kerry james marshall - vignette

KERRY JAMES MARSHALL HAS JOINED the million dollar club. His 2003 painting “Vignette” sold for more than $1 million (including fees) at Christie’s on Nov. 13. It was a record for the artist, according to sales results and auction records kept by multiple sources including Blouin Art Sales Index and Iris Index.

“Vignette” was Lot 44 in Christie’s Post-War & Contemporary Art Afternoon Session. Depicting two nude black figures running beyond a dense, overgrown field surrounded by a light flurry of birds and butterflies, the pair may be fleeing peril or pursuing bliss. The painting, an acrylic on fiberglass in artist’s wood frame, sold for $1,025,000 (including fees), about twice the $400,000 to $600,000 estimate.

In describing “Vignette,” Christie’s says Marshall “inflects a social realist style with hints of Pop and Surrealist aesthetics to represent his black protagonists. The figures, reminiscent of Grant Wood characters, are both romanticized and slightly flattened. The work suggest ideals of a better future even while it reminds us of stereotypes of Black identity and the way the media presents them.”

[Kerry James] Marshall “inflects a social realist style with hints of Pop and Surrealist aesthetics to represent his black protagonists.” — Christie’s

Marshall’s previous auction record was achieved in May 2009. “Our Town,” an acrylic and printed paper collage on canvas painted in 1995, sold at Christie’s for $782,500 (including fees) to the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville, Ark.

Throughout his oeuvre, Marshall confidently seeks to re-orient the art historical narrative by introducing Black subjects into the Western canon from which they have been largely absent. His powerful depictions of Black people using black paint distinguish the figurative focus of his grand canvases.

“I don’t believe art works have any particular transformative power,” Marshall said last year. “For me, what keeps me engaged in making more objects…is the fact that there is still so few representations of Black figures in painting at the center of the pictorial tradition. There are too few people making images and too few people, I think, making images that find their way into what we call the mainstream discourse of art history. And so as long as that’s the case, i’m motivated to keep making work.”

“There are too few people making images and too few people, I think, making images that find their way into what we call the mainstream discourse of art history.”
— Kerry James Marshall at Museum van Hedendaagse Kunst in Antwerp

Artist Kerry James Marshall. Photograph by Felix Clay
Kerry James Marshall with his 2014 painting “Untitled (Club Couple)” in the background | © Felix Clay 2014. All rights reserved. Courtesy David Zwirner, London

 

MARSHALL’S LONGSTANDING PRACTICE has reached new heights and a wider international audience in recent years. “Who’s Afraid of Red, Black and Green,” his first exhibition in Austria, was on view at Secession in Vienna in fall 2012. “In the Tower: Kerry James Marshall” at the National Gallery of Art, his first solo exhibition in Washington, D.C., coincided with the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington last year. Presented on the National Mall, America’s vaunted swath of democracy and culture, Marshall’s paintings (including “Our Town”) evoking the Middle Passage and the themes of immigration, class mobility, and aspirations central to the American Dream, were given the ultimate context.

Over the past year, “Kerry James Marshall: Painting and Other Stuff,” an important survey of his practice and his most substantial exhibition in Europe, was on view in Antwerp, Copenhagen, Barcelona and Madrid (and a coinciding catalog was published). Represented in New York by Jack Shainman Gallery, Marshall joined David Zwirner in London earlier this year. The opening of his first exhibition with the UK gallery, “Look See,” coincided with Frieze in October and received rave reviews.

“One True Thing: Meditations on Black Aesthetics,” Marshall’s 2004 solo exhibition at Studio Museum in Harlem featured “Vignette.” The museum said the body of work “simultaneously pays homage to and critiques the notion of a Black aesthetic. Stemming in part from Marshall’s recent comic strip, Rhythm Mastr (2000)—in which an urban superhero battles the forces of evil using a combination of futuristic and traditional African accoutrements—Marshall amplifies and extends the references to embrace a wider range of media and multiple readings of Black imagery.”

Kerry James Marshall’s body of work “simultaneously pays homage to and critiques the notion of a Black aesthetic.” — Studio Museum in Harlem

The auction value for “Vignette” has doubled in seven years. In November 2007, the painting was presented for sale at Sotheby’s and sold for $541,000 including fees. It’s latest record million dollar sale price acknowledges what many have recognized for decades—Marshall is one of the great painters of his generation and his approach, “Blackness in the Extreme” (as he titled his Nov. 12 lecture at the Crystal Bridges Museum), resonates narratively and aesthetically.

In August, Art + Auction asked Jack Shainman, Marshall’s dealer, whether there were any art works it was painful for him to part with. He replied: “I wish I had bought a work from Kerry James Marshall’s first show
 at the gallery. They were relatively inexpensive, but I just couldn’t 
afford it at the time when I was just starting out. Every time I see one I sigh.” CT

 

TOP IMAGE: KERRY JAMES MARSHALL, “Vignette,” 2003 (acrylic on fiberglass in artist’s wood frame).

 

BOOKSHELF
An extensive interview with Marshall by curator appears in the exhibition catalog “Painting and Other Stuff.” An earlier volume, “Kerry James Marshall: Momentos” examines the artist’s series of paintings reflecting on the Civil Rights Movement, meditations on the lost legends of the era.