Published: May 4, 2021
Review by Greg Smith, Catalog Photos Courtesy Slotin Folk Art Auction
BUFORD, GA. – “The Strange, The Unusual, The Vanishing America!” was how auctioneer Steve Slotin described his April 24 Self-Taught Art Masterpiece sale of 407 lots that went 100 percent sold. Included within were examples of outsider and folk art, art brut, Southern folk pottery, Native American art, antique and anonymous works, vernacular photography and new discoveries. The sale grossed $1.35 million, Slotin saying afterwards that it ranked among his best auctions.
“It seems like the last two sales have been back-to-back record-breaking auctions,” Slotin said. “With each one we were able to set records for artists that were somewhat obscure or not considered first-tier masters.”
The sale was led with a “Caballero” image by Mexican-born artist Martín Ramírez (1895-1963), which sold for $44,400. The 1930s graphite on paper is among a series of similar images the artist created while institutionalized in California for the latter 32 years of his life. The caballero features prominently in Ramírez’s body of work, which numbers to about 500 and largely characterizes his Mexican culture inside a framework of sprawling geometric-patterned environments. The armed caballero is seen on horseback inside of a geometrically lined gateway or doorway. A very similar image resides in the collection of the Williams College Museum of Art, a 2019 acquisition.
“He’s gotten a lot of attention lately,” Slotin said. “What made this piece spectacular was that it was completely clean – no staining or tape – and a nice perfect size. It had all the bells and whistles.” Slotin said it sold to a Northeast collector.
Howard Finster’s (1916-2001) hand was on 11 works in the sale, ranging from $875 for two framed prints on up to $32,500 for an 8-foot-wide angel cutout titled “The Angel Of The Lord,” dated 1989 and numbered 10,971. Slotin said it is only one of three large-scale angels created by the artist. It came to sale from the collection of Larry and Jane Schlachter, Finster’s neighbors at Paradise Garden and co-owners of Summerville’s Trade Day flea market and Folk America art gallery. They purchased it from the artist in 1989. Slotin wrote, “When Larry Schlachter visited his friend Howard Finster one weekend in 1989 and laid eyes on an 8-foot-wide painted wooden cutout angel the artist had just completed, Larry knew he had to have it, even if he wasn’t quite sure how he’d afford it.” The work had been exhibited at the American Visionary Art Museum in Baltimore and Lehigh University in Pennsylvania. The Schlachters will be donating a portion of the sale proceeds to help establish the Arts and Learning Center at Paradise Garden, Finster’s folk art environment maintained by the nonprofit Paradise Garden Foundation. Slotin holds the auction record for Finster at $49,200, a price realized in 2019 for a portrait of George Washington; this result ranks in the top ten results, the majority of which were produced by Slotin.
“Howard did these cutout pieces that are called ‘4-by-4s,’ measuring 4-by-4-feet, he did about 30 or 40 of these large paintings and they typically bring $30/50,000 each,” Slotin said. “This angel was double that size, 8 feet long, and there’s only a handful of these known to exist. He did them only for a few special people. This was the first one to come out on the market and it was such a statement piece.”
Southern female folk artists dominated the top of the sale, including works from Myrtice West (1923-2010), Mattie Lou O’Kelley (1908-1997), Clementine Hunter (1887-1988) and Nellie Mae Rowe (1900-1982).
“We have been trying to put a bright light on Southern Black women folk artists,” Slotin said, “and it looks like it’s finally paying off. I think the whole world is waking up to the incredible art of Southern self-taught artists.”
West’s “Who Is Worthy To Open The Book,” a 43-by-25-inch paint and glitter on recycled vinyl canvas, went out at $26,250, an auction record for the artist who is another example of someone that Slotin holds all of the top results on. This example was one of the finest paintings she ever made and illustrated on the cover of Carol Crown’s Wonders To Behold: The Visionary Art of Myrtice West. West was called on to paint Revelations in a series of night visions – this work from that original calling. After two series were completed, she continued to paint biblical scenes, including the whole books of Ezekiel and Daniel. In Revelation 5:2, it is written, “Then I saw a scroll in the right hand of the One seated on the throne. It had writing on both sides and was sealed with seven seals. And I saw a mighty angel proclaiming in a loud voice, Who is worthy to break the seals and open the scroll? But no one in heaven or on earth or under the earth was able to open the scroll or look inside it….”
At $18,125 was “Fish, Faces & Animals” by Nellie Mae Rowe, made in 1978 and measuring 24 by 19 inches. The work came from the collection of Ruth Braunstein, who operated a contemporary and self-taught art gallery in San Francisco. Rowe will receive the institutional spotlight when her show, “Really Free: The Radical Art of Nellie Mae Rowe,” opens at the High Museum of Art in September. Many of Rowe’s work in this sale centered on images of animals with human faces appearing around them. Behind at $15,600 was “Purple Partridge,” a paint, crayon and graphite on paper. At $13,200 was “Hickory Dickory Dock,” an ink, crayon and marker on paper that had provenance to Judith Alexander and The Dreyfus Foundation.
Mattie Lou O’Kelley found $24,375 for “Family Wagon Packed & Ready To Leave,” a 1984 oil on canvas measuring 24 by 18 inches. The work was featured in CIRCUS!, O’Kelley’s book recounting a trip to the circus she took with her family as a little girl. It is the third highest result for O’Kelley at auction.
Clementine Hunter, who has an exhibition on right now at the Cabildo in New Orleans, produced $20,625 in “Uncle Tom & Eliza in Flower Garden,” a 24-by-18-inch oil on canvas panel dated to the 1970s. Hunter was born on Hidden Hill Plantation in Louisiana’s Cane River region, previously owned by Robert McAlpin who is said to be the model for the cruel character Simon Legree in Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Hunter would live in that area her entire life.
Both O’Kelley and Hunter are considered Memory Painters, and Slotin said the category was white hot. Another was Florida artist Ernest “Frog” Smith (1896-1993), who was sometimes referred to as a raconteur as he retold stories of Old Florida in his column, “Cracker Crumbs,” for the Fort Myers New Press. He had a deep breadth of experience to draw on, at times working as a landscaper, blacksmith, machinist, lumberman, alligator hunter and frog-gigger, the latter earning him his moniker. Slotin set an auction record for the artist at $17,500 for “Dowling Camp Mill At Slater, Fl 1928-1944,” a paint on found panel work depicting one of Smith’s lumber mill scenes.
“It was a typical piece by Frog Smith,” Slotin said, “The atypical one was the “Florida Folk Art Festival.” That would take $6,600. “He would sell his works in a Fort Myers men’s clothing shop where they would hang them on the wall,” the auctioneer continued. “Over the last 25 years, they’ve been pretty consistent, about $1/2,000. But I think people are looking back and seeing a disappearing Florida – a bygone day and they want to remember it. His paintings are idealized visions of that area, what it was like in the 1920s-30s.”
Almost 60 lots in the sale came from the collection of Gary Davenport, a one-time partner of Robert Bishop, the director of the Museum of American Folk Art. After the two split up, they remained friends and many of the pieces in Davenport’s collection were bought with Bishop, who featured some of them in the 23 books he wrote on various subjects.
Top among them at $18,125 was Clementine Hunter’s “The Story of Jesus in Bethlehem,” a 1950s oil on canvas panel measuring 20 by 16 inches. Behind at $11,875 was “The Art Gallery Saluting The Nude” by Gustav Klumpp (1902-1974). The 20-by-28-inch oil on canvas was executed in 1972 and had been featured in Twentieth-Century American Folk Art & Artists by Herbert W. Hemphill & Julia Weissman.
“There was a rediscovery of this field in the 50s and 60s,” Slotin said. “You saw early pioneers, Bishop and Hemphill, start to collect and recognize these artists with no training. If you look back at Klumpp and Justin McCarthy, these artists were working in the 40s and 50s, about the time Grandma Moses started to gain her popularity. It was sort of a renaissance when a rush occurred looking for these untrained artists and these guys were leaders in the field at finding them. So this is a capsule of a mid-Twentieth Century New York folk art collector.”
A record price was made for Daniel Pressley (1918-1971) at $11,875 for his relief carving, “Wait at the Water,” which measured 36 by 12½ inches. Pressley carved images of his experiences in Harlem and offered his relief works, for which he is best known, for sale in Manhattan’s Washington Square. His three other relief carvings in the sale brought anywhere from $2,750 to $3,875.
Discoveries were offered, including four masks out of the Chicago area by an artist named Uncle Joe. Not much else is known of him. The masks were brought to an early Outsider Art Fair, Slotin said, though they did not entice much interest at the time. A “Grinning Devil” mask brought $2,750, while an “All Seeing Third Eye” mask took $1,250.
Slotin Folk Art Auction will have sales in August and November. All prices reported include buyer’s premium. For more information, www.slotinfolkart.com or 404-403-4244.
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