Articles and Features

The Rise of African American Artists on the Auction Market and in the Art World at Large

Cameron Welch - Pathfinder
Cameron Welch, Pathfinder, 2018. © 2018 Cameron Welch

On January 10 2019, Phillips Auction House opened ‘American African American’, a new private selling exhibition in New York which will run till February 8 2019. Artists featured in the exhibition are Charles Alston, John Outterbridge, Romare Bearden, Betye Saar, Kehinde Wiley, Fred Wilson, and Cameron Welch, among others. This exhibition, covering the period of 1950 to today and featuring over 60 artists, may very well prove to be the largest selling exhibition of African American artists to date. According to the exhibition’s curator, Phillips’ Senior Advisor and Director Emeritus of the Brooklyn Museum Arnold Lehman, ‘American African American’ “offers an inclusive and dynamic reshuffling of the art world order.” The exhibition shines light on the brilliant signature African American artists have made, and are making, on the art world, which has been overlooked far too often in the past, or not given nearly enough space.

“American African American – likely the largest selling exhibition of African American artists to date – clearly articulates the increasing and exceptional importance of African American art and artists within the art historical canon. It gives proper recognition to these extraordinary artists of the mid-20th and early 21st centuries alongside their contemporaries.”

– Arnold Lehman, Phillips’ Senior Advisor and Director Emeritus of the Brooklyn Museum

‘American African American’ continues and expands on the mission of the similar 2017 London exhibition, also organised by Lehman, which dove into the art historical and social impact of the 26 African American artists featured. Lehman cites a long history of important actors supporting African American art and artists as a great inspiration and influence for him. From the opening of the Studio Museum in Harlem in 1968 and Thelma Golden’s tireless, groundbreaking work there as a curator and later as the director, to the 1971 exhibition Contemporary Black Artists in America at the Whitney Museum of American Art, and many more. Important voices such as Brooklyn Museum curator Ashley James, writer, critic and artist Deborah Willis, and chair of education at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, formerly of the Studio Museum Sandra Jackson-Dumont, are involved through conversations about the exhibition and its shared context with the current Brooklyn Museum show ‘Soul of a Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power’.

Romare Bearden - Morning: The Broken Wheel - 1986
Romare Bearden, Morning: The Broken Wheel, 1986. © The Romare Bearden Foundation/Licensed by VAGA, New York
Tyree Guyton - Highway - 2008
Tyree Guyton, Highway, 2008. Courtesy of the artist and Martos Gallery, New York.
Radcliffe Bailey - Madagascar 1 - 2016
Radcliffe Bailey, Madagascar 1, 2016. Courtesy of the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York.

The current attention for African American art and its increase in demand raises questions regarding whether African American artists are truly finally getting the full recognition they deserve, and how the increasing awareness is manifesting itself in various parts of the art world. At the same time, it is extra important for people to be aware of the fact that these artists did not just fall from the sky, but have been working and fighting for their art for decades.

In an interview hosted by Black America’s host, the award-winning writer, producer and media consultant Carol Jenkins, Jenkins speaks with with Rujeko Hockley (Assistant Curator of contemporary art at the Whitney Museum of American Art), Ashley James (Assistant Curator of contemporary art at the Brooklyn Museum), and Alexandra Giniger (Director of Artist Relations at the Jack Shainman Gallery). While discussing the work of these three women of colour in the art world and how they position themselves in black America, Jenkins asks: “Do you think that we have reached a brand-new level of acceptance of black artists?”

Hockley is the first to answer: “I think that there have been a lot of cycles over, let’s say, the past 50 years. (…) There’s a generation of artists that kind of start in the early 1960s, many of whom were in Ashley’s show ‘Soul of a Nation’, many of whom were in my show ‘We Wanted a Revolution’. And that cycle maybe peters out in the ‘80s, then it picks back up at the end of the ‘80s until the ‘90s, kind of a multi-cultural moment, people like Basquiat, then it kind of dwindles again, and then it picks up again in the early 2000s with, really in large part thanks to Thelma Golden and the Studio Museum, shows like ‘Freestyle’ and ‘Frequency’ which happened in the early 2000s. So it’s hard, I hesitate to say an absolute yes because I do think like all of US history and world history we see these kind of peaks and valleys and cycles where things become popular and things become unpopular, and all the while people are doing the work, kind of regardless.”

Jenkins then mentions how everyone is aware that for a long time, only white male artists were getting any traction, but now there is this big moment with Basquiat selling for record amounts of millions of dollars. Giniger adds that  African American artist Kerry James Marshall also recently sold at auction for $21 million, and says: “I guess I can speak from the more commercial perspective. Working in a gallery space these are the things that we pay attention to. There’s a great deal of interest in the artwork of black artists commercially now.” She adds that the focus on African American art was never about following a trend for the Jack Shainman Gallery. Speaking of other galleries who are finally paying attention to the world beyond the white male bubble, she hopes they too are looking and thinking deeply about these questions.

And looking at the museum world, museums are starting to take strides in changing the art historical canon. The Baltimore Museum of Art, for example, recently sold works by Robert Rauschenberg and Andy Warhol, among others, to fund the purchase of artworks by artists of colour, namely Mark Bradford, Njideka Akunyili Crosby, Isaac Julien, Norman Lewis, Zanele Muholi, Wangechi Mutu, Odili Donald Odita, Adam Pendleton, John T. Scott, Amy Sherald, Hank Willis Thomas, Stephen Towns, Jack Whitten, and Lynette Yiadom-Boakye.

Finally, there are collectors like Pamela J. Joyner, who are contributing to the rewriting of art history by revealing their phenomenal collections of African American artists to the public. With nearly 400 pieces of abstract art by African American artists in their collection, Joyner and her husband Fred J. Giuffrida showed pieces from their collection last year in the exhibition ‘Solidary & Solitary’ at the Ogden Museum of Southern Art in New Orleans. And Joyner went on to make a book featuring her collection – Four Generations, The Joyner/Giuffrida Collection of Abstract Art –, complete with illustrations of hundreds of works and scholarly texts by leading artists, writers and curators. As Giniger says: “Seeing that for me was incredibly powerful. Even if you aren’t able to get out to the museum, having this accessible in libraries shows young black people who are interested in the creative fields and the arts that there are other people doing this.”

Don’t miss a chance to see ‘American African American’ and ‘Soul of a Nation’! And if you can’t make it but are eager to learn more about the evolution of African American art in the 20th and 21st century, consider adding Four Generations, The Joyner/Giuffrida Collection of Abstract Art to your collection of art books. It is essential reading for any art lover, providing an overview of some of the most notable artists of the last century up until today.

‘American African American’
Through February 8 2019

450 Park Avenue
New York, New York

‘Soul of a Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power’
Through February 3 2019

Brooklyn Museum
200 Eastern Parkway
Brooklyn, New York