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Sotheby’s auction results in recognition of minority artists

Photo By: Christie's


Brad Trevenen, Arts & Entertainment Editor

Minority artists, due to the rarity of their work, have become a fresh investment opportunity for affluent collectors in recent years. Notably, David Hockney broke the auction price record for a living artist. His 1972 work, “Portrait of an Artist (Pool with Two Figures),” sold for $90.3 million. The work is widely reported to have been sold with no reserve by Joe Lewis, affluent British billionaire businessman and investor.

The painting portrays from the overlook of an elevated pool deciduous-filled rolling hills coated in a sunny haze. The landscape is modeled from photographs of French country. The figures depicted include a salmon-jacketed man looking down into the water to see an obscured swimmer. Hockney spent three months creating this work after his relationship with an American student artist, Peter Schlesinger, ended. Those that have followed his work will note a much more realistic portrayal of water in “Portrait of an Artist” compared to works created prior.

David Hockney is an openly gay artist who first appeared in the 1960s. Now 81, he has continued to produce art and has recently been experimenting with digital mediums. His most recent major milestone was the sale of “Pacific Coast Highway and Santa Monica” (1990) in May for $28.5 million. Critics have identified compelling narratives baked into Hockney’s work, and suspect that homosexual themes will only prove more revelatory to generations present and onward.

Museums have played a large role in platforming minority artists like Hockney. Around the same time as the sale of “Portrait of an Artist,” works from five African American artists (two of which are living) experienced great success. From Robert Colescott (1925-2009), known for work that acts as personal reflection, “Cultural Exchange” (1987) sold for $912 thousand.

“Lady Day II” (1971) — by Sam Gilliam (84), color field painter and lyrical abstractionist artist — sold for $2.2 million. Gilliam was the first black artist to represent the U.S. at the Venice Biennale in 2016. Much of his work is permanently displayed in museums across the U.S. and Europe; and semi-locally, in the Carnegie Museum of Art.

Jacob Lawrence’s 1947 work, “The Businessmen” sold for $6.2 million. Lawrence lived from 1917-2000 and has created multiple series of paintings inspired by the lives of historical figures like: Toussaint L’Ouverture, Frederick Douglas, Harriet Tubman, and John Brown.

“Ancient Mentor I,” (1985) by American painter and sculptor Jack Whitten, sold for $2.2 million. Whitten was involved in the American Civil Rights movement and constructed a monumental painting following the events of 9/11. A frequent resident of Crete, Whitten experimented with substance and medium, as the wet acrylic through mesh in “Ancient Mentor I” shows. He died just this year aged 78.

Also sold at the Sotheby’s auction, Henry Taylor’s “I’ll Put a Spell on You” (2004) for $975 thousand. Born in 1958, Taylor is predominantly a portraitist, and has famously painted obsessively on everyday objects like detergent boxes, furniture, bottles, etc. His style is as eccentric as it is eclectic, depicting everyone from sports figures, politicians, the homeless, himself, waitresses, and otherwise ignored individuals during the day-to-day comings and goings.

Somewhat more mainstream in contemporary art, Dana Schutz’ work too saw the sale of “Her Arms” (2003) for $795 thousand. A painting which seems muted in comparison to her other works, which include figures eating themselves and other imaginative images of fiction, is still a characteristic work of hers.

Schutz received a great deal of backlash for her portrayal of Emmett Till in “Open Casket,” and artists like Hannah Black have berated her and fashioned petitions, calling for the destruction of the work. Schutz career, as well as recent auctions, highlights the cultural shift in the art world. Regardless, the market remains directorial of trends, and minority artwork is alas receiving recognition among upper class society; and value will certainly increase when members of the present generation begin to accumulate wealth and earn similar levels of monetary success.