A ROUND OF APPLAUSE emerged from the auction floor Friday afternoon when “Untitled (Painter)” by Kerry James Marshall sold for well beyond its estimate. The 2008 painting, a portrait of a distinguished black painter in her studio, was estimated by Sotheby’s to sell for $1.8 to $2.5 million. When bidding concluded, the hammer price was $6.2 million. Including fees, the painting sold for $7,325,800, nearly three times the high estimate.

“(Untitled (Painter)” was featured in the March 1 Contemporary Curated sale at Sotheby’s New York. The auction house described the sale as “the foremost destination for new collectors and established clients to acquire accessibly priced works by leading artists of the post-war and contemporary periods.”


Lot 209: KERRY JAMES MARSHALL, “Untitled (Painter),” 2008 (acrylic on PVC panel, in artist’s frame, 28 3/4 by 24 3/4 inches / 73 by 62.9 cm). | Estimate $1.8 to $2.5 million. Sold for $6.2 million hammer price ($7,325,800 including fees)


Chicago-based Marshall’s painting graced the cover of the auction catalog and was the top-selling lot in the “accessibly priced” sale. The No. 2 lot was “Special Checking,” a large-scale abstraction by Jack Whitten (1939-2018). Whitten’s 1974 painting sold for $2,660,000 (including fees), a new artist record. The room applauded at the conclusion of this lot, too.

The top two lots, yielding the highest prices in the sale, were produced by African American artists. Contemporary Curated featured 265 lots and was conducted in two sessions. The Whitten painting was offered at the beginning of the sale, the third lot in the morning session. Marshall’s came up early in the afternoon session. George Condo’s “Smiling Girl with Black Hair” (2008) ranked No. 3 in the sales results, selling for $1,323,250 (including fees).

Last May, “Past Times” (1997) by Marshall sold for $21 million at Sotheby’s. The mural-scale painting depicts a classic pastoral leisure scene in an urban setting—the banks of Lake Michigan in Chicago. The price “Past Times” garnered was an auction record for Marshall and a historic benchmark overall—the highest price ever paid at auction for an artwork by a living black artist.

“Untitled (Painter)” is the second-highest price an artwork by Marshall has yielded at auction. (The third was achieved by “Still Life with Wedding Portrait,” Marshall’s imagined portrait of Harriet Tubman with her first husband John Tubman. The 2015 painting sold for $5,037,500 at Christie’s New York on Nov. 15, 2017.)

MARSHALL HAS SPENT HIS CAREER making paintings of black people using black paint. For more than 30 years, the ambitious goal of his practice has been to recast the art historical canon by addressing the absence of works by black artists and images of black people in museums.

Dozens of institutions have added Marshall’s paintings to their collections over the last three decades and during the same period there has been an exponential increase in museum acquisitions by a broad spectrum of black artists active across generations.

Despite this marked progress, the inroads have been minimal. A recent report, published by the nonprofit Public Library of Science, found 85 percent of artists represented in U.S. museum collections are white and 87 percent are men.

Marshall’s “Untitled (Artist)” challenges us to consider what an artist looks like. He envisions the artist as black and female, contemporary and confident. His subject’s hair is a sculptural crown. Her big hoop earrings are gold, coordinating with the stud in her nose.

Wearing a paint-splattered apron, Marshall’s painter stands confident, engaging the viewer with her direct gaze. Her presence dominates the picture, despite the outsized painter’s palette physically encroaching on her space nearly overwhelming the composition. The surfaces of her apron and palette introduce moments of abstraction in an otherwise figurative painting.

“Marshall’s paintings of artists are not portraits so much as idealizations of the trope of the artist in the studio. They depict majestic figures, many of them women, who stare confidently at the viewer. …In these works specifically, Marshall makes black artists commandingly visible, a group that is doubly underrecognized in the case of black women.”
— Curator Karsten Lund

Ten years ago, Marshall made a series of portraits depicting anonymous painters. Several of the paintings, made in 2008 and 2009, were included in “Mastry,” his recent retrospective. (The Sotheby’s lot was not among those featured in “Mastry.”) Writing in the exhibition catalog, Karsten Lund (a curatorial assistant at MCA Chicago at the time) discussed the significance of Marshall’s portraits:

    “What does an artist look like?” This seemingly basic question underlies Marshall’s portraits of African American painters, and is paired with the recognition that the answer is hardly a given. Marshall’s paintings of artists are not portraits so much as idealizations of the trope of the artist in the studio. They depict majestic figures, many of them women, who stare confidently at the viewer. In several, the artist turns away from a partially finished self-portrait, holding an oversized palette that frequently reads as a passage of abstraction in the midst of a figurative tableau. As Marshall observes elsewhere in this volume, the great promise of modernist abstraction often meant something different for artists of color. He writes, “A belief that abstraction would emancipate them and their artworks from racial readings appealed to many African American artists who felt boxed in by their presumptive identity.” This notion of abstraction as a means of achieving creative freedom shadows Marshall’s painters, even as their very depiction embodies an inverse belief—foundational to his larger body of work—in the importance of figuration and the need to paint black figures into the canon. In these works specifically, Marshall makes black artists commandingly visible, a group that is doubly underrecognized in the case of black women.

“Untitled (Painter)” was exhibited in “Kerry James Marshall: Black Romantic” (May 22-July 3, 2008), a solo exhibition at Jack Shainman Gallery in New York City. The party that consigned the painting for sale at Sotheby’s, acquired it from the gallery in May 2008. CT


FIND MORE about how artists and their estates might benefit from secondary market sales here and here

FIND MORE about how Swizz Beatz is helping emerging artists keep all the proceeds from art fair sales and proposing a way collectors can ensure artists get a cut when their work is re-sold at auction or through a gallery


Published recently by Phaidon, “Kerry James Marshall” is a fully illustrated documentation of the artist’s career. The volume includes a conversation with fellow artist Charles Gaines and an image of “Untitled (Painter)” by Marshall. “Kerry James Marshall: Mastry,” a comprehensive, cloth-covered catalog was published to accompany the artist’s 30-year survey and features illustrations of Marshall’s portraits of painters and curator Karsten Lund’s write-up about the works. An extensive interview with Marshall is featured in the exhibition catalog “Painting and Other Stuff.” Finally, “Kerry James Marshall: Look See” coincided with the artists’s first exhibition with David Zwirner gallery in London in 2014.


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