Art alert! If you haven’t already, you still have time to register to bid on the items for sale at Sotheby’s this week from some of the most accomplished black artists of our time. Curated by Thelma Golden, Director and Chief Curator, the Artists for the Studio Museum in Harlem “Creating Space: An Auction to Benefit the Museum’s New Building” will take place to benefit the construction of the museum’s new building in Harlem, designed by iconic architect Sir David Adjaye (who designed the National Museum of African-American History on the Mall in Washington, DC).
There are 42 works on offer, five being sold in an Evening Sale on Wednesday, May 16, and the rest being offered at a Day Sale on Thursday, May 17th. The artists include some of the best-known and admired of the current day: Theaster Gates, Chris Ofili, Lorna Simpson, Carrie Mae Weems, Sam Gilliam, Rashid Johnson and many more.
The lots have been curated so that there is a wide range of price points (estimates start at $4,000 and go to $3 million), making this an ideal opportunity for new collectors. The works also span a wide range of time periods: there are pieces on offer across almost five decades, from a piece by Melvin Edwards from 1974 to several works just completed this year.
Because so many of these artists are now commanding media notice and collector attention, a number of them have long waiting lists of eager buyers. This is a unique opportunity to “jump the line,” as anyone can bid on these works. Accessibility in the art world is not just about having the financial resources – it’s also about having access to highly-prized works that don’t even make it to the public market.
This week, we were invited to tour the galleries displaying the lots that are soon to go on sale, and we were stunned, inspired, and moved. Here’s what we saw.
We started with the gallery holding the lots for the Day Sale, and our eyes were immediately drawn to a painting by Kehinde Wiley, the artist who painted the official Presidential Portrait of former President Barak Obama for the National Gallery. The piece – entitled “Charles I” – was created this year, specifically for this auction, as a way of giving back to the Studio Museum. The artist is based in New York City, and once had a residency at the museum. What a treat to see such a splendid piece up close! At first glance, the subject appears to be male – but upon closer inspection, it’s clearly a woman. She strikes a classically heroic pose, and the rich red of her shirt, the flowers and fleur-de-lis are extraordinarily beautiful. The work is housed in a matte black frame reminiscent of the ornate gold frames used for classical art. This is only the second of Wiley’s paintings with a female subject to come to auction (almost all of his earlier works focused on male subjects). We have seen many photographs of Wiley’s work, but to see it up close in real life is another experience altogether – they’re as vibrant and engrossing as one might imagine. The estimate for this piece is $100-150,000. We suspect it will go for a lot more than that.
Shinique Smith created the hanging sculpture, “Angel,” with discarded blankets, towels, faux flowers and other found objects. It’s an expression of her ideas about femininity and a remembrance of her grandmother. The estimate is $15-20,000.
Toyin Ojih Odutola is a 33-year old Nigerian artist. Her work was just shown at the Whitney in a solo show entitled “To Wander Determined,” and she is currently in a solo exhibition, “Testing the Name,” at SCAD Museum of Art in Savannah, Georgia. ”From a Place of Goodness” is the work on paper being sold at this auction. The drawing is deceptively simple from a distance – a portrait of a woman in a head scarf. Come closer, though, and the intricate brushwork becomes clear – the depth of the subject’s eyes, the glossiness of her skin, and the gracefulness of her gesture are rendered with such beauty and precision, it’s breath-taking. The artist shows at the Jack Shainman Gallery, and there’s 100-person waiting list for her work. The starting bid for this piece is $12,500, and the estimate is $10-15,000.
Stanley Whitney has contributed “Untitled,” a 2017 work on paper. His abstract paintings are inspired by Mondrian and Matisse, and the estimate for this work is $10 -15,000.
As we pass through other galleries on our way to the Evening Sale works, we are stopped in our tracks by a magnificent painting from Kerry James Marshall, “Past Times.“ The final painting in his “Garden Project” series, it shows black people frolicking in an idyllic setting: lying on a blanket in a park, listening to music, playing croquet, chasing butterflies, water-skiing, and living the American Dream. The painting was a core element of the Mastry exhibit, and is now for sale, but not as part of the Studio Museum auction. Still, it was a wonderful treat to see it again, and a reminder of the growing global recognition and influence of black artists.
The Evening Sale features five very special works from noteworthy artists:
Mark Bradford is an American based in Los Angeles, and may be best known for his curation of the American Pavilion at the 2017 Venice Biennale. He made his New York debut in Freestyle (2001), the first in the Studio Museum’s now-iconic “F-show” series of emerging artists. His painting “Speak, Birdman” is part of the evening sale. It’s an architectural study that at first will remind you of an aerial view of the street grid and infrastructure of a large modern city. But the blood-red color and the subtle brushwork will also call to mind the veins and arteries of the human body. The artist cites comic books as an influence, and ideas of superheroes and the supernatural permeate his work. This piece is also particularly valuable because there is actual paint on the canvas – a rarity for this artist. The estimate is $2-3 million.
The second lot for the evening sale is from Julie Mehretu. She was an artist in residence at the Studio Museum, and also part of the ground-breaking 2001 Freestyle group show. Her 2017 abstract painting, Conjured Parts (Dresden), is comprised of layered images that reflect a universal experience. There is a photograph that’s only barely visible in the deep, blurred background of the work. Her works tend to be somber and profound, and this one in particular conveys high anxiety about current global events. The estimate is $1-1.5 million.
Glenn Ligon was the first artist to commit to this Studio Museum auction. A former curatorial assistant at the museum, he helped gather additional support for the effort, and gets praise and credit for being instrumental in making the idea a reality. Ligon was the recipient of the Studio Museum’s Joyce Alexander Wein Artist Prize in 2009. His 2016 piece, “Stranger #86,” is matte black, with rough texture. It’s make of oil stick, coal dust and gesso on canvas. Part of his “Stranger” series, the work is based on the James Baldwin essay “The Stranger in the Village.” In it, Baldwin writes about arriving in the Swiss Alps as a black man, and what it felt like to be the first black person that the villagers had ever seen. The series is comprised of large-scale canvases featuring words that have been stenciled, repeated, and layered to near illegibility as the phrase or sentence winds its way down the composition. The works convey a sense of writing and letters, but they’re not fully formed – or at least not fully legible or fully understood. It speaks to the sensation of feeling partially invisible, and the struggle to be seen. The possibility of being heard and understood, but not the permanent reality of being in such a state. This particular work is deeply personal: Ligon lived with this piece in his studio for many years, and has only now agreed to part with it. The estimate is $1-1.5 million.
Lynette Yiadom-Boake is British-Ghanaian. Her work was featured in another “F-show” at the Studio Museum, Flow (2008); her first solo museum exhibition, Any Number of Preoccupations, opened at the Studio Museum in 2010, and she was the subject of a solo show at the New Museum in New York last year. Yiadom-Boake is known for her lush, evocative narrative figures, in which viewers are invited to construct a story around what they see. The work on sale is called “An Assistance of Amber.” It depicts a languid figure reclining on what may be a therapist’s couch. Or not. It’s color-saturated, sumptuous and rich in feeling, and the narrative possibilities are many. The estimate for the work is $100-150,000.
Njideka Akunyili Crosby is Nigerian; she participated in the Studio Museum’s Artist-in-Residence program in 2011–12. Her preferred medium is collage photo transfer, and the result might remind you a bit of Robert Rauschenberg. She interweaves domestic scenes and global issues. In the work on sale, “Bush Babies,” from afar we see a plant. But as we look more closely, we see photographic images of faces – some quite large, and others so small that you have to lean in and fully engage to appreciate them. The artist moved to California a few years ago, and she cites David Hockney an influence in turning her eye to the natural world. Like all great art, the more you look at this work, the more you see – it has true visual and emotional depth. The estimate is $600-800,000.
The quality and breadth of the works for sale reflect the deep bonds between Director and Chief Curate Thelma Golden and the various artists. The idea for the auction was first raised around Thanksgiving 2017, and it came together in record time. To browse the online catalog, click here. You can also watch the auctions on the Sotheby’s website live-stream. If you decide to bid, good luck! These treasures will surely go quickly.