AFRICAN AMERICAN ARTISTS figured prominently in Sotheby’s recent Contemporary Curated auction. Works by 32 African American artists were offered, some rarely if ever shown publicly including a 2002 portrait of Malcolm X by Henry Taylor acquired directly from the artist and a pair of Robert Colescott interior scenes that give a nod to Roy Lichtenstein. Others, by Romare Bearden and Jack Whitten, for example, appeared in significant exhibitions of the artist’s work more than three decades ago.


Lot 203: HENRY TAYLOR, “Neighborhood Watch,” 3/16/02 (acrylic and enamel on plywood, 37 1/2 x 29 inches / 95.3 by 73.7 cm). | Estimate $80,000-$120,000. Sold for $300,000 (fees included)


It was considered a successful sale. On March 1, Contemporary Curated surpassed the auction’s overall high estimate of $30.8 million, yielding $36.8 million. Eighty-four percent of the lots sold. Paintings by Kerry James Marshall and Whitten topped the sale helping it reach the highest-ever total for the series for a second season in a row.

The results were newsworthy, maybe even historic, with two works by African American artists yielding the highest prices at a contemporary sale with a major auction house. Marshall’s Untitled (Painter) was the top lot, selling for $7,325,800 (fees included), nearly three times the high estimate and the second-highest price an artwork by the Chicago-based artist has yielded at auction.

(“Past Times,” a large-scale painting Marshall made in 1997 sold for $21 million at Sotheby’s in May 2018. The result was the highest price ever paid at auction for an artwork by a living black artist.)

Ranking second, “Special Checking” (1974) by Whitten sold for for $2,660,000 (fees included), a new artist record.

SOTHEBY’S CONTEMPORARY CURATED sales offer contemporary art in a wide range of styles and mediums by emerging and established artists, figures both living and dead. For the latest edition, final sales prices ranged from $750 for an 8 x 8-inch work by Paula Crown to more than $7 million for the top lot by Marshall.

There were 265 lots in the sale and the overall representation by African American artists was about 12 percent. Many works were showcased at the outset. Five lots by black artists were front loaded at the beginning of the sale, representing half of the first 10 lots. Nine of the first 20 lots were by African American artists. Others were grouped later in the sale.


Lot 9: ROMARE BEARDEN, “The Unforgotten,” 1970 (paper and printed paper collage with synthetic polymer paint on board26 by 22 3/4 in. 66 by 57.8 cm). | Estimate $60,000-$80,000. Sold for $250,000 hammer price ($312,500 fees included)


A number of works surpassed their estimates. Particularly notable, Bearden’s “The Unforgotten” (1970) sold for $312,500 (fees included), nearly four times the high estimate. The collage on board first appeared in “Romare Bearden: The Prevalence of Ritual” (1971-72), an exhibition of 56 works organized by the Museum of Modern Art that traveled to five additional venues.

According to MoMA’s description, the museum mounted the Bearden show “in part, out of demands made by the Art Workers Coalition (AWC), an activist organization that advocated for New York City museums to improve their ethical relationship to artists and to the public. They argued that museums should improve public access by waiving admission fees and implement more inclusive exhibition policies to encourage shows by women and minorities.”

Multiple lots by a handful of artists were also offered—four by Marshall, three by Taylor, two each by Glenn Ligon, Colescott, and Whitten. Five paintings by Sam Gilliam were featured, including “Leah’s Favor” (1972), an abstraction named for the artist’s daughter.

Lots by Rashid Johnson, Simone Leigh, and Kehinde Wiley appeared. Works by younger artists Toyin Ojih Odutola and Lucien Smith were also represented, along with more established figures such as Julie Mehretu, Lorna Simpson, and Chris Ofili, the British artist who is based in Trinidad. “Confession (Grey Rainbow)” by Ofili was featured in “Devil’s Pie,” his debut exhibition at David Zwirner London in 2007. With a high estimate of $25,000, the painting sold for $100,000 (fees included). CT


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


A new book from the Museum of Modern Art, “Faith Ringgold: Die (One on One),” considers the artist’s painting “American People Series #20: Die” (1967). Two volumes about Jack Whitten’s work were published in 2018. “Jack Whitten: Odyssey: Sculpture 1963–2017” coincides with the first presentation of Whitten’s sculptural works and “Jack Whitten: Notes from the Woodshed” explores the artist’s studio practice through his notes, interviews and other documentation. “Henry Taylor” is the first major monograph to survey the Los Angeles artist’s practice. The hefty volume features essays by Zadie Smith and Sarah Lewis, a profile by Rachel Kaadzi Ghansah, and a conversation with Taylor conducted by fellow Los Angeles artist Charles Gaines. 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. “Kerry James Marshall: Mastry,” a comprehensive, cloth-covered catalog was published to accompany the artist’s 30-year survey. “Sam Gilliam: The Music of Color: 1967–1973” documents Gilliam’s exhibition at the Kunstmuseum Basel, his first retrospective in a European museum.


Lot 2: SAM GILLIAM (b. 1933), “Leah’s Favor,” 1972 (acrylic on canvas, 26 1/8 by 62 1/4 inches / 66.4 by 158.1 cm). | Estimate $180,000-$250,000. Sold for $180,000 hammer price ($225,000 fees included)


Lot 3: JACK WHITTEN, “Special Checking,” 1974 (oil on canvas with rope collage, 54 1/8 x 95 7/8 inches / 137.5 by 243.5 cm). | Estimate $300,000-$500,000. Sold for $2.2 million hammer price ($2,660,000 fees included) RECORD


Lot 8: JACOB LAWRENCE, “Menagerie,” 1964 (watercolor and gouache on paper, 22 1/8 x 30 3/4 inches / 56.2 by 78.1 cm). | Estimate $180,000-$250,000. UNSOLD


Lot 10: FAITH RINGGOLD, “Two Jemimas,” Feb 9, 1997 (acrylic on stitched canvas, 76 x 82 inches / 193 by 208.3 cm). | Estimate $150,000-$200,00. Sold for $150,000 hammer price ($187,500 fees included)


Lot 20: SAM GILLIAM, Untitled, 1973 (acrylic on canvas, diameter: 23 1/2 inches / 59.7 cm). | Estimate $30,000-$50,000. Sold for $30,000 hammer price ($37,500 fees included)


Lot 201: ROBERT COLESCOTT, “Interior I,” 1991 (acrylic on canvas, 16 1/8 X 18 inches / 41 x 45.7 cm). | Estimate $30,000-$40,000. Sold for $35,000 hammer price ($43,750 fees included)


Robert Colescott adopted Roy Lichtenstein’s visually style and primary color palette for a pair of paintings depicting interior living room scenes. Adhering to his own hallmark, a tendency toward subversion, Colescott sat a black-skinned, pink-lipped figure on the sofa in “Interior I.” He is holding what looks like an open beer can with one foot propped up on the coffee table. In “Interior III,” Colescott inserts two women modeled after French artist Fernand Léger’s figurative style, a form of Cubism that preceded Pop.

In the October 2004 issue of Artforum, Michael Lobel wrote about Colescott’s “Interior I.” Lobel wrote: “Colescott disarranges Lichtenstein’s distinctive interior through more than just the introduction of that figure, however; the painter has also deliberately sullied the Pop artist’s clean-edged forms with his rough facture in order to challenge the cool, distanced approach that is central to Lichtenstein’s art, and to Pop in general. Colescott’s painting suggests that Pop’s customary distance and neutrality may also function as a refusal of difference, racial and otherwise. Through his alterations to the image, Colescott forces us to see the literal but also figurative (read: racialized) whiteness on which the coolness and detachment of Lichtenstein’s image—and, by extension, that of Pop in general—depends.”


Lot 205: TOYIN OJIH ODUTOLA, ” There’s No Need to Rush,” 2013 (marker on paperboard, 14 x 10 inches / 36.6 by 25.4 cm). | Estimate $30,000-$40,000. UNSOLD


Lot 206: KERRY JAMES MARSHALL, Untitled (Sleepers), 2015 (ink on archival postcard, 4 x 6 inches / 10.2 by 15.2 cm). | Estimate $10,000-$15,000. Sold for $25,000 (fees included)


This postcard-sized work by Kerry James Marshall was acquired from Postcards From the Edge in 2015. The annual sale benefits Visual AIDS, a nonprofit that utilizes art to combat AIDS. More than 1,600 artworks by emerging and internationally recognized artists were displayed and sold anonymously. All were priced at $85 with the artist’s name revealed once the work was purchased. A second untitled postcard by Marshall was also offered by Sotheby’s.


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 fees included)


Lot 211: GLENN LIGON, “Stranger Drawing #6,” (oilstick and coal dust on paper mounted on aluminum, 60 x 40 inches / 152.4 x 101.6 cm). | Estimate $400,000-$600,000. Sold for $380,000 hammer price ($475,000 fees included)


Lot 217: NOAH DAVIS (1983-2015), “Bibliophile,” 2015 (acrylic and house paint on panel in 3 parts, 78 x 119 inches / 302.3 x 198.1 cm.). | Estimate $40,000-$60,000. UNSOLD


This triptych was made the same year Noah Davis died at the young age of 32 from cancer. The Los Angeles artist co-founded The Underground Museum.


Lot 220: FIRELEI BÁEZ, “Patterns of Resistance,” 2015 (acrylic and Sennelier ink on Yupo paper, 30 x 24 inches / 76.2 x 61 cm). | Estimate $9,000-$12,000. Sold for $28,000 hammer price ($35,000 fees included)


Describing her work on her website, Firelei Báez says, “Through a convergence of interest in anthropology, science fiction, black female subjectivity and women’s work, her art explores the humor and fantasy involved in self-making within diasporic societies…” Based in New York, Báez was born in the Dominican Republic. She joined James Cohan Gallery in October 2018 and has had a succession of notable exhibitions and projects recently.

Organized by the Studio Museum in Harlem, her inHarlem exhibition “Firelei Báez: Joy Out of Fire” was presented last year at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture’s gallery. Her work is currently featured in the Museum of Modern Art’s special window display. Unveiled in February, the New York Metropolitan Transit Authority commissioned her to create a series of installations for the 163 Street-Amsterdam Avenue Station subway station. “Firelei Báez: New Work” (Jan. 27-May 5, 2019) at Witte de With Contemporary Art is her first solo exhibition in the Netherlands.


Lot 221: SIMONE LEIGH, Untitled, 2013 (salt-fired stoneware and metal base, 16 1/8x 7 1/2 x 6 7/8 inches / 41 x 19.1 x 17.5 cm). Estimate $15,000-$20,000. Sold for $35,000 hammer price ($43,750 fees included)


An untitled ceramic cowrie-shell by Simone Leigh, this sculpture reached $43,750, more than double its estimate. In an interview published last week in The Art Newspaper, Leigh explained the symbolism. “I would describe the cowrie shell as a stand-in for the female body, or a body in general, or a representation of an absence as well as a presence,” she said.

Leigh’s 2018 Hugo Boss Prize exhibition just opened at the Guggenheim Museum in New York City. In addition, she is participating in the Whitney Biennial next month and in June her monumental installation, “Brick House,” will be unveiled officially on the High Line.


Lot 226A: LORNA SIMPSON, “Wigs (Portfolio),” 1994 (graph on felt, in 38 parts; Overall: 72 x 162 inches / 182.9 x 411.5 cm) from an edition of 15, plus 2 artist’s proofs. | Estimate $30,000-$40,000. Sold for $42,000 hammer price ($52,500 fees included)


Lot 235: CHRIS OFILI, “Confession (Grey Rainbow),” 2006 (oil and charcoal on canvas, 23 1/2 x 15 3/4 inches / 59.7 by 40 cm). | Estimate $20,000-$25,000. Sold for $100,000 (fees included)


Lot 288: RAMMELLZEE, Untitled (Magnatism), 1993 (acrylic, spraypaint and resin on canvas, 44 x 64 1/2 inches, 111.8 x 163.8 cm). | Estimate $20,000-$30,000. Sold for $87,500 (fees included)


A musician and artist, Rammellzee (1960-2010) was born in Far Rockaway, Queens. He was a 1970s graffiti artist before he transitioned to presenting his work in galleries. He was profiled in The New Yorker and an exhibition dedicated to the artist was presented recently at Red Bull Arts New York. “Rammellzee: Racing for Thunder” (May 4-Aug. 26, 2018) was promoted as a landmark tribute, “the first time, a diverse selection of artworks, music, writings, rare archival documentation, and ephemera, gathered from disparate sources around the world, to outline a chronology of this remarkably complicated artist. Told by the people closest to him, the collection of oral histories, recorded on site and presented throughout the exhibition, act as a shared history, framing Rammellzee’s influence and memorializing the man who inspired, compelled, and galvanized nearly every person he encountered.”


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