function of that if you keep doing something like a ritual, like a sacred ritual, it just qualifies itself and polishes itself and gets better and better and better until, BAM!, you reach—to me—his highest level of his art.

Robert Farris Thompson photographed in his library with Jean-Michel Basquiat’s Untitled (Lot 117 in Contemporary Evening Sale) and Keith Haring’s Untitled (Lot 419 in Contemporary Day Sale). Photo: LeRonn P. Brooks. Art © Estate of Jean-Michel Basquiat. Licensed by Artestar, New York. Art © 2020 The Keith Haring Foundation

You have previously written about Basquiat's love of music, which is present in the imagery of this painting and incredibly central to your own work. What role did music play for Basquiat?

Music was incredibly important to him. For one thing, in his studio, every time I was there, there was always music coming from a phonograph upstairs on the second floor. His tastes were impeccable. We listened to the very best of LPs: We listened to John Coltrane, we listened to Miles Davis… But then we also listened to Maria Callas. He said, "Oh of course, I love opera, but I love her in particular." Music was very definitely part of his inspirational material.

Not only did he like to listen to music, but he liked to document the presence of Black artists, Black athletes… There was a whole series of paintings: one of Muhammad Ali, another of Sugar Ray Robinson…

Nothing makes him more righteously angry than to get this question, "Tell me about your graffiti.” What Jean-Michel did was not graffiti.

So what you are getting at is really the central importance of Basquiat’s relationship to a whole lineage of prominent Black cultural figures.

To me, the most important relationship between him and artists was between him and painters of color, African-Americans. If you look at all of his paintings, there's a certain percentage in which that’s critical and at the forefront, but then he also enters the tradition fluently on many levels, not just one. For example, there is this head that appears in every painting. Sometimes because of the way the dreadlocks are arranged, we recognize it as a self-portrait. Other times, it's just this protective force condensed into one staring black face. It's one of the most fascinating elements of his work, and it is constant. Every painting: BAM! The head. BAM! The head. BAM! The head.

(left) An inscription on the reverse of Basquiat's Untitled. (right) An inscription on the reverse of Keith Haring's Untitled.

This relates in my mind, since my whole argument is that if you're going to talk about Jean- Michel, stick to the subject matter: the Afro-Atlantic qualities. Forget about Conceptualism and Abstract Expressionism. Concentrate on these incredible Black themes.

Jean-Michel was a historian, and he wanted to be an accurate historian. When, for example, he paints the buses in the days when his mother rode the bus, he paints the bus exactly the color of New York City buses at that time: green. I think they are blue and white now. But for him, every detail was important—he could never go too far in being an accurate visual historian.

You also own an important painting by Keith Haring. Tell me about your relationship with Keith.

ean-Michel Basquiat and Keith Haring at the opening of Julian Schnabel at the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York in 1987. Photo © George Hirose

It was a gift.

I used to visit him a lot. So one time I went down to see him. He smiled and he reached for the painting, and he gave it to me. It was all done in silence, and I was thrilled. I love the drama of it.

I think one of the earliest times I met him was when Keith invited several of his friends, including Jean-Michel, to an opening. Keith was there, and I went up and shook his hand and he said, "You got to see my paintings, man.” And I did, the very next day. He had a wonderful studio overlooking Houston Street. I asked him if I could photograph him, and he went into a series of wonderful poses. He was ready always. The most media-oriented person I ever met.

He was a genius in knowing how to vibrate polar opposites of color. The painting he gave me is green and orange—the color just vibrates, it makes the painting dance before he's even started to put dancers in it. But that painting has a wonderful dog, and the dog is having a conversation with a snake. There's a sort of zoomorphic power to his paintings every now and then, particularly when the barking dog appears. Back in Pennsylvania, he had a dog named Mumbo—which is pretty close to Mambo. He loved dogs, and I love dogs; so we did a lot of dog talk.

Music was just as important an influence on Haring as it was for Basquiat.

When I wrote a catalog entry for him, it had to be titled Haring and the Dance. The thing was, that he hung out with the b-boys, and he caught in every painting their different styles.

With Jean-Michel, when you went to the studio there was always recorded music pulsing away. And the same thing with Keith. Except that where Jean-Michel played all sorts of Black music and all sorts of opera, Keith only really played hip-hop as I can remember it. In fact, you knew he was at work in his studio right as you came out of the elevator—that wonderful studio he had on the fourth floor— and as you would get close, suddenly you would hear the basic beat of hip hop at different tempos. (plays beat) By hanging out with him, that beat penetrated my consciousness to such an extent that it's now a part of me. I could do it on call. It was one of the greatest gifts of Keith's to me: to introduce me to the world of Blackness with respect to hip hop.

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