Published: May 11, 2021
Review by Greg Smith, Photos Courtesy Santa Fe Art Auction
SANTA FE, N.M. – Amassed between 1968 and 2008, Santa Fe Art Auction dispersed the Barbara and Ed Okun collection in 306 lots on May 1. The works included examples of art, American craft, ethnography and folk/outsider art. The Okuns had an esteemed pottery collection, filled to the brim with bowls, vessels, platters and vases.
It was in 1973 that Barbara Okun opened her first gallery in St Louis, where she exhibited contemporary paintings, sculpture and ceramics. It was the latter category that would draw her gaze, ultimately solidified in the 1979 partnership with Sissy Thomas and the Okun-Thomas Gallery. It was here that many of the artists in her collection would come to show.
In 1992, Barbara and Ed opened the Okun Gallery of Contemporary Art in Santa Fe, where the couple had moved a year earlier. Barbara would pass away in 2007 and the personal collection they put together remained installed in their home in Tesuque, overlooking the New Mexican Badlands. Ed would pass away in 2019.
“Barbara and Ed Okun played a national role in the evolution of ceramic art and contemporary craft,” curator Mark Del Vecchio wrote in 2020. “Working on the boards at numerous institutions for over two decades, and introducing new art in Barbara’s three galleries, they were key figures in the development of a greater sophistication on the field. Barbara launched many artists who are now considered masters in their respective fields and their dedication to assisting younger artists helped to ensure that future generations would grow.”
The sale’s leaderboard was dotted with contemporary artists. Alan Shields (1944-2005), whom The New York Times described as someone who “simultaneously resembled a harpooner out of Melville and a hippie from central casting,” made the top lot at $44,250 for “Hemmi for Paula,” a web-like structure crafted from acrylic, beads, thread and string. The 1975 work was purchased from Paula Cooper Gallery, which gave the artist his first show in 1969 and then continued his representation for more than 20 years.
Rising to $14,160 was an amorphous gold-glazed ceramic by Lynda Benglis (b 1941), 8¼ inches high. “Wind,” a 1995 beaded figure by Joyce Scott (b 1948) would take $11,800. From Baltimore, the artist’s peyote-stitched beaded figures have earned her acclaim. “Wind” incorporated both copper and agate inside a figure that whips up the earthly elements into the air.
Ceramics featured prominently in the Okun collection, including a number of examples from the ceramicists of the Bay Area’s Funk art movement. David Gilhooly (Canadian, 1943-2013) found his top with “Frog Victoria,” a 1974 ceramic impersonation of the queen in frog form, 15 inches high, that brought $7,080. The work had provenance to Loretta Yarlow, the director of the University Museum of Contemporary Art at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. So too did “Frog Dief,” a 13-inch-high frog in coat and tie that sold for $4,720. Another funk ceramicist was Sacramento artist Joe Mariscal (born 1948). “Flaco,” a 1981 work, featured a shirtless, tattooed Latino man wearing a headband and handlebar mustache as he strokes his chin. It brought $1,062. Many of Mariscal’s figures from this period bear no more title than a proper name, the same as the person who inspired them. “Roach” is another of his tattooed shirtless men, a 23-inch figure that went out at $885. In the same category was Peter VandenBerge’s (b 1935) “Bird Dog,” a 2004 glazed earthenware work featuring a dog asleep with a tropical-looking bird atop his head. It sold for $2,091.
Betty Woodman (1930-2018) found favor at $4,248 with “Italian Basket” and $3,068 for “Fast Food Server,” both of them produced in glazed white earthenware in the early 1980s. Functional works from Robert Turner (1913-2005) were represented in six lots, the highest at $3,304 for an Ashanti lidded jar from 1978. It was only seven years earlier that Turner became enthralled by African sculpture, traveling to West Africa where he would become inspired to produce the Ashanti work and others that he named after African kingdoms and peoples.
Outsider and folk art were well-regarded by the Okuns. At $2,832 was “If the tree could talk it will tell you of a heavenly vision of Martin Luther King Jr,” by Mary L. Proctor (b 1960), a 1988 mixed media work featuring a painted sheet metal book beside a sculptural bust of King on a pedestal. Proctor was drawn to paint through a vision a year after her family members perished in a fire. Her painted doors caught the attention of curator Tricia Collins, who introduced her work to the greater art world. At $2,124 was an untitled 1976 portrait of a woman by Inez Walker (1911-1990), an artist who began to draw while at the Bedford Hills Correctional Facility serving out her sentence for criminally negligent homicide. Upon her release in 1972, Pat Parsons mounted a show and introduced Walker to the market. Nearly all of Walker’s works are portraits of women. At $2,124 was an embroidered thread on fabric work by Raymond Materson (b 1954). “Lords and Ladies” dated to 1989 and featured nobility playing croquet on a green before a castle with a moat around it.
Carved furniture from Howard Werner was represented in two 1994 carved “Cottonwood” chairs. One brought $3,936 and the other brought $2,952. Werner direct carves his furniture from large tree sections.
All prices reported include buyer’s premium. For information, www.santafeartauction.com or 505-954-5858.
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