THREE GIANTS of 20th century American art were represented in the evening auctions of contemporary art at Sotheby’s and Christie’s for the first time in November. The auction houses offer only a few dozen works in their evening auctions and the coveted slots are reserved for premier works by important artists. Significant works by African American artists Alma Thomas, Charles White, and Norman Lewis, created between 1953 and 1976, were offered and carried estimates that hovered near or exceeded the artists’s existing records. All three artists reached new auction highs. The results smashed their previous benchmarks and were among the highlights of the fall season sales:

 
“A Fantastic Sunset” (1970) by Alma Thomas

A VIBRANT SPECTRUM OF COLOR, “A Fantastic Sunset” (1970) by Alma Thomas (1891-1978) is rendered in concentric circles. Recognized for her abstract compositions, exuberant works defined by rhythmic pattern and bold color, Thomas’s concentric paintings are hard to come by.


Lot 26B: ALMA THOMAS (1891-1978), “A Fantastic Sunset,” 1970 (acrylic on canvas, 48 x 48 inches / 121.9 x 121.9 cm). | Estimate $2.2 million-$2.8 million. Sold for ($2.2 million hammer price) $2,655,000 fees included. RECORD

 

Offered at Christie’s Post-War and Contemporary Art Evening Sale on Nov. 13, 2019, “A Fantastic Sunset” had a pre-sale estimate of $2.2 million to $2.8 million. Despite hammering at the low estimate ($2.2 million) with fees the lot sold for $2,655,000, a monumental record.

The price was more than three-and-a-half-times her previous high mark, which was achieved months earlier on May 17, 2019, when “Azaleas” (1969) by Thomas sold for $740,000 at Sotheby’s.

The milestone is historic on multiple fronts. Only in the contemporary era have a handful of living black women artists seen their auction prices exceed a million dollars. Thomas is the first black woman whose career was confined to the 20th century to do so and her work is the most expensive among dead black female artists.

Even so, reception for the painting was lukewarm. There were only a handful of bids, the lot hammered at the low estimate ($2.2 million), and came and went in a flash.

ACCORDING TO THE LOT’S PROVENANCE, “A Fantastic Sunset” was consigned by a St. Louis collection and originated from a private collection in Philadelphia. That collection belonged to Bill Cosby and his wife. The painting was featured in “Conversations: African and African American Artworks in Dialogue from the Smithsonian National Museum of African Art and the Camille O. and William H. Cosby Collections” (Nov. 9, 2014-Jan. 24, 2016).

The show debuted in the midst of what became a groundswell of sexual assault accusations against Bill Cosby. (Dozens of women came forward. Cosby was convicted in April 2018 on three counts of aggravated indecent assault in a case pursued by one accuser. He is serving three to 10 years in a maximum-security Pennsylvania state prison.)

On Nov. 16, 2014, a week after “Conversations” opened, the Smithsonian museum issued a brief statement explaining its intent to keep the exhibition open despite the controversy surrounding Cosby.

“A Fantastic Sunset done in 1970, shows the artist at her best, revising, and designing the prismatic flow of colors that cross the fragile boundaries of hot jazz, poetry, and dance.” — David Driskell

The painting is illustrated in “The Other Side of Color: African American Art in the Collection of Camille O. and William H. Cosby Jr.,” a lavishly illustrated volume published in 2001. David Driskell authored the book, served as an art advisory to the Cosbys, and helped assemble their collection. In “The Other Side of Color,” Driskell writes: “A Fantastic Sunset done in 1970, shows the artist at her best, revising, and designing the prismatic flow of colors that cross the fragile boundaries of hot jazz, poetry, and dance.”

 
“Banner for Willie J” (1976) by Charles White

ALSO AT CHRISTIE’S, “Banner for Willie J” (1976) by Charles White (1918-1979) was presented for sale on Nov. 13, 2019. A master draftsmen, White is celebrated for his realistic drawings of African Americans, images highlighting the dignity and humanity of historic and representational figures.

A rare painting and full-color image by White, “Banner for Willie J” depicts the artist’s cousin. An innocent bystander, Willie J was shot and killed in a bar during an armed robbery.

Ian White, the artist’s son and director of the Charles White Archive, confirmed the few details he knows about the subject of the painting. The incident happened in the 1930s or 40s at a bar in the South. Mississippi he thinks. Ian believes Willie J worked at the bar. He recalls hearing this at some point, but he hasn’t been able to confirm or document that aspect of the story with any ephemera. He also doesn’t know Willie J’s full name.


Lot 38B: CHARLES WHITE (1918-1979), “Banner for Willie J,” 1976 (oil on canvas, 58 3/4 x 50 1/8 inches / 148 x 127.3 cm). | Estimate $1 million-$1.5 million. Sold for ($1 million, hammer price) $1,215,000 fees included. RECORD

 

The portrait is a posthumous tribute to White’s cousin, an expression of love and loss symbolized by the rose and the word “bang.” The image also serves as a universal love letter, Ian said. In this broader reference, White wanted to speak to the loss of other young people to gun violence.

“Banner for Willie J” is Ian’s favorite painting by his father. The subject is serious, but it is also a cool image, he said. He loves the aviator glasses, which his father also wore. “I think he is actually moving Willie J into a more contemporary climate,” Ian said, about the style of the portrait which was made in 1976, more than three decades after Willie J died.

“I think [Charles White] is actually moving Willie J into a more contemporary climate,” Ian White said, about the style of the portrait which was made in 1976, more than three decades after Willie J died.

The image also resonated because it depicts a relatively young man. Further explaining its appeal, Ian said young, male, singular figures are scarce in White’s body of work. Only 11-years-old at the time, Ian remembers his father working on the painting and has a vivid visual memory of it sitting on his easel. The painting is one of the last White made.

“BANNER FOR WILLIE J” was featured in the traveling exhibition “Charles White: A Retrospective” (2018-19), on loan from Mr. and Mrs. Richard Wyatt Sr. Their son is artist Richard Wyatt Jr. Like Kerry James Marshall, David Hammons, Suzanne Jackson, and many others, he was taught by White at the Otis College of Art and Design in Los Angeles. The younger Wyatt, now 65, continues to live and work in the city and was featured in the recent exhibition “Life Model: Charles White and His Students.” His parents consigned “Banner for Willie J” for sale at Christie’s.

In the lead up to the auction, there were prominent press mentions of the pending sale of the painting in the New York Times, ARTnews, The Art Newspaper, artnet News, and other outlets. Despite the advance promotion and the significance of the painting, “Banner for Willie J” attracted scant interest at Christie’s, similar to the reception received by Thomas’s “A Fantastic Sunset.”

Nonetheless, with a pre-sale estimate exceeding his previous auction record, White’s painting was positioned to set a new high mark, and it did.

Estimated to sell for $1 million to $1.5 million, bidding for “Banner for Willie J” started at $850,000, then went to $950,000, and hammered at $1 million, the low estimate, similar to the Thomas lot. With fees, the White painting sold for $1,215,000.

The price bested White’s previous auction record, recently established when “O Freedom” (1956) sold for $509,000 on April 5, 2018, at Swann Auction Galleries.

 
“Ye Shall Inherit the Earth” (1953) by Charles White

HOLDING FOR ONE DAY, the new record established by “Banner for Willie J” was surpassed the following evening at Sotheby’s, where White’s “Ye Shall Inherit the Earth” (1953) was greeted enthusiastically, in stark contrast to the scene at Christie’s.

The drawing was Lot 1, opening the Contemporary Art Evening Auction (Nov. 14, 2019). The lot had a pre-sale estimate of $500,000-$700,000 and sold for more than double the high estimate. Starting at $400,000, bidding climbed up to $1,450,000, the hammer price, amounting to $1,760,000 with fees included, establishing yet another benchmark for White. When the bidding concluded, the salesroom erupted in applause.


Lot 1: CHARLES WHITE (1918-1979), “Ye Shall Inherit the Earth,” 1953 (charcoal on illustration board, 39 x 26 inches / 99.1 by 66 cm). | Estimate $500,000-$700,000. Sold for ($1,450,000 hammer price) $1,760,000 fees included. RECORD

 

“Ye Shall Inherit the Earth” was also featured in “Charles White: A Retrospective.” White’s oeuvre is dominated by powerful depictions of women exemplified by this work. The title is adapted from a Bible verse (Matthew 5:5) which states in part: “Blessed are the meek: for they shall inherit the earth.”

“Ye Shall Inherit the Earth” captures a woman holding a baby with her hand protectively covering his head. She is wearing a hat with a brim wide enough to shield the sun. The artist’s subject represents a Georgia sharecropper named Rosa Lee Ingram.

THE SOTHEBY’S LOT DESCRIPTION calls the image, “Maternal and tender, heroic and harrowing.” The essay goes on to detail the experiences and fate of Ingram and how White’s drawing factored in her circumstances:

    Ye Shall Inherit the Earth represents the figure of Rosa Lee Ingram, an African-American woman who, in the late 1940s, became the subject of one of the most explosive capital punishment cases in American history—a key moment in the history of civil rights activism. In 1947, Ingram, a widowed mother of fourteen, and two of her sons were accused of killing their neighbor, a white sharecropper, after enduring years of his harassment and abuse. Although all three were initially sentenced to death, the public outcry was so immediate and vigorous that the three sentences were commuted to life imprisonment.

    The continued protest against the incarceration of the Ingrams became a central catalyst for African-American women across the political spectrum and served as a rallying cry and key cause for such groups as the Women’s Committee for Equal Justice and the Sojourners for Truth and Justice. In 1954, following years of continued widespread protest against the Ingrams’ imprisonment, the Women’s Committee for Equal Justice organized a letter writing campaign centered on the image of the present work (White’s “Ye Shall Inherit the Earth”). Timed to coincide with Mother’s Day, two sets of postcards were sent: one, featuring a photograph of Ingram and her sons, was sent to the Georgia governor to demand their release, while the other, illustrating Ye Shall Inherit the Earth, was sent to Ingram, assuring her of the continued efforts being made on her behalf.

Another five years elapsed before Ingram and her sons were released. White’s contribution to the campaign stands as a testament to his support of civil rights causes and sensitivity to the plight of black women.

 
“Ritual” (1962) by Norman Lewis

A STUNNING BLUE CANVAS, “Ritual” (1962) by Norman Lewis (1909-1979) was offered at the Contemporary Art Evening Auction at Sotheby’s New York on Nov. 14, 2019. Carrying an estimate of $700,000-$1 million, bids for the painting soared to more than $2.7 million—nearly three times the existing benchmark for Lewis. The buyer was Gabriel Catone of New York art advisory firm Ruth|Catone, according to ARTnews.

The artist’s previous record at auction was achieved more than four years ago at Swann Auction Galleries when an untitled circa 1968 painting sold for just under $1 million ($800,000 hammer price, $965,000 fees included). Executed in a limited palette of mostly beige and tan, the composition features a meandering march of abstract figures populating the entire canvas.

The Swann record was set Dec. 15, 2015, about a month after “Procession: The Art of Norman Lewis” opened at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in Philadelphia. The first comprehensive museum overview of Lewis, the landmark traveling exhibition brought renewed attention to the artist. The exhibition positioned Lewis as “a pivotal figure in American art, a participant in the Harlem art community, an innovative contributor to Abstract Expressionism, and a politically-conscious activist.”


Sotheby’s, November 14 – Lot 14: NORMAN LEWIS, “Ritual,” 1962 (oil on canvas, 51 1/4 x 63 3/4 inches / 130.2 by 161.9 cm.). © Estate of Norman Lewis; Courtesy of Michael Rosenfeld Gallery LLC, New York, NY. | Estimate $700,000-$1 million. Sold for ($2.3 million hammer price) $2.780,000 fees included. RECORD

 

“Ritual” was included in “Procession.” Lewis made the painting the year before he helped found the artist collective Spiral in the summer of 1963. In anticipation of the March on Washington that August, Lewis along with artists Romare Bearden, Hale Woodruff, Charles Alston, and others, formed the short-lived group to weigh the role of black artists in the civil rights era and consider how they might respond and contribute to the fight for social justice.

CURATOR RUTH FINE organized “Procession” and edited the accompanying exhibition catalog, where she wrote about “Ritual.” She said, “The subjects of race and civil rights reclaimed Lewis’s work in a profound way in the 1960s.” Among the works he made at this time was a series of powerful calligraphic paintings that reference the Ku Klux Klan.

In “Ritual,” a field of moody blue contrasts with a confetti-mix of brightly colored dashes that form an arc situated at the lower perimeter of the canvas. Fine said the painting is related to the Klan canvases.

“These Klan paintings are dominated by Lewis’s broad calligraphy, with the gestures signifying figures intermixed with field. Layered paint creates interactive color surfaces far more complex than that of a simple figure/ground relationship…,” she said. “Thematically related, Ritual is painted fluidly, suggestive of light and atmosphere, with figures in a fiery semi-circular procession, and a moon hovering in a centrally important position overhead.”

During the run of the exhibition, “Ritual” was owned by Thomas Burrell, a prominent, Chicago-based marketing and communications pioneer. By the time the painting appeared in the evening auction at Sotheby’s, it was owned by a St. Louis collector who acquired it from Burrell and consigned it for sale.

I reached out to Tarin M. Fuller, the artist’s daughter, to get her thoughts on the new record set by “Ritual.” She is the director of the Norman Lewis estate, which she manages in collaboration with Michael Rosenfeld Gallery in New York. (The gallery announced its representation of the estate in late 2014.) Through a publicist, Fuller provided the following statement to Culture Type:

“I am delighted to see the market’s increasing recognition of Norman’s work. Michael Rosenfeld Gallery and I have worked very hard to ensure the trajectory of the estate continues to forge ahead as we’ve envisioned from the beginning. I’d like to think Norman is watching all of this happen just as he predicted.”

“I’d like to think Norman is watching all of this happen just as he predicted.” — Tarin M. Fuller

WORKS BY THOMAS, White, and Lewis are featured in “Soul of a Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power.” After opening at the Tate Modern in London, the landmark exhibition traveled to the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville, Ark.; the Brooklyn Museum; The Broad in Los Angeles; and is now on view at the de Young Museum in San Francisco.

Mnuchin Gallery in New York recently dedicated an exhibition to Thomas. “Resurrection” brought together a dynamic selection paintings and works on paper from private collectors and a variety of institutions, providing a rare opportunity to view a survey of her works, dating from 1953 to 1976.

The Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) co-organized “Charles White: A Retrospective” (Oct. 7, 2018-Jan. 13, 2019). In October, nine months after that critically praised exhibition closed, the “new” MoMA reopened with works by Lewis (“Phantasy II,” September 23, 1946) and Thomas on display in the newly installed collection galleries. “Fiery Sunset” (1973) by Thomas hangs adjacent to Matisse’s “The Red Studio” (1911).

Yet, mainstream recognition of these 20th century figures in their lifetimes and in the decades since has fallen far short of their white peers. On the auction front, the leaps in value at last fall’s evening sales offer a modicum of correction. Yet, a huge gulf remains.

Compare Lewis, for example, with his fellow Abstract Expressionists. At the Sotheby’s sale, where Lewis set a new $2.7 million artist record, paintings by Willem de Kooning (1904-1997), Mark Rothko (1903-1970), and Clyfford Still (1904-1980) accounted for the top three results. Their works sold for $30.1 million, $26.4 million, and more than $24.2 million, respectively. These are average prices for the artists at auction. Their records are more than $61.6 million (Still), more than $68.9 million (de Kooning), and $86.8 million (Rothko).

Auction prices are a barometer of an artist’s market, but don’t necessarily indicate private or primary sales prices. Ian was happy to see the consecutive records set by his father’s work. The million-dollar-plus prices are more in line with private sales of individual works by White, more so than the previous half million dollar auction record, he said. White’s work has been shown and sold at David Zwirner in the past year. A spokesperson said the gallery is “unable to share pricing information.”

ALL KINDS OF MACHINATIONS and manipulations go on with auction houses and the secondary market, including third-party guarantees, loans against artworks, galleries bidding up works by artists they represent to sustain and raise their values, and collectors doing the same with works by artists they collect in depth.

Artists and their estates don’t directly benefit from auction sales (unless they are doing the consigning) but they, along with their galleries, cooperate with auction houses. In the interest of his father’s legacy, Ian is more than willing to work with them to provide accurate information.

“I own the copyright to all these images because my father never sold the copyrights unless it was a work for hire. So they have to contact me, whether they want to or not, just to publish the image,” Ian said.

“Once they contact me (and) start asking me (questions), they are like, ‘Oh, wait a minute. You know something.’ It’s my duty in a very non-profit world (meaning he won’t get a return on the sale) to give as much information as I can for the work and to have it placed at a very high value. Will it benefit the archive? It does, by default.”

It’s my duty… to give as much information as I can for the work and to have it placed at a very high value. Will it benefit the archive? It does, by default.” — Ian White

Ian attended the auctions at Christie’s and Sotheby’s. “The fact that the Willy J only received two bids, I was shocked,” he said. “That was very disappointing. But this was my first experience at Christie’s as well as Sotheby’s and it’s almost kind of a night and day reaction (in terms of bidder interest).”

About the Sotheby’s sale, he added: “After the Charles White sells, the hammer hits, and the guy says, ‘And now Charles White’s pupil: Kerry Marshall’ (the auctioneer announcing the next lot). That was really cool. I enjoyed that on a personal note.”

Indeed, over the past two years, Marshall’s work has been taking the lead in making inroads toward closing the gap between black artists and white artists at auction. That evening at Sotheby’s, his painting was fourth among the top lots, right behind de Kooning, Rothko, and Still.

Meanwhile, as institutional and collector interest in art by African American artists continues to broaden in 2020, regard for historic artists, whose output is finite, still lags behind (Jean-Michel Basquiat notwithstanding) the frenzy surrounding contemporary African American artists, whose output will continue for decades. 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

 

BOOKSHELF
The Museum of Modern Art and Art Institute of Chicago co-published a fully illustrated exhibition catalog to accompany “Charles White: A Retrospective.” The publication features contributions by Kerry James Marshall, Kellie Jones, and Deborah Willis. “Alma Thomas” is a comprehensive monograph co-authored by Ian Berry and Lauren Haynes published to accompany an exhibition they co-curated and presented at the Tang Teaching Museum and Art Gallery at Skidmore College and Studio Museum in Harlem. “Procession: The Art of Norman Lewis” documents the first major museum retrospective of Norman Lewis organized by the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts and curated by Ruth Fine.

 

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