A PHOTOGRAPH from Kitchen Table Series, the seminal body of work Carrie Mae Weems created in 1990, set a new artist record today. “Untitled (man smoking) from Kitchen Table Series” sold for $70,000 (including fees). The price was about twice the estimate of $25,000-$35,000.

The record was set May 7 during “Artist | Icon | Inspiration: Women in Photography,” a Phillips New York auction dedicated to women in photography, both as artists and subjects.

 


Lot 15: CARRIE MAE WEEMS, “Untitled (man smoking) from Kitchen Table Series,” 1990 (gelatin silver print, 26 7/8 x 26 7/8 inches / 68.3 x 68.3 cm), signed in ink, printed title, date and number ‘PP1/1’ on a gallery label affixed to the reverse of the frame. One from an edition of 5 plus 1 artist’s proof and 1 printer’s proof. | Estimate $25,000 – 35,000. Sold for $70,000 (fees included).

 

Executed in 1990, Kitchen Table Series is composed of 20 photographs and 14 text panels. Weems made the work at her home at her kitchen table—late at night and early in the morning, when ever she could steal the time—while she was teaching photography at Hampshire College in Amherst, Mass. She was 38.

Employing visual performance and a compelling narrative text, the powerful series provides a lens through which to view a woman’s life. Not the artist’s life, but that of the female subject. Weems serves as an archetype in a gendered space that is also a space for gathering and shared experience—a sanctuary and a potential battleground.

The images capture her sitting alone in contemplation and alternatively interacting with a revolving cast. She’s navigating the joys and challenges of life. Relationships and social dynamics between mothers and daughters, friends, and lovers are explored. Weems documents the scenes with a single light source—a pendent lamp hanging from above.

 


Carrie Mae Weems talks Kitchen Table Series in her Syracuse, N.Y., studio. | Video by Art21

 

The photograph that was auctioned today features Weems sitting at the kitchen table with a man who is smoking. They are playing cards. There is a bottle of liquor, half full, and a bowl of peanuts. His name is Don Washington, her neighbor at the time.

Weems identified her counterpart in the photograph during a lecture at the National Gallery of Art last year (see video below). She was invited to speak on the occasion of the installation of “Carrie Mae Weems: Kitchen Table Series” at the Washington, D.C., museum (Sept. 12, 2017-May 18, 2018).

She displayed the image in her presentation and said: “This is the man, Don Washington sitting to my left, who introduced me to Nina Simone many, many years ago and, miraculously, was my neighbor when I moved to this tiny little town in New England. He was living next door and became then my subject in these photographs for the Kitchen Table Series.”

“This is the man, Don Washington sitting to my left, who introduced me to Nina Simone many, many years ago and, miraculously, was my neighbor when I moved to this tiny little town in New England. He was living next door and became then my subject in these photographs for the Kitchen Table Series.” — Carrie Mae Weems

Then she went on to explain how she made the series and why it was important:

    The people that I used in the piece were people that I knew. People that lived in my neighborhood. I used myself primarily not because I was particularly interested in me, but because I was around and I could work whenever I wanted. …It was a very, very sort of intense period of working and trying to understand. It was this sort of breakthrough. It was a real breakthrough moment and one of the things I was very, very aware of was that we were in this sort of moment where Laura Mulvey (British scholar, feminist film theorist)… For those of you who are interested in critical theory, feminist theory, Laura Mulvey had did her seminal text. Very, very, very important. And there was a lot of texts being written about the positions around feminism, identities around women, etcetera.

    I was teaching at that time. All of my students, what I remember most about all of my female students, in particular, was that all of them, whenever they were photographed, they were always sort of photographed like this, (Weems shrinks into herself at the podium). They were always half revealed. They were always either hiding behind their hair, or hiding behind something. They were never square to the camera. All of my male students were always squared to the camera and always looking directly at the camera.

    And so in part, I also realized that the material that I was reading, pieces like Laura Mulvey’s work, as much as I appreciated it, did not necessarily have space for African American women or for brown women or for women of color. Our position, our historical position, our cultural position, our social position, and how that position had been imposed in some ways on these bodies, was not really a part of her critique. Which was not her problem, but it was simply true.

    “I was also really interested in presenting for both myself, and for my students, another way of making. Another way in which the female subject could be made. Another way that she could be engaged in the construction of self.” — Carrie Mae Weems

    So in part, making Kitchen Table in this way I was not only interested in what was going on in relationship to feminist theory and critical theory, those incredible texts that were dominating cultural debate at that time, I was also really interested in presenting for both myself, and for my students, another way of making. Another way in which the female subject could be made. Another way that she could be engaged in the construction of self. It was really a fascinating project and one I learned a great deal from.

Last year, the previous record for a single print by Weems was set during Sotheby’s Creating Space sale on May 17. “Scenes & Take (Great Expectations)” (2016), a print on canvas by Weems, sold for $67,500 (fees included). The image is from a series she composed on the sets of contemporary television shows in which black actors are featured prominently (Scandal, How to Get Away with Murder, Empire). The artist donated the work to the auction, which benefitted the building fund at the Studio Museum in Harlem. CT

 

FIND MORE about Carrie Mae Weems on her website

FIND MORE about various perspectives on fight for artist royalties when work on sold on secondary/auction market

 

BOOKSHELF
“Carrie Mae Weems: Kitchen Table Series” is a special volume dedicated to Carrie Mae Weems’s celebrated body of work made in 1990. The book features for the first time all 20 photographs and 14 text panels from Kitchen Table Series, one of the artist’s earliest series, and includes essay contributions by scholar Sarah Lewis and curator Adrienne Edwards. “Carrie Mae Weems: Three Decades of Photography and Video” coincided with Weems’s traveling retrospective which concluded at the Guggenheim in 2014.

 


WATCH Feb. 6, 2018: Carrie Mae Weems gives an incredibly engaging lecture about her work and longstanding interest in the work of other artists at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. She begins to focus on Kitchen Table Series at about 27:00. | Video by National Gallery of Art

 

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