Is African-American Art Rising As Everything Else Falls?
They say there’s always a bull market somewhere. And for the art market that might be the world of African-American artists. The hit show of Art Basel Miami was the Rubell Collection’s survey of African-American artists. The Washington Post recently ran a fascinating profile of Kerry James Marshall. And today Swann Galleries offers a sale of African American art that could set some records.
Blake Gopnik gives us this look back into Marshall’s beginnings as an artist:
Marshall started copying from the Old Masters — Michelangelo and Raphael and others. “I saw myself as being one of those guys,” he says, and assumed that if only he could acquire what he thought of as their “superpower” skills — “a magical thing called The Mastery” — he’d be on his way.
It took Marshall a while to notice that “those guys” almost never portrayed people who looked like him. “I just assumed that when you look at the figures in paintings, they were all white figures — but you don’t think of them as white figures. They’re just art figures. . . . You never pick up a how-to book that shows how to draw a black man.” That assumption only collapsed in the fifth grade, when a project for what was then called Negro History Week led him to a book called “Great Negroes: Past and Present,” and its chapter on Charles White, a black artist who drew and painted African Americans. By then, race consciousness was brewing all around Marshall.
It took until seventh grade before Marshall could get any structured training as an artist:
“I was the only black kid in the class,” he says. Which meant he just about fainted when the teacher brought that class upstairs — to a space where White happened to have a studio. “I didn’t know Charles White was alive.” White was in his 50s, and a teacher at Otis. “That was the turning point,” Marshall remembers. “Charles White was the Old Master to me. . . . I tried to be Charles White.”
All of that has paid off, to a point:
Marshall’s paintings sell awfully well for objects with a radical agenda. “He’s kind of recession-proof,” says Jack Shainman, Marshall’s New York dealer, pointing out that his show last summer pretty much sold out. A large Marshall can sell for about $400,000, but that’s not much, compared with the multimillion-dollar works of equivalently successful, and much more prolific, white artists. In 2003, Marshall did a “text painting” that addressed this racial discrepancy: It listed the $5,615,750 record for an object by Jeff Koons, for instance, beside the record for a Martin Puryear that came in at one-seventh that.
Meanwhile, Swann’s sale of African American art is its fifth sale in the last two years. The department was formed in the Fall of 2006 with its first sale in February of 2007. Nigel Freeman is the director of the department. He says that this is the first flourishing of a secondary market for works by African American painters. Many of the best pieces reside with the collectors who first bought them, often from the artists themselves because so many didn’t have gallery representation.
Take Beauford Delaney whose work just reached a record price of $176,000 in November at Westchester County, NY auction house Clarke. There are five Delaney’s in Swann’s sale, including this one estimated at between $50-75,000.
There’s also a fair bit of Charles White’s work for sale, including this painting estimated at between $150,000 and $200,000.
Hughie Lee Smith’s work is getting a lot of interest, according to Freeman, including this work estimated at between $50-75,000.
The sale is at 1:30pm EST. We’ll try to have some results posted this evening.
Coloring Perception (Washington Post)