Published: April 12, 2022
Review by W.A. Demers, Photos Courtesy Swann Galleries
NEW YORK CITY – Swann Galleries’ spring auction of African American art on March 31 featured many scarce and significant postwar and contemporary artworks, including 28 lots from a private collection. The sale was led by Hughie Lee-Smith’s (1915-1999) “Aftermath,” a beautifully painted but stark urban scene rendered in oil on linen canvas, circa 1960, which beat its $180,000 high estimate to sell for $365,000. Measuring 30 by 46 inches and signed in oil lower right, the painting had provenance to the collection of the Johnson Publishing Company, Chicago, with the label on the frame back.
An excellent example of Hughie Lee-Smith’s mid-career painting, “Aftermath” epitomizes Lee-Smith’s unique view of urban decay, a vision of a modern, existential landscape with Surrealist undertones. Depicting a crumbling façade with three bright pink and yellow balloons in the foreground, the work suggests the recent presence of young people, alienation and a fleeting, fragile moment. Lee-Smith’s fluttering flags and a distant city on the horizon further denote an empty space.
Four works by the artist earned spots among the top 20 results of the auction. In all, the 11 works by Lee-Smith in the sale, which spanned the breadth of the artist’s career, found buyers. Highlights included a 1937 sketch of a boy in charcoal, $11,875; “Still Life with Nectarines,” a 1982 oil on canvas, $45,000; and “Quandary,” a late-career oil on canvas from 1997, $197,000.
The overall sale totaled $3,684,007, offering 241 lots, 214 of which sold for an 89 percent sell-through rate by lot. “The continued success of our African American art auctions, now in our 15th year, proves the breadth of this market,” said Nigel Freeman, the house’s director of African American art. I am especially pleased that we set a new auction record for Hughie Lee-Smith – finally eclipsing our own record with the sale of “Slum Song,” set in 2007.
We also are thrilled to achieve the highest price for a work on paper by Ed Clark.” Clark’s monumental “Spatial Image III,” at $341,000, was a large 1982 example of his “push-broom” abstract work in pigment on paper, and it more than doubled its high estimate, setting both phones and online platforms abuzz when it took its turn on the podium. The 1982 dry-pigment abstraction was emblematic of Clark’s use of swaths of color that evoke chaos and control simultaneously.
Fetching $209,000 was an untitled acrylic on paper by Alma Thomas (1891-1978). From her “Atmospheric Effects” series), the 1971 painting measured 22½ by 30 inches, was initialed “AWT” and dated in ink, lower left. Its provenance included Anderson Fine Arts, Jersey City, N.J. (late 1980s) and a private collection.
American Modernist Beauford Delaney was represented in the sale by an untitled composition in yellow, orange and red, which rose to $137,000. Delaney is best known for his work with the Harlem Renaissance in the 1930s and 1940s, as well as his later works in abstract expressionism following his move to Paris in the 1950s. This circa 1958-59 oil on paper work, 53 by 38 inches, was from the estate of the artist Derek L. Spratley, court appointed administrator, with estate ink stamp verso.
Catalog notes stated that Delaney made this work on paper during the height of his Parisian abstract period and that the mid-career abstraction is his largest work on paper to come to auction. “Delaney’s masterful intertwining of layers of paint reflects his growing bold expression with color during his period exhibiting with Galerie Paul Facchetti.”
Additional highlights in the sale included Charles Alston’s “Family in Cityscape,” an oil on canvas, circa 1964-66, which sold for $93,750; Kenneth Victor Young’s “Night Push,” 1972, acrylic on canvas, earning $87,500; and an untitled 1970-71 watercolor and inks on handmade paper by Sam Gilliam that was bid to $81,250.
Prices given include the buyer’s premium as stated by the auction house. For information, www.swanngalleries.com or 212-254-4710.
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