In 2007 Swann Auction Galleries in New York held the first auction in US history devoted entirely to the works of African-American artists. “At the time there were only a few artists who had any real auction presence,” says Nigel Freeman, founder of the house’s African-American fine art department. “It reinforced a short-sightedness. If there were no auction records, work had no auction value. It was a chicken and egg situation.”
The house has held similar dedicated sales every April and October since, and prices have grown steadily, exceeding expectation. Other major auction houses followed with dedicated sales. This April, works by artists such as Frank Bowling ($161,000), David Hammons ($389,000) and Carrie Mae Weems ($68,750) went for up to twice their estimates. Butterfly, Feeling (1972) set a record at auction for Sam Gilliam in February 2013 when it sold at Swann for $72,000. Just a couple of years later, an untitled acrylic on canvas by Gilliam from 1969 brought in $197,000.
African-American artists are today filling respected galleries from London to New York, Berlin to Los Angeles. These artists have seen a burst of interest from collectors, significant auction sales heading into seven figures and a serious presence in major international shows at Tate Modern, the Brooklyn Museum and the Museum of Modern Art in New York. What stands out is the calibre of the work both technically and conceptually.
Many of these artists have been exhibiting for decades – Gilliam since the 1960s – so why now this hunger for their work? There are multiple reasons. There is a major process of rediscovery of older artists who were overlooked in previous decades. As Freeman observes, “There’s been a lot of interest in artists who had significant careers in the latter years of the 1960s and in the 1970s. There’s a rebirth, a recognition that is very belated for artists like Norman Lewis, who was an abstract expressionist, Sam Gilliam and Barkley L Hendricks.” Collectors and museum boards are grappling to fill artistic and cultural holes in their collections. Artists in mid career are also now seeing serious recognition in museums and private galleries, such as David Zwirner and Hauser & Wirth. The abstract artist Mark Bradford, now in his mid-50s and representing the US at this year’s Venice Biennale, is a landmark example. Younger artists emerging today are being given more opportunities to exhibit, and collectors are investing in their creations early. The work of artists such as Kerry James Marshall and Kara Walker is in no way regarded as marginal. These are among the most in-demand and skilful artists of their era.
Pulitzer Prize-winning critic and curator Hilton Als believes the current focus on artists from the African diaspora is in significant part due to the legacy of the Obama administration. “You can’t overestimate what having a black president did to culture. Michelle Obama’s efforts on behalf of cultural institutions in America were also a major influence,” he says. Her decision to hang the work of black artists in the White House alongside “classic” Americana was a statement that echoed among the country’s collectors and museum boards. They woke up to the gaping holes in their collections and programming. “Black art was as marginalised as black people,” Als points out.
The profile of collectors has also changed. “We’ve seen a broadening of interest,” Freeman observes. He believes this growth is a reflection of the art world’s more general increased attention to the postwar period and abstraction. It’s not just collectors interested in African-American artists who are buying their works, but those looking at all genres, from landscapes to the abstract.
When Mastry, the retrospective of Kerry James Marshall, now 61, moved from the MCA Chicago to The Met Breuer in New York last October, the response from the public exceeded all expectation. Queues formed around the block to see 80 works from the Chicago-based painter and multimedia artist. The waiting list to purchase his works trebled. Marshall is best known for figurative paintings that take historical genres such as 18th-century pastoral landscapes or Renaissance portraiture and reimagine and update them with black figures. “I try to make work that commands attention on its own. I make it in relation to history,” he explains. “I have to be willing to talk about what you want to talk about – and make my point at the same time.”
Marshall (whose small paintings are available from $600,000, with an auction record of over $2m at Christie’s in May 2016) has been working for more than three decades. He believes the catalyst for the current cultural acceptance of artists of African descent is a number of high-profile police shootings of black men (Michael Brown, Tamir Rice and Philando Castile among them), leading to a public outcry and civil unrest. “It just seemed like an unending series of tragic circumstances for black people in the United States. It was relentless,” he says. “It requires a certain sort of tragedy to create a sense of empathy with people. You end up with a kind of outpouring of support and concern as a way of offsetting what appears to be an irresolvable, irreconcilable problem.”
“Black artists of my generation have fought hard to make it a level playing field,” points out Chicago-based painter McArthur Binion (works $40,000-$125,000). “I’ve been working for 44 years since graduate school, along with my colleagues Stanley Whitney and Jack Whitten.” Binion is included in the main presentation of this year’s Venice Biennale, which has boosted collector and curatorial awareness. His abstract grid-like multimedia paintings incorporate personal artefacts, such as his old address book or birth certificate, over which he layers paint in thin, coloured lines. The works fuse a minimalism with glimpses of his personal history. “Shape and colour are just the beginning of something, or a means to an end,” he says. “I want to give the viewer something to bite on from a distance of six to 10ft, as well as up close.”
The attention Binion and Marshall are receiving, as well as older artists such as the exceptional 90-year-old assemblage specialist Betye Saar (as is her work Eye) and the 83-year-old Gilliam, is a clear pointer that art history is being rewritten. Pretty much all the living artists in Tate Modern’s upcoming exhibition Soul of a Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power and the Brooklyn Museum’s We Wanted a Revolution: Black Radical Women, 1965-85 are still working today. Galleries and collectors are taking note. “You’re not an artist because of a curator’s show, or because collectors are interested in your work. You’re making work regardless, and a lot of us in institutions are catching up,” states Tate exhibition co-curator Zoe Whitley. In the past, for African Americans, being an artist was innately radical. “Just the idea of deciding to be a visual artist was a revolutionary gesture,” says Brooklyn Museum co-curator Catherine Morris. In the wake of Black Lives Matter and the outpouring of international protest since the inauguration of Donald Trump, revolution resonates.
What is going on in museums is directly influencing which artists are being picked up by private galleries. Thelma Golden, director and chief curator of the Studio Museum in Harlem, is one of the most influential supporters of African-American artists, among them the Nigerian-born, Yale-trained painter Njideka Akunyili Crosby. Crosby’s work leapt to six figures quickly after showing at the museum and other venues in 2015-16, and in a sale at Christie’s London this March one of her creations soared to a record-breaking £2.5m for only her third piece to appear at auction. Golden says that there has been a steady rise in exhibitions, collections, publications and scholarship about artists from the African diaspora in recent years. “So much has changed for the better, but we are still planting the seeds every day.”
Gallerists too are helping promote these artists to an eager international audience. Hauser & Wirth, for example, recently signed conceptual artist Lorna Simpson (works $125,000-$375,000), whose pieces span photography, painting, sculpture and drawing. This follows in the footsteps of long-time advocates of African-American artists such as Alexander Gray, whose New York space has showcased the conceptual and performance artists Lorraine O’Grady (works $10,000-$250,000) and Coco Fusco ($5,000-$100,000), and monumental metal sculptor Melvin Edwards ($15,000-$500,000). Galleries have been central to changing perceptions, as Gray states. “This constellation of professionals, including dealers like myself, emerged in the context of feminism, multiculturalism, queer theory and identity politics that activated conversations about representation and equity – or lack thereof – in museums and the market.”
Jack Shainman is another pioneering gallerist. He has worked with Kerry James Marshall since the early 1990s, and shows other artists such as Atlanta-based mixed-media artist Radcliffe Bailey (works on paper from $7,500), who makes three-dimensional collages and wall sculptures that reference the history of slavery and Africa. Shainman also worked with the painter Barkley L Hendricks. Until his death in April, Hendricks created stylish figurative realist paintings (portraits from $750,000), such as his unforgettable 1969 work Icon for my Man Superman (Superman Never Saved any Black People – Bobby Seale) on show in the forthcoming Tate exhibition. “Barkley was such an amazing inspiration to so many artists – Kerry James Marshall went to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art when he was in elementary school and saw those paintings and said, ‘Some day I want to have a painting in a museum like this’,” says Shainman.
This rediscovery of older artists is having an equally strong effect on younger generations. Kara Walker (as is her work A Subtlety or The Marvelous Sugar Baby) entered the art world in the 1990s as a contentious name who either riled or was adored for her cutout silhouette animations, paintings and projection work that intentionally referenced stereotypes, violence and the history of slavery. She calls herself a painter, but has a broad take on media. “I try other ways of working because it feels urgent always to validate the notion of history as repetition with change,” she notes. Walker (whose work has sold at Sotheby’s for more than $420,000) is aware of the range of possibilities for artists of African descent in recent years. “When I started out, one of my objectives was to kind of trick white people into recognising racism and its role in all our lives. I think that it’s clear from the sort of cultural soul searching that’s been going on, in the US in particular, that the themes and issues relevant to black or African artists are relevant to us all.”
Martine Syms is not even 30 and she is being given her first solo museum show at the Museum of Modern Art. The Los Angeles-born and -based artist (works from $5,000) creates video pieces, online projects and text installations that deconstruct established media conventions, from sitcoms to TV ads. She believes the internet has helped change awareness of black artists. “I think it’s tied to increased visibility. There is less reliance on mainstream distribution.” Audiences, says Syms, are also changing. The kind of people coming to MoMA is far broader than a decade ago: “Museums are looking at their demographics and their numbers – who they’re reaching and who they’re not reaching. That’s influencing their curatorial decisions.”
The leading role of Mark Bradford (as is his work Oracle) in the Venice Biennale shows how dramatically things are changing. His current pieces (his record sale was at Phillips for over £3.7m, while his sculpture sold at Christie’s for $365,000 last year) include thickly painted abstract installation objects that combine references to his own upbringing, working at his mother’s hair salon in Los Angeles, with Greek mythology and reflections on globalisation. Bradford’s political and intellectual take on abstraction has freed him from marginalisation. As Christopher Bedford, US Pavilion commissioner and director of the Baltimore Museum of Art, observes, “He wanted to elbow his way to a seat of power at the table of abstraction in order to make his voice heard.” The art world is listening.