By NOAH BECKER, May 2018, all photos by MICHAEL ANDERSON
At Sotheby's here in New York City, last Saturday evening May the 5th 2018, I was invited to attend a private viewing of the largest Basquiat painting I've ever seen. The impressive painting titled Flesh and Spirit is in fact the largest painting made by Basquiat and could set auction records for a work by the artist. A painting by Basquiat a fraction of the size of Flesh and Spirit sold last year for a record $110.5 million dollars USD. The controversy surrounding the sale of this painting was documented in a recent New York Times article and other press major outlets.
As opposed to writing another article about the controversy, I decided to get some comments about the history of Flesh and Spirit originally purchased in 1983 by Dolores Ormandy Neumann from Tony Shafrazi Gallery. Belinda Neumann herself, the beneficiary and executor of her mother Dolores Ormandy Neumann's estate who spoke to me at Sotheby's in New York shortly after my arrival at the viewing.
Noah Becker: Talk about Basquiat's Flesh and Spirit and its origin, can you give Whitehot Magazine's readers some insight into this painting?
Belinda Neumann: This painting was purchased by my grandparents after my mother went to a show in 1983. It was the Champions show, at Tony Shafrazi Gallery. Before the show opened, she had heard that Jean-Michel had just painted a new picture and she ran into the gallery ahead of everybody else to see it. She just saw the hand that appears on the lower left side, and she turned to Tony and she said that she was buying the work. Tony thought she was crazy for doing this, because she hadn't seen the whole piece, but she knew it was a masterpiece and she decided, 100%, that she was going to ask my grandparents about buying the piece at that point, and they ended up purchasing it from Tony Shafrazi, even before the show opened.
Becker: How did your mother know what to buy at that time?
Neumann: The reason why she was able to understand to do that with this painting is because my grandfather, Morton Neumann, collected a Giacometti Dog the same way, where he went to a dealer's gallery in Europe and saw the nose of the dog poking out of a closet. My mother knew this story that he bought the work, even without seeing the whole sculpture and the dealer thought he was crazy. My Mom always loved to talk about this story, she found it fascinating. She was able to take that leap of faith because we have a family history of doing that with great masterpieces like this Basquiat.
Becker: Where was the painting stored after purchase?
Neumann: My mother lived with it in her apartment.
Becker: What drew her to this work of art?
Neumann: She was drawn to it because it said a lot about who she was, as a person, in her life. She grew up in a musical family. Her uncle was Eugene Ormandy and her father was a cellist for the New York Philharmonic Orchestra, under Toscanini, so she understood composition, she understood music, she understood the way things work rhythmically. She fell in love with the piece because she saw the rhythm of it, she saw the meanings of it, she saw the symbols of it. She was a historian, she was an intellect, and she wrote texts about this, which are published in the Sotheby's book and in the pamphlet that Sotheby's is giving out.
Becker: She purchased it with her own money?
Neumann: No, as I said earlier, my grandparents bought this piece for her. She wanted some kind of future for herself, so she bought the painting - she went to her parents, she asked them to buy it for her. My grandfather bought it for her on a small musician's salary for the price of $15,000. She knew that she would need something to help her out through her old age. It was something that she knew was a masterpiece and would be very valuable one day, and she felt like she would have a nice future for herself and her family because of it.
Becker: What is the meaning of it, is there a narrative?
Neumann: So this painting is entitled Flesh and Spirit. There's a lot of interpretation of the picture, as far as the struggles between life and death, flesh and spirit, which way do we go? It has meanings like how much does your soul weigh, what corrupts us in life?
Becker: Yes, I can see that...
Neumann: It's basically about, also, his struggle as the first very important and very high profile African-American artist, with the whiteness of the painting and the black of the painting, and getting underneath the skin, and showing the origins of life, and showing that we're all the same, and what really separates us, more than anything else, is our decisions in life, and how we choose to live our life, what corrupts us in life, and what makes us different from other species, our spirituality, our brain, the importance of the structure of the brain, the creativity of what we can do to express that, that other species are unable to express it that way.
Becker: What other inspirations or texts do you think influenced Basquiat at the time?
Neumann: My mother, she was very interested in this book, Flash of the Spirit, which is actually one of the greatest books written about African Oceanic art, which Jean-Michel felt very close with as well, and he was very educated about it - he was also educated in human anatomy. Everybody knows the story about when he broke his arm. So the lower left panel is basically about the arm break, in the ambulance and you can see the slats on the bottom and the top part are almost like bandages that wrap around the arm. Jean-Michel's mother gave him the book Gray's Anatomy, at this time. But he was very much interested in spirituality as well. I think that he never really felt like his life would be very long. He always knew that he lived an excessive life, and he had these demons and struggles that he was working with and living with and he knew that the spirit part about him was just as important as his role and what he did in life.
Becker: So your mother was part of that scene.
Neumann: So my Mom was an art dealer for graffiti art. She represented artists like Crash, Daze, Lady Pink, Toxic, who was Jean's studio assistant, also Rammellzee. She was one of the first people that really got the artwork of people that were not necessarily appreciated or considered high artists. In the art world, she elevated it to graffiti art and street art, to a different level that didn't really exist at the time and she didn't care about the color of the skin or anyone's economic situation - that meant nothing to her.
Becker: Her eye was great and she really cared about artists?
Neumann: Absolutely and if it was great art and art that she loved, she promoted it, she bought it herself. She was an incredibly forward thinking person, and Jean-Michel and Keith and Kenny, they were all part of this movement. It was this wonderful scene in the '80s, of street art, and graffiti, and break dancing, and it was a revolution that was happening at that time. She understood it and she brought it to the high end art world, and she introduced these artists to Sidney Janis and had a great show, and Jean-Michel was in it, and Keith Haring was in it, and Kenny Scharf was in it.
Becker: So that was a kind of bridge to high art circles of the day?
Neumann: Yes, she brought these artists to Sidney Janis and he had a very, very successful show, and a lot of pictures that were in the show actually ended up at the Brooklyn Museum because the Janis family gave the paintings of these artists to the Brooklyn Museum. And in one picture, A1's picture, that they display sometimes in the Brooklyn Museum, you could actually see her name, because she was called Dee and it was the Dee Neumann Crew and one of my favorite pictures.
Becker: You spoke about the humanity of the Flesh and Spirit painting and how it's almost like Jean-Michel's self portrait. Also you talked about your mother being close with these artists?
Neumann: Yes, she was very close with these artists, had incredible symposiums, and really promoted young, new, developing, interesting art. She was a humanist, and she felt that Flesh and Spirit was a self-portrait of Basquiat and it was his Rosetta Stone. And everything, every title actually that is in his paintings, the most important paintings after this, the names actually appear in Flesh and Spirit - so this was his Rosetta Stone. Flesh and Spirit was his self-portrait of himself and his life, and how he felt about life and death, and humanity in general. Jean-Michel Basquiat was a great humanist. WM
More photos below:
Noah Becker shows his paintings internationally. A visual artist, saxophonist and the publisher and founding editor of Whitehot Magazine, Becker has also written freelance articles for many other major magazines. Becker's writing has appeared in The Guardian, VICE, Garage, Art in America, Interview Magazine, Canadian Art and the Huffington Post. He has also written texts for major artist monographs published by Rizzoli and Hatje Cantz. Becker directed the New York art documentary New York is Now (2010) viewable on Youtube.
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