Why was Basquiat's "Flesh and Spirit" Painting in Court, Days Before its Sotheby’s Sale?

Artwork(s) In Focus, Art News, Art Market

May 9, 2018

In recent years, Jean-Michael Basquiat has emerged as one of the most expensive contemporary artists. The painting titled Fresh and Spirit, a key lot in the Sotheby’s upcoming Contemporary Art Evening Auction in New York on May 16th, estimated to bring $30m, was recently a subject of a court controversy.

The collector Hubert G. Neumann filed an injunction last week in order to block the auction house from offering Basquiat's Flesh and Spirit, a painting that was part of his late wife’s estate. However, the New York State Supreme Court ruled on May 7th that Sotheby’s could proceed with its planned sale of this major painting, determining that Neumann had no rights to the painting whatsoever.

Dolores Ormandy Neumann, Hubert G. Neumann’s late wife and an early patron of Basquiat, described the painting as the artist's personal Rosetta Stone. The largest of an elite series of multi-paneled paintings Basquiat created in 1983, the work is of unprecedented conceptual gravitas and ambition and is the exhilarating crystallization of his artistic identity.

Flesh and Spirit, 1982-83
Jean-Michel Basquiat - Flesh and Spirit, 1982-83. Oil stick, gesso, acrylic and paper on canvas, 2 panels, each: 72 1/2 by 145 in. 184.2 by 368.3 cm, overall: 145 by 145 in. 368.3 by 368.3 cm © 2018 Estate of Jean-Michel Basquiat / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York, NY. Courtesy of Sotheby's

The Controversy

Dolores Ormandy Neumann bought the painting from dealer Tony Shafrazi in 1983, the same year it was completed. The niece of celebrated maestro Eugene Ormandy, the conductor of the Philadelphia Orchestra, Ormandy Neumann was a widely respected dealer and patron of the arts who championed emerging street artists within the New York downtown art scene of the 1980s. This early support was seminal for the genre to be embraced by the international community of dealers and collectors. Dedicating extensive hours to an academic analysis of Flesh and Spirit, she emphasized the unrivaled significance of the work, describing it as the artist's singular statement of spiritual identity.

The work was in her possession for over thirty-five years until her death in September 2016, when the bulk of her assets were granted by her will to the couple’s middle child Belinda, who was also named the executor of her estate. Neumann, on the other hand, was left entirely out of the will.

Filing a complaint on May 3rd, Naumann argued he had a claim to the work due to a prior agreement struck with the auction house in 2015 to sell his formidable collection of 20th-century art. The agreement grants him approval on “all matters relating to cataloging, placement, and exhibiting each and every work consigned” from the Neumann Family Collection. He accused Sotheby’s of exploiting “a difficult family situation” and violating his agreement, but also of botching the marketing of the work by underestimating its value. Neumann believes that as a surviving spouse he has a statutory right to one-third of Dolores’s estate under New York law. He also stated he would be happy to donate his share of the work to a public institution so it could remain on view in the city where it was created.

The Brilliance and Symbolism of Basquiat’s Flesh and Spirit


Jean-Michel Basquiat, Flesh and Spirit

Executed on a soaring monumental scale across two hinged panels, Flesh and Spirit was described as a radically raw and magnificent altarpiece for the modern age. A cogent synthesis of divergent influences, it declares the artist’s artistic maturity and is a testament to his ability to successfully navigate between disparate aesthetic influences to forge a unique artistic language.

The title of the piece pays homage to the seminal 1983 text Flash of the Spirit: African & Afro-American Philosophy, a seminal examination of African religious tradition by Robert Farris Thompson. In a 1985 interview with Tamra Davis and Becky Johnston when asked to name the best piece of writing upon his own work, the artist explained:

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.

Drawing upon the iconography outlined in Thompson’s book, Basquiat interrogates the authenticity of such spiritual dogma within the contemporary cultural landscape, presenting his own vision of the meeting between the physical and metaphysical realms.

Laying bare the cultural and aesthetic influence which form the core of his practice, Basquiat forged a hybrid visual vernacular both mystical and methodical, navigating between inherently disparate traditions to trace the origin, purpose, and design of the creative spirit.

Imbuing his painting with the symbolic potency of a relic, Basquiat resurrects the inherent power of a centuries-old spiritual tradition, re-animating the signs, symbols, and deities of Thompson’s treatise. In the work’s structural composition, the artist mirrors the traditional form of the cosmogram, the primary ideographic and religious emblem of the Kongo people and a key symbol within Thompson’s study. Examining this spiritual dogma within the contemporary cultural landscape, he juxtaposes potent spiritual symbology with an intricate dissection of human anatomy and the inner working of the human psyche.

Fearless Now: Jean-Michel Basquiat

The Court Ruling

Sotheby's attorneys argued that the Basquiat's painting had never been controlled by any family collection and that its contract was with Belinda Newumann. They also claimed that the painting's appreciated market value is fixed at the date of Dolores's death and surviving spouses are not entitled to any specific property.

In a court ruling on May 7th, the New York Supreme Court judge Peter Sherwood halted suit filed by Neumann, determining he has no rights to the painting. Sotheby’s attorney John Cahill presented a document that proves Ormandy Neumann had cut her estranged husband out of her will “because he has been physically abusive to me for decades and has threatened my life”. According to transcripts of the hearing, the judge stated:

I am at a loss to understand how he can exercise authority over a piece of work that he and the interest that he represents have no entitlement to.

In response to the ruling, Sotheby's issued a statement where they expressed content "that the court found that Mr. Neumann's claims are baseless."

However, Neumann's attorney stated he plans to file an emergency appeal on May 9th. In a statement provided by his attorney, Neumann said he is willing to "sacrifice my entire economic interest in the painting to ensure that it becomes available for study and public exhibition."

   Editors’ Tip: Flash of the Spirit: African & Afro-American Art & Philosophy by Robert Farris Thompson

This landmark book shows how five African civilizations—Yoruba, Kongo, Ejagham, Mande and Cross River—have informed and are reflected in the aesthetic, social and metaphysical traditions (music, sculpture, textiles, architecture, religion, ideogrammatic writing) of black people in the United States, Cuba, Haiti, Trinidad, Mexico, Brazil and other places in the New World.
Featured image: Jean-Michel Basquiat - Flesh and Spirit (detail), 1982-83. All images used for illustrative purposes only.

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