Published: January 28, 2020
Review and Onsite Photos by Greg Smith, Catalog Photos Courtesy Christie’s
NEW YORK CITY – Bill Traylor is trending upward. This is supported by the fact that Christie’s specialist Cara Zimmerman set the American folk artist’s auction record for a second straight time in as many years with her dedicated January sale of Outsider Art.
Christie’s January 17 auction totaled $3,312,125 on 130 lots, with all but two selling for a 98 percent sell-through. The sale’s offerings stretched far and wide: international and domestic artists, Twentieth Century and contemporary, and price points that ranged from $375 to $507,000, the low for “Automobile,” an 11-by-14¾-inch ink on paper by Dwight Mackintosh (1906-1999), and the high for Traylor’s double-sided work “Man on White, Woman on Red / Man with Black Dog,” that sold to collector Jerry Lauren.
Traylor’s record-setting work was known; it had been handled by New York City gallery Hirschl & Adler in the 1980s, though it was at this nascent time that the piece received a one-sided frame and “Man with Black Dog” became but a memory, shrouded for more than 30 years and last seen by the eyes of the framer. Concurrently at that time, Traylor’s market grew legs. His first solo show, mounted posthumously with R.H. Oosterom, Inc, which ran through the new year from 1979 to 1980, led to his breakout exhibition at the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington DC in 1982. The rapid rise in value in the years since would have been a surprise to any market-hardened professional back then.
At the conclusion of filming the 1985 film adaptation of Alice Walker’s Pulitzer Prize winning novel The Color Purple, released three years earlier, director Steven Spielberg gifted the Traylor work to Walker.
Walker said, “[Spielberg] was hopeful (he said with a smile) that when I saw the film, I didn’t feel like the angry Woman On Red. I answered (with a laugh) ‘I hope so too.'”
“That Spielberg alluded to this gesture, that has become part of the history of this piece,” Zimmerman said, noting the celebrity cache.
That Traylor’s work was double-sided was never known to Walker until it was consigned to Christie’s, where it was evaluated out of frame.
The work’s strengths, which led to its labeling as a masterwork, were many. Double-sided Traylor works command a premium in the market as they are not common. And the colors were rare, only approximately four or five works are known that feature a red background painted behind a subject. Zimmerman also pointed to the medium: this work was done on paper, which is uncommon for Traylor, who often painted on repurposed and found card.
“Paper wasn’t readily available to him the same way other materials were,” Zimmerman said. “I think part of the reason he enjoyed it and revised it is because this was a medium that was really special and he wanted to take advantage of it.”
Adding to intrigue was an alternate picture originally drawn underneath “Man on White,” its pencil lines still visible, which added a depth of imagery and a peek inside the artist’s creative process.
Zimmerman said, “We often see little indications of other images or altered images, but it’s really quite special to see an entirely different composition under the finished work. Often what you see is the changing of the position of an arm, but this is unique to see an entirely different subject. Maybe he decided it wasn’t working for him.”
According to Zimmerman, the work’s closest companion in Traylor’s oeuvre is “Men on Red / Double Goat,” a double-sided work in the collection of the Montgomery Museum of Fine Arts.
Also approaching the previous Traylor record of $396,500 – set by the firm in 2019 with “Woman Pointing at Man with Cane”- was “Red Man on Blue Horse with Dog,” a 1939-42 work that brought $325,000. The six other Traylor works, all but one featuring a singular animal, were led by “Running Deer,” an image not unlike a leaping stag weathervane, that took $97,500; “Exciting Event with Snake,” $62,500; “Purple Cat,” $60,000; “Brown Bull With Blue Eye,” $56,250; “Black Cow,” $50,000; and “Red Fish,” $27,500. Traylor’s total tally finished at $1,185,750, just above one-third of the sale’s total revenue.
The sale’s estimated top lot, a massive double-sided work from Henry Darger, “Untitled (188 at Jennie Richie Everything is all right with abatement of storm / 189 at Jennie Richie Heading for Manley Camp),” was withdrawn by the consignor on a $400/600,000 estimate.
Tallying up an impressive total were works by Nashville stone sculptor William Edmondson, whose five lots, all limestone vessels of varying forms, poured on the surprise. All came from a single collection and were purchased from New York City gallery Ricco Maresca in 1989. Prior to that gallery, they were in the collection of Elizabeth and Alfred Starr, who purchased them directly from the artist. The expected top lot, a pedestal-form figural birdbath carved in the 1930s, hit its top estimate of $150,000. But rolling over that was a double-handled cup, 9½ inches high and 21 inches wide, that brought $175,000 over a $6,000 estimate. A pair of vessels, carved in the manner of blocky beer steins, 16½ inches high by 13 inches wide by 8¼ inches deep each, sold at $162,500 over a $10,000 high estimate. A pair of large bowls would bring $81,250 over an $8,000 estimate, while four small bowls took $50,000 over a $9,000 estimate.
“I knew after the catalog had gone out that people were really loving these vessels,” Zimmerman said. “And I knew that we had many phone lines and a lot of interest on each of them, but I didn’t know what level they would go, so it was an exciting moment in the sale room. The vessels are not common, I think that’s what was so exciting for people. And they had amazing provenance. They are so fabulous in person when you think about the scale and the texture, you can see the artist’s hand in them. They are these large, weighty works that capture the imagination.”
Elizabeth and Alfred Starr were among Edmondson’s earliest patrons. The couple put into motion the events that would lead to Edmondson’s solo exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art. After Sidney Hirsch originally came across the artist’s yard, he introduced the Starrs to the artist, who then brought Harper’s Bazaar photographer Louise Dahl-Wolfe to photograph the environment. When MoMA director Alfred H. Barr Jr saw those photographs, he authorized Edmondson’s 1937 exhibition, which was the first solo show for an African American at that institution.
Eleven works from Thornton Dial ranged from $1,875 to $125,000. The latter was supplied by “Almost Black,” a 2004 monochromatic composition measuring 85 by 60 inches and made of clothing, tin, oil, enamel and spray paint on canvas laid down on wood. “Dial was a steel worker,” Zimmerman said, “I think that idea of welding and sculpture construction stayed with him throughout his career as an artist.” Another sculptural work, “The Beginning of the World,” spanning 48 by 100 inches and executed in 1988-89 with mixed media on plywood, went over the $40,000 estimate to bring $75,000.
In addition to Traylor’s artist auction record, Christie’s set six more: Purvis Young, “People with Halos Above City,” 1973, $43,750; Minnie Evans, “Untitled (Faces, Serpents, Animals, Angels),” 1966, $32,500; Raymond Materson, “Flaco and the Prom Queen,” 1997, $9,375; Willie Young, “Untitled,” 1986, $5,000; Laura Craig McNellis, “Black Birthday Cake,” circa 1982, $4,000; and Acharya Vyakul, “Four States,” 1990, $2,375.
European art was led by an untitled 1945 work by French artist Augustin Lesage, which sold between estimate at $112,500. The work was market fresh, having been acquired from the family of the artist in 1965. Lesage was a visionary artist, compelled “by powerful spirits” to paint and draw.
Other international artists include Adolf Wölfli, who supplied a $25,625 result for “Maggingen/Lembinger,” a double-sided colored pencil and graphite on paper from 1927; and Guo Fengyi, whose untitled ink on rice paper work, 66¼ by 18 inches, sold for $17,500.
Six works from California draftsman A.G. Rizzoli were the subject of attention. Rizzoli’s work centers around architectural renderings that symbolized people he knew. Rizzoli created an imagined exposition named Y.T.T.E., which stood for Yield to Total Elation, inspired by the 1915 Panama-Pacific International Exposition in San Francisco. All of the works came from dealer Bonnie Grossman, who began liquidating her collection in 2016 following decades of operating the Ames Gallery out of her house in Berkeley Hills, Calif. At the zenith of $75,000 was a 1944 blueprint work, “Virginia Ann Entwistle Symbolically Sketched / Virginia’s Heavenly Castle,” which was presented with a letter to Virginia where Rizzoli explains the process of making blueprints. Behind at $30,000 was “Mr & Mrs Harold Healy Symbolically Sketched / 1st Prize, 1st Anniversary.” Coming in at $23,750 was a 106-page book titled The Y.T.T.E. Tabosa Edition, which featured blueprint elevation profiles for various imagined projects.
Following its success at Christie’s 2019 Outsider sale, the William Louis-Dreyfus Foundation again deaccessioned works totaling 29 lots to benefit the foundation and the Harlem Children’s Zone. The works, which included artists Bill Traylor, Clementine Hunter, Judith Scott, Leopold Strobl, Thornton Dial, Willie Young, Raymond Materson, Nellie Mae Rowe and others, brought in a total of $801,625.
“The Outsider art market is thriving, and collectors from across the globe demonstrated that there is interest in the talented and diverse artists within this field,” Zimmerman said.
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