African American Art—Works to Watch in the Fall 2022 Sale

Director Nigel Freeman shares his top eight lots to watch in the October 8, 2022 sale.

Jacob Lawrence’s Westchester Graduation Ball, 1951

Lot 31: Jacob Lawrence, Westchester Graduation Ball, brush and ink, 1951. Estimate $50,000 to $75,000.

In June 1951, Westchester African American community leaders, Rev. Alger L. Adams and his wife, Jessie, of Hastings-on-Hudson, sponsored a cotillion-styled ball at Sarah Lawrence College for 1,951 of Westchester’s Black high school graduates. Inspired by the notion of a cotillion, they formed a committee of community peers and executed the fête. A long-time family friend of the Adams’, Lawrence was asked to design the cover for the invitation. After the invitations were printed, the original painting was returned to the Adams. Then Lawrence waved away their offer to return the original and instead gifted it to them.

This wonderful, elegant drawing is both a significant example of Jacob Lawrence’s mid-career work on paper and a notable modern representation of Black social history. In 1951, Lawrence began a series of paintings that explored similar themes of performance – including Vaudeville, collection of the Hirshorn Museum, Smithsonian Institution, Chess on Broadway, exhibited at Twenty-Eighth Venice Biennale, and Magic on Broadway. He also made two other versions of this illustration that year –Untitled (Dance A) and Untitled (Dance B). All three are illustrated in the artist’s 2000 catalogue raisonnné by Peter Nesbitt & Michelle DuBois.

Harold Cousins’ Viking, 1952.

Lot 37: Harold Cousins, Viking, welded steel, 1952. Estimate $30,000 to $40,000.

This significant steel sculpture by Harold Cousins comes from an important early body of modernist work, made during his first decade in Paris. Born and raised in Washington DC, Cousins attended Howard University and served in the Coast Guard during World War II. Cousins then moved to New York, enrolled at the Art Students League and focused on creating sculpture. While there, Cousins studied under William Zorach, Will Barnet and Reginald Marsh, and also met his wife Peggy Thomas. They moved to Paris in October of 1949. Cousins first studied with Ossip Zadkine, and became close friends with artists Karel Appel and Shinkichi Tajiri, a fellow student of Zadkine’s. Cousins also joined a community of expatriate African American artists in Paris including Ed Clark, Beauford Delaney, Herbert Gentry and Larry Potter. With funding from the GI Bill, many American artists moved to Paris to be at the forefront of the post-war art world.

Viking is an iconic example of Cousins’s mature postwar practice in Paris. Inspired by the Spanish modernist Julio Gonzalez, the first artist of the era to explore a new technique of welding steel, Cousins created delicate, expressive sculptures, which brought him great acclaim in Europe. Viking is similar to Cousins’s La Reine, 1952, in the collection of the Eskenazi Museum of Art, Indiana University – its dynamic form takes on strikingly different shapes from different viewpoints. The first major exhibition of these steel sculptures was at Galerie Raymond Creuse in Paris in 1954.

Related Reading: Fine Sculpture by African-American Artists

Romare Bearden’s Wine Star, 1959.

Lot 45: Romare Bearden, Wine Star, oil on canvas, 1959. Estimate $150,000 to $250,000.

Wine Star is an excellent and significant example from Romare Bearden’s period of abstract color field painting of the late 1950s. Bearden’s development of abstraction was influenced by non-Western intuitive approaches to imagery. In the mid-1950s, Bearden had an interest in Zen Buddhism and studied calligraphy and Chinese landscape painting with a Chinese calligrapher. His late 1950s works display less of an interest in the activity of action painting of expressionism, as described by his friend the writer Harry Henderson in a 1989 interview – “He found a rationale by studying Zen philosophy. His works were always serene and lacked the tremendous physical involvement employed by the Abstract Expressionists.” Sharon Patton also described a “mystical elegance” in these abstract works, and the influence of Chinese painting is found in their asymmetry and an entry point into the painting. Patton illustrates this phase with Bearden’s Blue is the Smoke of War, White the Bones of Men, circa 1960, from the Harry B. Henderson collection and sold at Swann Galleries on September 15, 2005.

Related Reading: Romare Bearden’s Letters to Art Historian Harry B. Henderson, Jr.

Cliff Joseph’s Rise People Rise, 1970.

Lot 74: Cliff Joseph, Rise People Rise, oil on canvas, 1970. Estimate $35,000 to $50,000.

Rise People Rise. is an important mid-career painting by artist, activist and art therapist Cliff Joseph. It is a powerful political and artistic statement created at the height of the Black Arts movement. As a founding member of the Black Emergency Cultural Coalition in New York, Joseph was working at the vanguard of a transformative moment in African American art and history.

Born in 1922 in Panama City where his father was employed in the construction of the Panama Canal, Joseph’s family emigrated to the United States the following year, settling in Harlem. Following military service in the Army artillery and WWII, he studied at the Pratt Institute in New York, receiving a degree in illustration in 1952.

Cliff Joseph best described his practice of painting: “the power of the art belongs to the people.” By 1968, both his painting and activism were reaching new heights. That year, Joseph painted one of his best known works, My Country Right or Wrong, a powerful anti-war statement. In 1968, Joseph also co-founded the Black Emergency Cultural Coalition (BECC) with Benny Andrews, Henri Ghent, Reggie Gammon, Mahler Ryde and Edward Taylor. Faith Ringgold also became a member of BECC. Its founding was a direct response to the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s controversial exhibition Harlem on My Mind which did not include any Black painters or scultpure. Its goal was to increase the representation of Black artists in New York galleries and museums. Joseph and the BECC went on to also protest the Whitney Museum of American Art exhibition Contemporary Black Artists in America, and organized the exhibition Rebuttal to Whitney Museum Exhibition at the Acts of Art Gallery in Manhattan.

Joseph was also one of the first African Americans to join the professional practice of art therapy, and the first African American to join the American Art Therapy Association. He practiced art therapy at Lincoln Hospital and was on staff at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York.

Joseph’s iconic Blackboard, 1969, with its vision of an Afro-centric education, was recently included in the important traveling exhibition Soul of a Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power organized by curators Mark Godfrey and Zoe Whitely at the Tate Modern, London. Rise People Rise is the most significant and largest painting of Cliff Joseph to come to auction to date.

An Ed Clark Abstration

Lot 113: Ed Clark, Untitled, monoprint, 1982. Estimate $15,000 to $20,000.

Related Reading: Black Abstract Artists: Exploring Innovative Techniques

Hughie Lee-Smith‘s The End (The Pink Door), 1998.

Lot 178: Hughie Lee-Smith, The End (The Pink Door), oil on canvas, 1998. Estimate $40,000 to $60,000.

The End is a bold and dramatic painting from Hughie Lee-Smith’s late series of works inspired by the theatre. His depictions of figures in imaginary, staged environments recall Lee-Smith’s early experiences of dance and theatre while working at the Playhouse Settlement (named Karamu House in 1941) during the WPA period in Cleveland. Lee-Smith taught art at Karamu House in the late 1930s in return for the full scholarship to the Cleveland School of Art (now the Art Institute of Cleveland) that the Gilpin Players awarded him in 1935.

A striking painting from this ultimate period of Lee-Smith’s oeuvre with both the figures hidden or turned from the viewer, the only faces on view are the images of a Greek tragedy mask and an African mask painted on the set. The compressed space and floating elements further create a metaphysical, dream-like space that reflects the lasting influence of Giorgio De Chirico. The End is also a very personal reflection on mortality. Painted after his move to Albuquerque in 1997, Lee-Smith was fighting his final battle with cancer at the time—he passed away on February 23, 1999, at the age of 83.

Winfred Rembert’s Jeff’s Cafe & Pool Room and Zeb’s Shoe Shine, 1998.

Lot 179: Winfred Rembert, Jeff’s Cafe & Pool Room and Zeb’s Shoe Shine, dye on carved and tooled leather, 1998. Estimate $25,000 to $35,000.

Jeff’s Cafe is an important subject, a location central to Winfred Rembert’s young life in Georgia. It is revisited in this work, as well as in Jeff’s Pool Room, 2003 and Inside Jeff’s Cafe, circa 1997. Jeff was an entrepreneur who owned a pool room in Cuthbert, Georgia, who gave Rembert his first job outside of the cotton field. Eventually, Rembert ran the business after Jeff fell ill and was unable to work.

Born and raised in Cuthbert, Georgia, Winfred Rembert lived and worked as an artist in New Haven, CT. His artwork, painted on carved and tooled leather, displays memories of his youth—Black life in the Jim Crow South. His artistic vision calls forth vivid scenes from Georgia cotton fields and colorful characters from the juke joints and pool halls of Cuthbert. They also reveal his encounters with racial and police violence in the aftermath of a civil rights protest, and the subsequent seven years he spent on a Georgia chain gang.

His paintings have been exhibited at museums and galleries around the country, including the Yale University Art Gallery, the Hudson River Museum, and The Adelson Galleries in New York. In 2011, Rembert was the subject of an award-winning documentary film, All Me: The Life and Times of Winfred Rembert, by Vivian Ducat, and in 2015, he was honored by Bryan Stevenson’s Equal Justice Initiative. In November 2019, NPR aired a segment produced by StoryCorps on the artist. Winfred Rembert’s 2021 memoir Chasing Me to My Grave: An Artist’s Memoir of the Jim Crow South written in collaboration with Erin I. Kelly, a professor of philosophy at Tufts University, was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 2022.

Xenobia Bailey’s Think, 2008.

Lot 202: Xenobia Bailey, Think (Study for MTA Hudson Yards), hand-crocheted cotton and acrylic yard, 2008. Estimate $12,000 to $18,000.

Xenobia Bailey’s Think. Study for MTA Hudson Yards is a maquette for her commission by the MTA Percent for Art of New York. It culminated in the construction of three monumental glass mosaic works entitled Funktional Vibrations at the 34th Street – Hudson Yards subway station. Composed of a series of concentric tondos, Bailey’s study is inspired by what she calls “the Aesthetic of Funk.” It is derived from the visual, performing, culinary, and literary arts of African American culture and the ability to create beauty from the discarded.

Born and raised in Seattle, Washington, Bailey attended the University of Washington, studied Ethnomusicology, and attained a BFA in Industrial Design from Pratt Institute. Her textile art is inspired by her mother’s handmade domestic needle arts and quilted creations, and her mother’s collection of domestic textiles of local African American homemakers/caregivers in Seattle. This study and practice has developed into an aesthetic language fused with a range of cultural and experiential influences – including ancient African weaving techniques and the Kongo Cosmogram, a symbol important to Kongo metaphysics and spiritual ceremonies, Chinese, Native American, and Eastern philosophies, with undertones of 1970s Funk.

Bailey’s most recent public art installations were at the New York City Art for Transit: #7 Subway Line Extension Station-34th St.-11th Ave., part of the Hudson Yard Development Project with three commissioned mosaic murals. Bailey’s other permanent art installations are at Coney Island, Brooklyn, NY, the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library – Central Library, Washington, DC and the Boston Children’s Hospital, Boston, MA. Her artworks are also in the collections of the Facebook Headquarters, the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, the Allentown Textile Museum, the Newark Museum, the Sheldon Museum of Art, the Museum of Arts and Design of New York, the Mott-Warsh Collection, the Fuller Craft Museum, the Kamel Lazaar Foundation, Tunisia, the US Embassy in Ghana and the US Embassy in Djibouti.