Jean-Michel Basquiat – Flesh and Spirit, 1982-83

Jean-Michel Basquiat (1960-1988) – Flesh and Spirit, 1982-83

A radically raw and magnificent altarpiece for the modern age, Flesh and Spirit is the exhilarating crystallization of artistic identity from the incomparably brilliant mind of Jean-Michel Basquiat. Executed on a soaring monumental scale across two hinged panels, the present work is the largest of an elite series of multi-paneled paintings the artist created in 1983; a work of unprecedented conceptual gravitas and ambition, Flesh and Spirit declares Basquiat’s arrival as a fully matured artistic force at the thrilling apex of his powers. In its cogent synthesis of divergent influences, Flesh and Spirit testifies to the virtuosic ability with which Basquiat navigated between disparate aesthetic influences to forge a uniquely potent artistic vernacular. While his title pays homage to the seminal 1983 text Flash of the Spirit: African & Afro-American Philosophy, Robert Farris Thompson’s groundbreaking investigation of African religious tradition, Flesh and Spirit interrogates the authenticity of such spiritual dogma within the contemporary cultural landscape, in which Basquiat was wrestling to find his artistic autonomy amongst warring creeds. Drawing upon the iconography outlined in Thompson’s book, Basquiat juxtaposes potent spiritual symbology with an intricate dissection of human anatomy to present his own, highly personalized vision of the meeting between the physical and metaphysical realms. Among the most sophisticated and intricately composed masterpieces of the artist’s career, Flesh and Spirit fuses the worlds of religion and reason, spirit and science to deliver Basquiat’s bold creative treatise: an artistic identity at the explosive nexus of tradition and the contemporary world.

Immediately following its completion in the first month of 1983, Flesh and Spirit was unveiled in the seminal Champions show at Tony Shafrazi Gallery, the first and only occasion that the present work has been publically exhibited. Acquired that same month by visionary collector Dolores Ormandy Neumann, this virtually unseen masterwork has remained in the Neumann family collection for over thirty-five years. The niece of celebrated maestro Eugene Ormandy, trailblazing conductor of the Philadelphia Orchestra, Ormandy Neumann distinguished herself within the downtown New York art scene of the 1980s through her championing of emerging street artists. As a widely respected dealer and celebrated patron of the arts, Ormandy Neumann’s early support of graffiti art played a pivotal influence upon the embrace of the genre by the international community of dealers and collectors, and ultimately provided the encouragement and support many nascent talents needed to transfer their works to canvas. Testament to her lifelong passion for the arts, Ormandy Neumann dedicated extensive hours to an academic analysis of Flesh and Spirit as Basquiat’s singular statement of spiritual identity; eloquently summarizing the unrivalled significance of the present work, Neumann notes, “One can consider it his personal Rosetta Stone.” Emblazoned upon the towering panels of Flesh and Spirit, Basquiat’s searing forms invoke the totemic urgency of Pablo Picasso’s Guernica, or of Auguste Rodin’s Gates of Hell; like those radical masterworks of art history, the four quadrants of the present work explore universal truths as spoken by a single, resounding artistic voice.

In Flesh and Spirit, Basquiat lays bare the cultural and aesthetic influences which form the core of his practice, distilling his perceptions of their truths down to their essence and, in turn, projecting them outward in explosive bursts of dazzling pictorial brilliance. Across the four quadrants of the present work, Basquiat forges a hybrid visual vernacular both mystical and methodical, contemporary and conventional, boldly navigating between inherently disparate traditions to trace the origin, purpose, and design of the creative spirit. Describing the extraordinary skill with which Basquiat harvested and synthesized his own, fascinatingly enigmatic artistic vernacular, scholar Marc Mayer notes: “Basquiat speaks articulately while dodging the full impact of clarity like a matador…[his] relationship to the meaning of his references and quotations is less to the point than is his understanding of the pictorial use-value of that meaning.” (Marc Mayer, “Basquiat in History,” in Exh. Cat., New York, Brooklyn Museum (and travelling), Jean-Michel Basquiat, 2005, p. 50) Indeed, while the searing “FLESH” and “SPIRIT” of the upper panel offer the tempting promise of precise spiritual doctrine, Basquiat’s declarative barrage of divergent symbology speaks with the cryptic charisma of a Delphic oracle. Beside the terms “FLESH” and “SPIRIT” in the lower right quadrant, the two connected by a line of interchanging arrows, the accusatory phrase “PESO NETO,” or net weight, demands to know the sum worth of this eternal cycle; to the left, the words “WORTHLESS” and “BRAIN” shimmer through a small gap, Basquiat’s expressionistic flurry of white brushstrokes circling the phrase with ritualistic urgency. Reiterating his inquiry within the contemporary cultural vernacular, the coarse caricature of a rocket in the upper left quadrant is labeled “VOSTOK 3” summoning allusions to the infamous 1962 Soviet space expedition intended to determine the ability of the human body to function in conditions of weightlessness. Returning to earth, a spidery oil rig and the term “PETROL” in the lower right quadrant offer an alternative measure of value, suffusing the specter of capitalism into Basquiat’s fascinating metaphysical treatise.

Exemplifying Basquiat’s emphatic engagement with the culture, identity, and psychology of the collective African diaspora, the title of the present work invokes the seminal text Flash of the Spirit: African & Afro-American Philosophy, Robert Farris Thomson’s landmark study of the major artistic, social, and religious traditions of African and Afro-Atlantic cultures. First released in early months of 1983, Flash of the Spirit would have appeared in bookstores as the present work was created, suggesting Basquiat devoured and rearticulated Thompson’s theories at a remarkable rate; indeed, when Thompson and Basquiat met several years later, the scholar recalled, “[Basquiat] came up to me and said that Flash was his ‘favorite book to read.’” Thompson continues, “I fell in love with his art and his style…There was a kind of deliberate roughness to his paintings, as if to say: I remain a warrior of the streets; behold the world as seen through vernacular eyes.” (Robert Farris Thompson, “Three Works by Basquiat,” in Exh. Cat., New Orleans, Ogden Museum of Southern Art, Basquiat and the Bayou, 2014-2015, pp. 31-32) Basquiat would later ask Thompson to write the introduction for his 1985 exhibition at Mary Boone Gallery; asked in a subsequent interview to name the best piece of writing upon his own work, Basquiat remarked, “Probably Robert Farris Thompson I thought wrote the best thing—the guy that wrote Flash of the Spirit, which is probably the best book I ever read on African art. It’s one of the best.”
(Interview with Tamra Davis and Becky Johnston, 1985)

Imbuing his painting with the symbolic potency of a relic, Basquiat engages the very structure of Flash and Spirit as a vehicle for meaning in his aesthetic investigation and interpretation of spiritual tradition. In the sophisticated structural composition of the present work—two horizontal panels, hinged to create four discrete quadrants—Basquiat mirrors the traditional form of the cosmogram, the primary ideographic and religious emblem of the Kongo people and a key symbol within Thompson’s treatise. Composed of a simple cross, the sign denotes unity between the worlds of the living and the dead, while arrows within and surrounding the shape denote the continual spiritual cycle between the two. Describing the fluidity inherent to the sign, scholar Wyatt MacGaffey notes, “One line represents the boundary; the other is ambivalently both the path leading across the boundary, as to the cemetery, and the vertical path of power linking ‘the above’ with ‘the below.’ This relationship, in turn, is polyvalent, since it refers to God and man, God and the dead, and the living and the dead.” (MacGaffey cited in Robert Farris Thompson, Flash of the Spirit, New York, 1983, p. 108) Amongst the most compositionally sophisticated paintings of the artist’s celebrated output, the four discrete quadrants of Flesh and Spirit suggest a clear cyclical progression between the states of flesh and spirit, life and death, mortal and the divine; through navigating his own position within this vast cycle, the words “FLESH” and “SPIRIT” remerge, repeatedly, returning viewer and artist to the urgent dichotomy at the core of Basquiat’s monumental magnum opus.

Within the four quadrants of his radical, contemporary cosmogram, Basquiat resurrects the inherent power of a centuries-old spiritual tradition, re-animating the signs, symbols, and deities of Thompson’s treatise to bear witness to his spiritual inquiry within the contemporary cultural landscape. Invoking a primitive mirror-image to the cover of the Flash of the Spirit, Basquiat emblazons the upper right quadrant of the painting with the outline of a primate’s skull painted a metallic gold, the gaping, voided stare eerily evocative of the shadowed gaze of Thompson’s masked tribesman. Like savage battle paint upon a fallen warrior, a scarlet circle around the eye off the roughly hewn skeleton in the upper left quadrant recalls the significance of the color in Yoruban ritual and tradition; often painted upon the faces of individuals in the throes of a spiritual trance, Thompson notes, “for many Yoruba, red, ‘supreme presence of color,’ signals àshe [spiritual command] and potentiality.” (Robert Farris Thompson, Flash of the Spirit, New York, 1983, p. 6) In the far left, the coiled, serpent-like form pays deference to the pivotal role played by the royal python and the Goober viper in Yoruban origin myths, as the animals which serve as primary avatars for divine force. Describing the extraordinary manner in which Basquiat mined and manipulated fundamental visual traditions of Afro-Atlantic culture within his own aesthetic lexicon, Thompson notes, “Basquiat’s focus on core elements of the Yoruba traditional religion makes clear that he was intellectually fluent, interested in exploring new ideas and images through his painting. In his citations of Yoruba sacred matters, he revealed love and respect for the cultural ‘facts’—that is, phrases, names and images—that flow through his paintings from books, not only Flash but others, such as Gray’s Anatomy and art-historical treatises.”
(Robert Farris Thompson, “Three Works by Basquiat,” in Exh. Cat., New Orleans, Ogden Museum of Southern Art, Basquiat and the Bayou, 2014-2015, p. 35)

Ever the iconographic alchemist, Basquiat suffuses his painting with an extraordinary exploration of the flesh, grounded in the familiar illustrations of Gray’s Anatomy, as ballast for invocation of the bygone spiritual traditions outlined in Flash of the Spirit. Basquiat’s preoccupation with the interior architecture of the body dates to an incident in the artist’s childhood when, after being hit by a car, the young Jean-Michel was hospitalized for a broken arm and additional injuries; it was during this time that the artist’s mother gave him a copy of the seminal medical tomb Gray’s Anatomy, an anecdotal genesis that informs Basquiat’s most ravishing, diagrammatically incisive pictures. Describing the manner in which Basquiat freely absorbed, remixed, and freshly articulated the signs and symbols of the book, amongst others, Marc Mayer remarks, “Many iconographic traditions were legitimately his to manipulate and explore, as were Gray’s Anatomy, or Leonardo’s; or the hobo symbols he found in Henry Dreyfus’s Symbol Sourcebook. In a democratic and free universe, all cultures and all information belonged to him as consumer of knowledge and producer of cultural artifacts.” (Marc Mayer, “Basquiat in History,” in Exh. Cat., New York, Brooklyn Museum (and travelling), Jean-Michel Basquiat, 2005, p. 52) Below the scratched out word “FISSURE” in the upper left of the painting, a cartoonishly primitive rendering of an unbroken bone defies clear association, while to the left, the epithet “RIBS” precisely labels the scarlet-tinged spine of the skeleton with the sterile clarity of a biology textbook. In the lower left quadrant, the taunt musculature of a fragmented torso is partially revealed, the artist claiming the “SCAPULA” and “FEMUR” as his own with a characteristic ©. With the striking physicality of his frenzied brushstrokes and furiously scrawled forms, Basquiat further anchors Flesh and Spirit within the tangible realm, as though to reaffirm his own bodily presence within the melee of his metaphysical debate.

Emblematic of Basquiat’s particular fascination with the interior workings of the psyche, an intricate diagrammatic dissection of the human brain dominates the upper right quadrant of Flesh and Spirit; one scholar remarks, “His work appears to break down the dichotomy between the external and the internal, intuiting and revealing the innermost aspects of psychic life. In this way the artist extends the concern for spiritual truths advanced most notably by the abstract expressionists four decades earlier.” (Fred Hoffman, “The Defining Years: Notes on Five Key Works,” in Exh. Cat., New York, Brooklyn Museum (and travelling), Jean-Michel Basquiat, 2005, p. 131) Rendering the structures which support sensory and cognitive activity with fervent, almost fanatical zeal, Basquiat makes plain his fascination with the human mind as the source of creative consciousness, as though to explicitly pinpoint the location within the flesh where one might find the spirit. While the words “DIAGRAM, “CEREBRUM,” and “STRUCTURE” bristle with scientific methodology, striking stark contrast to the inherent mysticism of the Kongo cosmogram, a red circle around the phrase “FISSURE OF ROLANDO” deftly restores the cosmic impasse at the core of the present work: mirroring the structure of Flesh and Spirit itself, Basquiat cites the primary divide between the left and right hemispheres of the brain, reminding both himself and the viewer of the dueling objective and subjective forces which reign over the present work. Emerging over the metallic face of the golden skull in the upper right quadrant, the outlined title “SPIRIT” stands in bold contrast with its hinged counterpart, in which “FLESH” is wryly emblazoned to the right of the cadaverous skeletal figure. Back to back, these shamanistic dual figures invoke at once the primitive ritualism of Voodoo totems and the dry academic rigor of science textbooks, seemingly belonging to, “another plane, a different dimension, in which the comic strip borders on the immateriality of the spirit world. The body, constantly evoked, becomes an idea, a fleeting trace without substance, all light and shadow. Like the maker of the image, it is both inside and out.”
(Francesco Pellizzi, “Black and White All Over,” Exh. Cat., Art Gallery of Ontario, Jean-Michel Basquiat: Now’s the Time, 2015, pp. 187-189)

Within the hypnotic realm of Basquiat’s neo-cosmogram, there are no doctrines, but questions: Marc Mayer notes that the very finest of the artist’s masterworks, of which Flesh and Spirit indisputably numbers, “will be familiar to those who have seen religious paintings, but unlike them, and like good modern art, they make no attempt to guide our thoughts and actions.” (Marc Mayer in Ibid., p. 52) Exemplifying the raw receptivity with which Basquiat viewed the world, Flesh and Spirit achieves intimately spiritual meaning, not through emphatic dogma, but through the unmediated accumulation and articulation of the artist’s lived experience. Eloquently citing the hallowed, yet haunting significance of such Basquiat masterworks, scholar Oliver Berggruen reflects, “The artist affirms his presence through the evocation of fragments…It is perhaps indicative of Basquiat’s struggle to bridge the abyss between the evanescence of life and its affirmation through the painter’s gesture.” (Oliver Berggruen, “The Fragmented Self,” in Exh. Cat., Art Gallery of Ontario, Jean-Michel Basquiat: Now’s the Time, 2015, p. 202) Indeed, within the riotous iconographic pantheon of Flesh and Spirit, the largest figure of all is the roughly hewn form of a single hand, filling the lower left panel to stand as tall as Basquiat himself; pulsating with creative furor, the fingers are stretched skyward as though in prayer, profoundly invoking the thrilling, inextinguishable brilliance in the hand of Contemporary Art’s most mythic and revered figure.

One can consider it his personal Rosetta Stone.”
(Dolores Ormandy Neumann)

Robert Farris Thompson I thought wrote the best thing—the guy that wrote Flash of the Spirit, which is probably the best book I ever read on African art. It’s one of the best.”
(Interview with Tamra Davis and Becky Johnston, 1985)

The skeleton is alive, insightful, and militant.”
(Dolores Ormandy Neumann)

Jean-Michel was turning into art notes taken during a massive and ongoing self-education, not unlike the famous ‘homemade education’ Malcolm X pursued. Basquiat thrilled to the pleasures of the world, and thrilled to the pleasures of the image, and he built a brilliant career upon the two.”
(Robert Farris Thompson, “Three Works by Basquiat,” in Exh. Cat., New Orleans, Ogden Museum of Southern Art, Basquiat and the Bayou, 2014-2015, p. 31-32)

There was a kind of deliberate roughness to his paintings, as if to say: I remain a warrior of the streets; behold the world as seen through vernacular eyes.”
(Robert Farris Thompson, “Three Works by Basquiat,” in Exh. Cat., New Orleans, Ogden Museum of Southern Art, Basquiat and the Bayou, 2014-2015, p. 31-32)

The artist affirms his presence through the evocation of fragments…It is perhaps indicative of Basquiat’s struggle to bridge the abyss between the evanescence of life and its affirmation through the painter’s gesture.”
(Oliver Berggruen, “The Fragmented Self,” in Exh. Cat., Art Gallery of Ontario, Jean-Michel Basquiat: Now’s the Time, 2015, p. 202)

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