Published: February 2, 2021
Review by Greg Smith, Catalog Photos Courtesy Christie’s
NEW YORK CITY – Seven of the top ten lots in Christie’s Outsider & Vernacular Art sale on January 21 were by Alabama self-taught artist Bill Traylor (1853-1949). The artist’s hand was on nine works in the sale, combining for $978,750, or over 45 percent of the auction’s $2,137,750 total.
This was the third and final year of an inked agreement between Christie’s and The William Louis-Dreyfus Foundation, which supplied 32 of the 90 lots on offer. Proceeds from the sale of those works – including examples from Traylor, Nellie Mae Rowe, Clementine Hunter, Thornton Dial, Raymond Materson and others – go to supporting educational programs for disadvantaged students, particularly the initiatives of the Harlem Children’s Zone.
While visitors could preview the sale in person, bidding was by online, absentee and phone only. Christie’s set up the preview like any other year and provided a virtual reality walkthrough via Matterport so that bidders unable to get into the gallery could understand scale and see the works on exhibition.
The Traylors were consigned from two places: the Dreyfus Foundation and collector Jerry Lauren, who had purchased many of them with his late wife, Susan. The foundation’s works largely centered on figures and constructions, while Lauren’s featured animals.
“Traylor certainly commanded his Old Master Outsider title,” said Cara Zimmerman, head of the firm’s Outsider Art department. “But one of the things that’s great about Traylor is his works are now transcending this label, we are seeing more and more interest from collectors of Contemporary and Postwar art. There’s appeal to this work that transcends categorization, it’s instead thought of as just art made in the Twentieth and Twenty-First Centuries – that’s an outgrowth of Postmodernism and what it means to be an artist.”
At the top of the sale was Traylor’s “Two Dogs Fighting; Man Chasing Dog,” which sold for $293,750. Consigned from Jerry Lauren, it is the fifth highest Traylor result at auction. Lauren owns the current record Traylor at auction, “Man on White, Woman on Red / Man with Black Dog,” which he purchased at Christie’s Outsider Art sale last year for $507,000.
“Two Dogs Fighting; Man Chasing Dog” featured provenance to dealers Frank Maresca, Roger Ricco and Fred Giampietro, and to collectors Gael and Michael Mendelsohn, who included it in their book The Intuitive Eye: The Mendelsohn Collection. It had also been in a 2013 exhibition at the American Folk Art Museum.
On the small deaccession, Lauren said his home was overflowing. “I’m full,” he said. “I have over 20 Traylors and I love them all, but I didn’t have any room on the walls. I don’t like keeping things in the closet.”
Lauren said the market for Traylor is “rock solid” at the moment. “I buy what I love,” he said, “Traylor is a remarkably brilliant artist.”
“For Traylor, there are different prices for different types of works that emerge,” Zimmerman said. “His market keeps going up, but we see one price for multi-figure constructions, another for multicolored works and another range for animals. They’re not hard and fast because each work is individual. On a larger scale, multicolor multi-figure works seem to command the highest prices, but we had deep bidding and deep interest in each of the Traylors, we’re seeing that people appreciate his body of work in its entirety.”
Also from Lauren was “Blue Mule,” a tempera and graphite on repurposed card, 12¾ by 15 inches, that brought $125,000. A “Spotted Dog” took $50,000, the same price as “Cat With Brown Jaw.”
From the William Louis-Dreyfus Foundation came the figural constructions, led by a $118,750 result for “Anthropomorphic Figure and Cat,” dated to the back “Sept 9, ’39” in Charles Shannon’s hand. It was featured in three major museum exhibitions, including the Smithsonian’s “African-American Artists 1880-1987: Selections from the Evans-Tibbs Collection, 1989-1992.” Traylor created his body of 1,200 works over a period of three years from 1939 to 1942, this representing an example from the earliest period of that burst. Shannon had only taken an interest in Traylor three months earlier in June of that year.
Also from the William Louis-Dreyfus Foundation was the multicolored “Red-Eyed Man Smoking” at $100,000; two monotone black constructions in “Two Figures with Pitchfork and Birds” at $93,750 and “Geometric Construction with Multiple Figures” at $87,500; and “Abstract Cat With Red Eyes,” which brought $60,000.
“I’m loath to ascribe anything to the background or gender of their makers – the art is first and foremost and stands alone – but we’re seeing an interest in female artists,” Zimmerman said. Auction records were set for Clementine Hunter and Judith Scott, while Nellie Mae Rowe had a great day at sale.
All from the William Louis-Dreyfus Foundation, the four Hunter (1886-1988) works were led by a $32,500 record result for the 1984 oil on canvas board “Clementine In Her Flower Garden,” which measured 18 by 24 inches. The work had provenance to Mildred Hart Bailey, among Hunter’s early patrons who held one of the largest collections of the artist’s works. “Clementine’s colors, the image and her outlook is speaking to people at the moment,” Zimmerman said. “They are commanding attention that is well deserved.”
For Judith Scott (1943-2005) was a $52,500 record result for “Untitled (Heart),” a 1993 work rising 34 inches high. It had been featured in American Vernacular and was composed of yarn and canvas strips over mixed-media supports. Zimmerman called it a sophisticated work. “It was an impressive scale,” she said, “then you have this fabulous abstract and representational form. That this looks like an anatomically correct heart makes it more mysterious, and it’s wrapped exquisitely.”
Nellie Mae Rowe’s top lot found $21,250 above an $8,000 high estimate. The circa 1970 “Swimmer,” a crayon, pastel and ink on paper measuring 18 by 24 inches, is the third highest result for the artist at auction. At $18,750 was the 1981 work “Early Bird,” while “Animals and Hills” from the same year took $15,000 – the fifth and sixth highest results at auction for Rowe.
Rising to $187,500, the second highest lot in the sale, was “Untitled (Tunnels and Train),” a monumental 1950s graphite and crayon work by Martin Ramirez (1895-1963). It had provenance to dealer Phyllis Kind, among the earliest champions of the artist’s work, and was featured in three exhibitions, including the 1980s traveling shows “The Art of Martin Ramirez” and “Hispanic Art in the United States: Thirty Contemporary Painters & Sculptors.” Zimmerman said the work had been in the consignor’s collection since they bought it from Kind in 1976 and it sold to a private collector. She said it had many underbidders on it as it pushed over the $80,000 high estimate.
Thornton Dial (1928-2016) produced a $150,000 result in a 2003 work, “Creation of Life in the Blackberry Patch,” which measured 73½ by 73 inches. This was a work that was difficult to understand online, Zimmerman noted, with its built-up surface and subtle tones ultimately flatted into an image in the online catalog.
An auction record for Raymond Materson (b 1954) was hoisted to $17,500 for “It’s Over (Iraqi Surrender to Italian Cameraman),” a 1991 work measuring 2-7/8 by 2¼ inches. The embroidery with unraveled sock threads was created during Materson’s 15-year sentence in a Connecticut prison. Visitors to Christie’s 2020 preview would have seen an exhibition on the artist with works from the William Louis-Dreyfus Foundation, which was installed adjacent to the sale galleries. “You’re seeing him addressing difficult things, challenging things, in this small form,” Zimmerman said. “Seeing him harness this technique to create a different conversation with each work – it is really powerful.”
Interest in Columbus, Ohio, barber/carver Elijah Pierce (1892-1984) is running high with his highly publicized exhibition at the Barnes Foundation. That may have pushed momentum forward for a collaborative relief carving that Pierce made with his apprentice, Leroy Almon (1937-1997), titled “Jonah and the Fish,” that sold for $60,000. Almon worked with Pierce from 1979 to 1982 and this example draws back to an early work, “Jonah and the Fish,” that Pierce created over 30 years prior in 1949. The carving was signed and dated by both of them and measured 11¼ by 29 inches.
Momentum for Outsider art is building, Zimmerman noted. “It’s going strong, I’m certainly heartened by these results. I saw deep bidding and a lot of interest from new people. I saw several artists make leaps. I’m seeing more interest in how these artists relate to other artists working at the same time in the same period. One of the things about this field is that we focus on artists who perhaps were not appreciated to the same extent as mainstream artists at the time they were working. By nature, this was largely with artists of color or women artists who didn’t have access to the primary market. There’s always been appreciation in this field for that, but it’s now spreading to other areas of the art world.”
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