“Knowledge and Wonder” (1995) by Kerry James Marshall.

 

CHRISTIE’S WON’T BE SELLING “Knowledge and Wonder” by Kerry James Marshall after all. The 1995 site-specific mural was commissioned by the City of Chicago for the Legler Branch Library, where it was on display for more than two decades. On Oct. 1, the auction house announced the city had consigned the 24-foot work for sale. It was touted as the “centerpiece” of Christie’s Post-War and Contemporary Art Evening Sale on Nov. 15. Then Sunday, news came that the lot had been withdrawn. The reversal was first reported by Bloomberg.

The decision to remove the painting from the New York auction was made by Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel in the wake of debate and criticism about the planned sale, from artists, curators, local cultural leaders, and the artist himself. Marshall was paid $10,000 to make the painting. The estimated sale price was set at $10 million-$15 million. Chicago anticipated using the lucrative proceeds to upgrade the public library building and support more services, programs, and extended operating hours. The library serves a relatively poor neighborhood on the city’s West Side where 44 percent of the population is African American.

In an interview published in the Chicago Tribune this morning, Marshall said the experience had waved him off making public artwork in the future.

“Even if your intention was to provide more service to the community, you don’t take something that’s an aesthetic asset from the community and give them something else,” the artist said. “It says they don’t deserve to have art, especially if it looks like it’s some art that’s worth something. ‘They can’t have that over there.’ That’s the short-sightedness of the proposition.” Marshall also viewed the plan as flawed financially, noting a $10-15 million budget doesn’t go far in terms of city programming.

Kerry James Marshall said the experience had waved him off making public artwork in the future.

Mayor Emanuel said he had an epiphany about the situation, prompting the Sunday reversal. “I was swimming and thought, ‘This is not what I wanted, given the city’s contributions to public art, and Kerry’s a friend and also a great ambassador for Chicago,’” Emanuel told the Chicago Tribune. “I reached out to him and said, ‘Look, I don’t want this. If you’re not happy, I don’t want to go forward.’”

Marshall, who has lived and worked in Chicago since the 1980s, wasn’t happy. Two days after the auction was announced, he was asked about it at the opening of “History of Painting,” his London exhibition at David Zwirner Gallery (on view through Nov. 10). His response made his frustration clear.

On Oct. 3, the artist told ARTnews he “was certain they could get more money if they sold the Picasso sculpture in Daley Plaza.” He continued: “Considering that only last year Mayor [Rahm] Emanuel and Commissioner [of the Department of Cultural Affairs Mark] Kelly dedicated another mural I designed downtown for which I was asked to accept one dollar, you could say the City of Big Shoulders has wrung every bit of value they could from the fruits of my labor.”

The other mural Marshall referred to was dedicated about a year ago in tribute to the many women who have shaped Chicago’s art scene over generations. Measuring 132 feet by 100 feet, the mural is installed on the facade of the Chicago Cultural Center and is the artist’s largest work to date.

He didn’t mention another painting. On May 16, Marshall’s “Past Times” (1997) sold for $21.1 million (including fees) at Sotheby’s New York. It was an artist record and positioned Marshall as the most expensive living African American artist. Jean-Michel Basquiat (1960-1988) is the only other black artist whose work has brought a higher price.

The record-setting painting was consigned by the Metropolitan Pier and Exposition Authority (MPEA), a municipal corporation that operates McCormick Place, which includes the Chicago Convention Center. MPEA was has amassed an expansive collection of public art (the McCormick Place Art Collection), paid $25,000 for “Past Times” the same year the painting was completed. For two decades, the work was on view in the convention center until it was removed to be included in “Mastry,” Marshall’s career-spanning survey which opened the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago in 2016 and traveled to New York and Los Angeles. It was never re-installed. Explaining its decision to auction the painting, MPEA cited concerns over the work’s value, security, and the fact that it wasn’t a museum and was therefore unequipped to care for such an asset.

“Past Times” was estimated to sell for $8 million-$12 million and skyrocketed to $21.1 million. Music mogul Sean Combs was later revealed as the buyer. The benchmark achieved by “Past Times” set the potential market for “Knowledge and Wonder.”

Marshall bristled at the timing of the plan to sell the library mural. “It was shocking that it came so close to the sale of the piece that was in McCormick Place,” he told the Chicago Tribune. “It just seemed opportunistic that the only reason it would be considered for sale was that somebody else had made a lot of money on something, and they thought they could make some money too.”

“It just seemed opportunistic that the only reason it would be considered for sale was that somebody else had made a lot of money on something, and they thought they could make some money too.”
— Kerry James Marshall, Chicago Tribune

MORE THAN A DOZEN African American adults and children are depicted in “Knowledge and Wonder.” With their backs to the viewer, the group is facing a series of larger-than-life books. The unified action indicates their rapt attention or “wonder” perhaps, as though the books that have caught their gaze are works of art.

According the City of Chicago’s guide to public art, the books are rife with symbolism. They “hold the answers to the questions about life and the universe” and are “active agents of the imagination.” Marshall incorporated planets, stars, cells, and molecules in the image, further exploring the themes of life and the universe. A ladder stands out in the far right of the painting, a suggestion that “the library is a means for achieving higher goals.”

When Chicago photographer Dawoud Bey heard “Knowledge and Wonder” was to be auctioned, he mentioned it on Facebook. On Oct. 1, he posted an Art Market Monitor article about the sale and wrote: “Seems another Kerry James Marshall painting once displayed in a public space in Chicago is being removed and made ready for auction.”

More than 100 people shared the post and more than 30 commented, prompting even more engagement. Holly Wilson of Pratt said, “That’s disgraceful.” Artist Danny Simmons said, “Wow.” Simmons, art dealer David Lusenhop, Bey and others had several exchanges noting that any hopes that a museum might purchase the painting were not practical because the projected price was way beyond museum budgets. (If it was acquired by a museum, it would remain accessible to the public.) The only way it might go to a museum is if a wealthy patron bought it and donated it, they surmised.

“Keep it in the library!!!” artist Catherine Opie said. Lisa Yun Lee, executive director of the National Public Housing Museum in Chicago, said, “This is not right. Someone should buy it and give it back to Legler on a long term loan and then work with AAM (American Alliance of Museums) to stop public art theft through these acts of deaccessioning.”

“This is not right. Someone should buy it and give it back to Legler on a long term loan and then work with AAM (American Alliance of Museums) to stop public art theft through these acts of deaccessioning.”
— Lisa Yun Lee, National Public Housing Museum in Chicago

 

More than 80 others indicated their dismay with angry and sad face emojis, including curator Valerie Cassel Oliver, contemporary art curator at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts; Brooke Davis Anderson, director of the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts; and Daniel Schulman, who directs the visual art program at Chicago’s Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events (DCASE). The city’s public art, including Marshall’s “Knowledge and Wonder,” is managed by DCASE.

On Oct. 14, when the sale of the library mural was still active, Rebecca Zorach, a professor of art and art history at Northwestern University wrote about it in the Chicago Tribune. Zorach said: “This is a devastating move, especially given the symbolism of removing a painting that celebrates black children’s intellectual inquiry. ​Those children should not have to choose between great art and a great library.”

Her commentary continued: “What makes this painting a masterpiece is that you have to stop and take some time with it—to examine and speculate—to wonder. The ‘wonder’ of Marshall’s title means not having the right or the only answer, but experiencing the allure of possibility.”

WORKS BY OTHER WELL-KNOWN African American artists are in Chicago’s public art collection. “Monument to the Great Northern Migration” (1994), a bronze statue by Alison Saar is sited in Bronzeville, Marshall’s neighborhood. Works by sculptor Richard Hunt are installed on the exterior of the State of Illinois Building on N. LaSalle Street (“Freeform,” 1993) and at Midway International Airport (“Flight Forms,” 2001). “Chicago Couples” (2000), photographic murals by Bey are also on view at Midway.

There are three notable works at the Harold Washington Library Center located in The Loop: “Events in the Life of Harold Washington” (1991), a monumental ceramic tile wall mosaic by Jacob Lawrence; a painted quilt by Faith Ringgold titled “The Winner” (1988); and Houston Conwill’s “DuSable’s Journey” (1991). Conwill fabricated the terrazzo and inlaid brass work with architect Joseph DePace and poet Estella Conwill Majozo. (The team also collaborated on “Rivers” (1991), a similar work that pays tribute to Langston Hughes at the New York Public Library’s Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture.)

At the Legler library, there is a wood sculpture by Elizabeth Catlett (“Floating Family,” 1995), in addition to Marshall’s “Knowledge and Wonder.” The mayor said the mural would be re-installed soon, once security measures were established.

After the sale was cancelled, Zorach issued a statement. She said: “The mayor made the right decision in the end. This is a real victory for Chicago public art and for culture on the West Side. I hope that this situation can bring attention both to the presence of cultural gems on the West Side and the need for more support for arts and culture in that part of the city.”

“The mayor made the right decision in the end. This is a real victory for Chicago public art and for culture on the West Side. I hope that this situation can bring attention both to the presence of cultural gems on the West Side and the need for more support for arts and culture in that part of the city.”
— Rebecca Zorach, Northwestern University

For his part, Marshall remains wedded to his decision to leave public art projects behind and focus on other aspects of his practice. “I’m pretty firm,” he said. He’s happy now, though, that the people in the neighborhood who patronize the library will have the painting back in their midst.

“It’s always been a mission of mine to have the work respected enough to enter into museum collections, and in that regard you could also say public collections, where the work was available to the widest possible audience without having to make a special kind of effort to encounter it,” Marshall said in the Tribune interview.

“And I think one of the things that happens when you have an artwork in a public library is that people can have a casual relationship to it. And the other thing that I think is really important: That piece had been there for 25 years, nearly. And nobody has bothered it. So it wasn’t likely that it was going to be destroyed or torn up or messed up simply because people now think it’s worth something.” CT

 

TOP IMAGES: KERRY JAMES MARSHALL, “Knowledge and Wonder,” 1995 (acrylic on paper and canvas, 14 feet x 24 feet). | City of Chicago Public Art Collection, Photo Christie’s Images Ltd., 2018; Kerry James Marshall. | Photo by Broomberg & Chanarin

 

READ MORE about artist resale rights and how artists might benefit from secondary sales on the auction market here.

 

BOOKSHELF
Recently released by Phaidon, “Kerry James Marshall” is a fully illustrated documentation of the artist’s career and includes a conversation with fellow artist Charles Gaines. “Kerry James Marshall: Mastry,” a comprehensive, cloth-covered catalog was published to accompany the artist’s 30-year survey. An extensive interview with Marshall is featured in the exhibition catalog “Painting and Other Stuff.” “Kerry James Marshall: Look See” coincided with the artists’s first exhibition with David Zwirner gallery in London in 2014.

 

MEANWHILE, Phillips New York is selling two Kerry James Marshall paintings from a “distinguished private collection” and a “prominent Midwest collection,” in its Contemporary Art Sale on Nov. 15, the same evening “Knowledge and Wonder” was expected to be auctioned at Christie’s.

 


Lot 14: KERRY JAMES MARSHALL, “Terra Incognita,” 1991 (acrylic, ink and paper collage laid on canvas with metal grommets, 94 1/4 x 74 5/8 inches / 239.4 x 189.5 cm.). | Estimate $2,500,000-3,500,000

 


Lot 37: KERRY JAMES MARSHALL, “We Mourn Our Loss #1,” 1997 (acrylic, glitter and graphite on Masonite, 48 x 36 inches / 121.9 x 91.4 cm.). | Estimate $1,000,000-1,500,000

 

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