Global modern luxury is taking on a decidedly more expansive look if the bell-weather spring auctions in New York this week are any indication. Significant new heights in sale prices were reached for a number of living black artists at Sotheby’s Contemporary Evening Sale, with one iconic work selling for $21.1 million.
The show-stopper of the night was a magnificent painting by Chicago artist Kerry James Marshall. As we noted when we wrote about our preview tour at Sotheby’s earlier this week, the panoramic urban pastoral “Past Times (1987)” is the final painting in Marshall’s “Garden Project” series. It portrays black people frolicking in an idyllic setting: lying on a blanket in a park, listening to music by the Temptations and Snoop Dogg, playing croquet, chasing butterflies, water-skiing, and living the American Dream.
The painting was a core element of the 2016-17 “Kerry James Marshall: Mastry” exhibit, and the estimate was $8 million. It sold last night for $21.1 million to a buyer bidding by phone, which is four times Marshall’s previous auction high. The artist is 62 years old, and has been painting for 40 years. Can we just that we are so proud of you, Mr. Marshall?
This is a stunning international endorsement of a brilliant artist, and a huge reward for those who saw his talent early and supported him. The work was purchased for $25,000 by the Metropolitan Pier and Exposition Authority in Chicago in 1997. They needed a work for one of their offices, and wanted to showcase a local artist.
Someone there in the late ’90’s had a very good eye, and someone there now possesses a canny sense of the market. The work was added to this spring’s auction relatively late – it wasn’t even featured in the printed Sotheby’s catalog. Timing is everything.
But that wasn’t the only news of the night. “Brenda P,” a portrait from 1974 by Barkley L. Hendricks, who is recently deceased and was one of the core artists featured in the Tate Modern’s “Soul of a Nation” show. The original estimate was $700,000 to $1 million – it sold to a buyer on the phone for $2.2 million.
So how did the 5 works offered as part of the auction curated by Thelma Golden, Director and Chief Curator, the Artists for the Studio Museum in Harlem “Creating Space: An Auction to Benefit the Museum’s New Building” do?
Quite well, dear reader. Quite well.
The group collectively raised $16.4, topped by the sale of Mark Bradford’s “Speak, Birdman,” which at $6.8 million sold for three times its estimate. Bradford’s highest sale at auction remains “Helter Skelter (2007),” which sold at Philips in London last year. At the time, that was thought to be the top price ever achieved at auction by a living African-American artist.
Today, another important work hits the market at Sotheby’s: a painting by Kehinde Wiley, the artist who painted the official Presidential Portrait of former President Barak Obama for the National Gallery. The piece – entitled “Charles I” – was created this year, specifically for this auction, as a way of giving back to the Studio Museum. The artist is based in New York City, and once had a residency at the museum. What a treat to see such a splendid piece up close! At first glance, the subject appears to be male – but upon closer inspection, it’s clearly a woman. She strikes a classically heroic pose, and the rich red of her shirt, the flowers and fleur-de-lis are extraordinarily beautiful. The work is housed in a matte black frame reminiscent of the ornate gold frames used for classical art. This is only the second of Wiley’s paintings with a female subject to come to auction (almost all of his earlier works focused on male subjects). We have seen many photographs of Wiley’s work, but to see it up close in real life is another experience altogether – they’re as vibrant and engrossing as one might imagine. The estimate for this piece is $100-150,000. We suspect it will go for a lot more than that.
All of these sales (sans the Kerry James Marshall) will benefit the construction of the Studio Museum’s new building in Harlem, designed by iconic architect Sir David Adjaye (who designed the National Museum of African-American History on the Mall in Washington, DC). The artists donated their work as a way to give back to the museum that helped launch their careers.
The rising prominence of these African-American artists is clearly due in part to the number of high-profile shows of their work in recent years. In addition to “Kerry James Marshall: Mastry” at the Met Breuer, LA MOCA and Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago; and “Soul of a Nation” at the Tate Modern, the past twelve months have seen “Outliers and American Vanguard Art” at the National Gallery in Washington; “Adrian Piper” at the MoMA, and “We Wanted a Revolution” at the Brooklyn Museum. All of these exhibitions have cast fresh light and media attention on living black artists, and contemporary art collectors around the globe have taken note.
As one gallery executive said in a New York Times article this week: “Clearly there’s a growing international appreciation of what these artists have achieved. Collectors realize they add weight to their collections.”
Until recently, Jean-Michel Basquiat seemed to be the only black artist able to command the stratospheric prices of other painters. Last May, Sotheby’s sold one of his works for $110.5 million, an auction high for any American artist. Last night, another of his works sold for #30.7 million.
We cannot wait to see what happens next.
If we feel any melancholy at all over this staggering outcome, it’s only that these are works that sorely need to be seen by the general public, especially children. The faces in these in works are not the ones normally seen in the temples of high art. Will they now disappear into penthouse apartments and country estates, never to be seen again?
That would be a tragedy for everyone who loves art and wants to see the full range of humanity portrayed in “the canon.” Whoever the lucky new owners are, we hope they’ll be moved to loan their treasures to public museums so that the world can be illuminated and inspired by these masterworks. That would be the best luxury of all.
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