IN LONDON, when Christie’s Post-War and Contemporary Art Evening Sale got underway on Feb. 12, the first lot was a serene, painterly portrait of a black woman. “Mom” (2013) by Jordan Casteel, is a portrait of Lauren Young Casteel, the artist’s mother. Expected to yield 180,000-250,000 British Pounds, the painting sold for twice the high estimate and set a new benchmark. “Mom” was bid up to 515,250 British Pounds ($666,734), a world record for Casteel.


Lot 1: JORDAN CASTEEL, “Mom,” 2013 (oil on canvas, 48 x 36 inches / 121.9 x 91.4cm). | Estimate 180,000-250,000 British Pounds. Sold for 515,250 British Pounds ($666,734) fees included. RECORD

 

Seven years ago, when she made the portrait, Casteel was an MFA student at Yale University. The painting appeared in her first major museum exhibition. When “Jordan Casteel: Returning the Gaze” opened Feb. 2, 2019, at the Denver Art Museum, her hometown museum, the portrait was displayed prominently in the entry gallery.

(According to the checklist in the exhibition catalog, “Mom” belonged to the collection of Jody Robbins. She also contributed a second painting to the show, “Jiréh,” 2014.)

In September, the exhibition traveled to California where it was on view at the Cantor Arts Center at Stanford University through Feb. 2. Then the painting showed up in London, consigned for sale at Christie’s, where it was again featured prominently.

“Mom” exemplifies what Casteel is recognized for: capturing the full humanity of her subjects. Her mother is uniquely positioned in the seated portrait. She’s turned toward the seat back with her hands folded together along the top. Her eyes are closed and her chin is resting on her hands.

The subject, her clothing, and an abstract floral-patterned scarf draped across her lap, are rendered in a warm saturated palette against a faintly tinted, watercolor-style background. The portrait documents a peaceful moment, but she also appears exhausted. Dressed professionally wearing a multi-colored bracelet, she seems to have nodded off while sitting upright, or consciously decided to steal a quick nap.

THE ELDER CASTEEL is a powerful figure in her own right and in her daughter’s life. The president and CEO of the Women’s Foundation of Colorado, she is the first black woman to lead a foundation in the state. Recognized for a career providing a voice and opportunities for underserved populations, including women, children, people of color, and the economically disadvantaged, she was inducted in the Colorado Women’s Hall of Fame in 2014. The artist’s father is a corporate lawyer and she has two brothers—a twin and an older sibling.

The family has an intergenerational commitment to activism, civil rights, and the arts. The artist’s maternal grandfather is Whitney M. Young Jr. (1921-1971), who served as executive director of the National Urban League, from 1961 to 1971. Her maternal grandmother is Margaret Buckner Young (1921-2009), a professor of educational psychology at Spelman College and children’s book author who served on the boards of museums and cultural organizations.

Born in Denver, the younger Casteel lives in Harlem now. During the run of “Returning the Gaze” at the Denver Art Museum, she was interviewed by the official blog of the city of Denver. Asked how her family background has informed her as an artist, she said in part: “…the legacy for me is about walking the walk and not just talking the talk. That I have to take the values I have learned from my mother or my father or my grandparents and put them into real action in my day-to-day existence. Long before I became Jordan Casteel the painter, I was Jordan Casteel who understood the value of everyday stories and people and creating voices for people and room for people who might otherwise feel that there’s no room for them.”

“Long before I became Jordan Casteel the painter, I was Jordan Casteel who understood the value of everyday stories and people and creating voices for people and room for people who might otherwise feel that there’s no room for them.” — Jordan Casteel

Casteel has an undergraduate degree in studio art from Agnes Scott College, a small liberal arts school in Decatur, Ga. In 2012, when she started at Yale University, in pursuit of her MFA, her mother drove her across the country from Denver to New Haven in a 2001 Subaru Outback. The scene is recounted in a Vogue profile by Dodie Kazanjian.

In the article, Casteel talks about her mother’s influence and confidence in her talent. After the University of Colorado in Boulder offered her a graduate scholarship, her mother asked, “But what’s the best school?” Casteel hesitated applying to Yale because of the $100 application fee. Her mother said she’d pay her back if she wasn’t accepted. She didn’t have to. Casteel got in and earned an MFA from Yale in 2014. After graduating, she was selected for the artist-in-residence program at the Studio Museum in Harlem (2015-16).

CASTEEL IS ONE OF THREE up-and-coming black artists whose work stood out at London auctions this week. Amoako Boafo, a Ghanaian artist who lives and works in Vienna, made an incredible debut at Phillips. Smashing expectations (30,000-50,000 British Pounds), his portrait of a woman wearing a lemon print bathing suit lounging in a pool, sold for 675,000 British Pounds ($881,550). Also at Phillips, “Princess” (2017) by New Haven, Conn.-based Tschabalala Self, set a new artist record selling for 435,000 British Pounds ($568,110).

With “Mom,” Casteel bested her previous auction record, which was set last year, also at Christies London. Like “Mom,” that painting, a double portrait, opened the Post-War and Contemporary Art Evening Auction on March 6, 2019. “Patrick and Omari” (2015) brought five times the high estimate (40,000-60,000 British Pounds) selling for 299,250 British Pounds ($392,915).

Her new auction record, achieved with an endearing portrait of her mother, follows the debut of “The Baayfalls,” her monumental mural on the High Line, near 22nd Street. The installation was completed on Dec. 23 on the same wall where works by Kerry James Marshall and Henry Taylor were previously on view. Her work will remain through December 2020.

The record also comes in advance of her first solo museum exhibition in New York opening Feb. 19 at the New Museum. “Jordan Casteel: Within Reach” will feature nearly 40 paintings spanning her career, including portraits of people she’s drawn to around Harlem, neighborhood business owners, and people she sees on the subway. An early series of nude portraits of black men will also be on view.

“The intent of the paintings from my early works is to expose my vision of black men as a sister, daughter, friend, and lover,” Casteel has said. “That perspective is one full of empathy and love. I see the humanity and, in turn, I want audiences to engage with them as fathers, sons, brothers, cousins—as individuals with their own unique stories to share.” CT

 

FIND MORE about Jordan Casteel on her website

 

READ MORE Jordan Casteel was recently profiled in The New York Times

FIND MORE about a Canadian auction house giving artists a cut of sales and the many unfair aspects of the art world

 

BOOKSHELF
“Jordan Casteel: Returning the Gaze” documents Jordan Casteel’s first major museum exhibition, which was organized by the Denver Art Museum. Due in April, “Jordan Casteel: Within Reach” accompanies the artist’s forthcoming exhibition at the New Museum, her first solo museum show in New York.

 

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