In this May action will see 2 great masterpiece by the most in-demand American artist of all time, both with very high expectations over them: Sotheby’s will offer the artist’s monumental Flesh And Spirit (1983), estimated to sell for around $30 million, a true 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.
The next day, Phillips will offer Flexible (1984), which comes to market with an “estimate upon request” but the whisper number has it at around $20m. The work is the highest-value and largest work to ever have been offered from the Basquiat estate. As with Basquiat’s greatest works, Flexible explores the central and reoccurring theme of the human figure within his iconoclastic oeuvre. The panel painting, which stands at a massive 8.5 feet tall, portrays a West African griot or someone who served as a storyteller, orator, or musician. Exploiting the creative potential of free association and past experience, he created deeply personal, often autobiographical, images by drawing liberally from such disparate fields as urban street culture, music, poetry, Christian iconography, African and Aztec cultural histories and a broad range of art historical sources, a practice that is particularly evident in this work. Flexible was executed in 1984, after Basquiat had just been catapulted from the New York underground scene on to international stardom. Basquiat already had five major solo shows across America, Europe, and Japan under his helm and was the youngest artist – at 23 years of age – ever to be included in the Whitney Biennial; only a year later his iconic stature graced the cover of The New York Times Magazine. At the time of this work’s creation, he was working in Venice, California, preparing for his second exhibition at Larry Gagosian Gallery in Los Angeles. Prior to the work’s exhibition in New York in May, Flexible will be unveiled in Los Angeles, where it will be on view from 10-13 April.