The works of noted African American artists
  • The many sides of African American art
  • African American painting? I think not
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    Auction Finds

    African American art by some old (and new) favorites

    When I first started going to auctions looking to buy African American art inexpensively, several pieces by Norman Lewis came up for sale. There were about three or four of his abstract compositions, none of which wowed me but I figured it would be great to have at least one for my collection.

    Three other people in the room apparently felt the same way: a couple and a lone man. We all went tit-for-tat for awhile, but the bidding got so high that I dropped out. The other bidders kept going, and it was clear that the man alone wanted every one of them. The couple stuck with him but finally realized that it was fruitless.

    African American art

    An up-close view of Norman Lewis’ “Meeting Place,” 1941.

    These were not among Lewis’ prized works. They were similar to several that sold for $2,000 to $3,000 recently at Swann Auction Galleries’ twice-yearly African American art sale. (A lovely piece, “Untitled (Vertical Abstract),” sold for $34,000.)

    Even at that sale, most of his works didn’t grab me, except for a beautiful figurative oil painting called “Meeting Place.” It was one of several works deaccessioned from the collection of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, which also included Charles White’s “Trumpet Player” and works by Charles Alston, Richmond Barthe, Laura Wheeler Waring and Beauford Delaney.

    Nigel Freeman, Swann’s specialist in African American art, mentioned during the preview that the Lewis work was from his early period, before he discovered abstract art. Lewis created the painting in 1941 while working for the Federal Art Project of the Works Progress Administration, one of the thousands of out-of-work artists who produced murals and other public artwork during World War II.

    African American art

    A full view of Norman Lewis’ “Meeting Place.”

    The painting depicted a group of women bargain shopping, in a style that the auction catalog described as social realism. Lewis produced other paintings of women during the Depression, according to the catalog, including “Dispossessed (Family)” and “Two Women Reading” in 1940.

    Here’s Lewis in a 1968 interview explaining his move from figurative to abstract painting:

    “I used to paint Negroes being dispossessed, discrimination, and slowly I became aware of the fact that this didn’t move anybody, it didn’t make things better and that if I had the guts to, which I did periodically in those days, it was to picket. And this made things better for Negroes in Harlem. … Painting, like music, had something inherent in itself which I had to discover and which has nothing to do with what exists, it has another kind of reality. … So that with this kind of awareness naturally you really get with yourself and you wonder what can I say, what do I have to say that can be of any value, what can I say that can arouse someone to look at and feel awed about.”

    I loved “Meeting Place” for its realistic look at the women, each seemingly oblivious to the others. This painting was a connector between us bargain hunters of today and them of yesterday, putting us right smack in their time and place. Who doesn’t like a great bargain? The intensity of their hunt seemed bewildering to the wide-eyed little boy in the center of it all.

    Auctioneer Nicholas Lowry, dressed a bright red suit and tie – the auction was held on Valentine’s Day – started the bidding high, but no one in the audience, on the phone or on the internet raised their voices. The painting passed at $80,000. If only I had $80,000 stashed away somewhere.

    Lewis’ painting was not the only one that struck me. Here are some others (the prices do not include a 20 percent buyer’s premium):

    African American art

    Laura Wheeler Waring’s “Girl in Red Dress,” circa 1935.

    Laura Wheeler Waring’s “Girl in Red Dress”

    This circa 1935 oil painting captured my eye as soon as I saw it on the auction-house website. A painting by Waring had been sold more than two years ago at the same auction house: a rural landscape outside her studio in Cheyney, PA, where she taught at the university there.

    I’ve always loved her works and this was the first of her portraits I had seen, and, according to the catalog, it was the first to come to auction. She apparently was well-known in both Philadelphia and New York for her portraits, which included family, friends and literary folks of the Harlem Renaissance. Waring died in 1948, and the Pyramid Club in Philadelphia, which showcased local artists, dedicated its exhibit that year to her. The painting sold for $16,000.

    African American art

    Charles Elmer Harris (Beni E. Kosh)’s “Untitled (Tennis Players),” 1957.

    Charles Elmer Harris (Beni E. Kosh)’s “Untitled (Tennis Players)”

    This oil painting was one of two works by Harris, a Cleveland artist whom I had never heard of. In the 1960s, he changed his name to Beni Kosh, which means “Son of Ethiopia.”

    The other painting was “Untitled (Factory Entrance),” and both were done in 1957. I liked the tennis painting more for the history it evidenced. It showed African Americans enjoying a simple game of tennis in images that were different from how they had long been painted or drawn or displayed in the mainstream. These were obviously middle or upper middle class black folks doing what people normally do.

    It was plainly painted with almost a folk-artsy feel to it. Harris was an unknown artist, according to the catalog, who rarely sold or exhibited his works. He was “rediscovered” soon after he died in 1993.

    During the auction, online bidders battled for the two works. The bidding had stalled at $1,500 when one competitor picked it up again. “The Charles Elmer Harris online fan club is going at it,” the auctioneer joked. The bids finally stopped at $1,800.

    Several of his paintings sold for $35 to $230 at a Cleveland auction in October. Here are some of Harris’ other works.

    African American art

    Albert Alexander Smith’s “Spinning a Yarn,” 1930.

    Paintings with a Southern theme

    As I was reading the catalog, I kept noticing that several of the paintings were drawn from the South:

    Albert Alexander Smith’s “Spinning a Yarn.” The painting showed Smith’s depiction of a rural South that he had never visited, according to the catalog. Smith spent most of his years in France, like other African American artists hoping to escape the strictures of living in the United States. He earned his living as a musician and cabaret singer, and studied art in Spain, Italy and Belgium, according to a bio on the Papillon Gallery website.

    Some of his images of African Americans were positive, according to the website, but at the same time he produced stereotypical images for wealthy white clients. The painting sold for $20,000.

    Norman Lewis’ “Two Barns.” Lewis painted this one in 1937 while teaching in Greensboro, NC. According to the catalog, these early works are scarce. It sold for $4,200 (without the buyer’s premium).

    African American art

    Charles Alston’s “Shade Chadman,” circa 1940-1941.

    Charles Alston’s “Shade Chadman.” Alston toured the South between 1940 and 1941 on a foundation scholarship. He traveled through my home state of Georgia, among others, and in North Carolina visited many farms taking photos of southern blacks and how they lived, according to the catalog. His aim was to produce a series of iconic images of African Americans to match Grant Wood’s “American Gothic.” “Shade Chadman” and “Tobacco Farmer” were among those works on paper. Shade sold for $20,000.

    Salute to Elizabeth Catlett

    The final artwork in the sale were original prints and sculptures by Catlett, who died last year. Her iconic “Sharecropper” sold for $36,000; the sculpture “Sister” sold for $95,000, and “I am the Black Woman,” a group of 14 linocuts, went for $75,000. Her screenprints were more affordable at less than $3,000 each.

    A funny aside about Jacob Lawrence’s “The Swearing In”

    Jacob Lawrence‘s “The Swearing In,” his take on Jimmy Carter’s 1977 inauguration ceremonies, was relatable to my art auction buddy Kristin and me. It reminded us of our trip with two other women to Washington in mid-January for President Obama’s inauguration. We were among the thousands – heads up-turned, as in the Lawrence print – watching the ceremonies on a Jumbotron. Unfortunately, we saw very little of the actual festivities, but it was a blast being in the city at the time.

    With the catalog turned to the print on the page, Kristin pointed to a group of brown faces in the audience. “This is us,” she said. Then, remembering that we didn’t get that close, she pointed to a spot outside the print, in the margin. That was clearly us.

    African American art

    Jacob Lawrence’s “The Swearing In,” a depiction of people at President Jimmy Carter’s 1977 inauguration.



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