“Untitled (Horserace)” by Wadsworth Jarrell.
BEYOND THE INFLUENTIAL REALM of major auction houses in art centers such as New York, London, and Hong Kong, and even Los Angeles and Chicago, there are hundreds of smaller, longstanding local businesses selling second-hand valuables, from antique furniture, watches, and china to fine art. In the United States, these auction houses in Virginia, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and beyond, hold sales that are often sprinkled with a handful of works by African American artists.
A recent sale at Ahlers & Ogletree Auction Galleries in Atlanta, prominently featured a painting by Wadsworth Jarrell from about three decades ago. The image of a horse race was used to promote Important Art & Design: Art Nouveau to Modern, an April 22 auction that featured more than 600 lots.
Described as an “Untitled, Horserace,” the acrylic on canvas painting by Jarrell is substantial in size, measuring about 48 x 72 inches.
Prominent members of the Black Arts Movement, Jarrell and his wife Jae Jarrell, are co-founders AfriCOBRA (African Commune of Bad Relevant Artists). The Chicago-based collective was established with three other African American artists in 1968. With a focus on community uplift and self-determination, the group spent two years honing their mission. They emphasized the responsibility of artists to help drive social change and at the same time strive for creative excellence.
AfriCOBRA developed a unified aesthetic, which included graphic lettering, bright Cool-Ade colors, and positive images of black people, both well-known figures and symbolic archetypes. Through the 1970s, Jarrell’s work reflected this aesthetic. Among his best known known works are richly colored images of Angela Davis (“Revolutionary,” 1972) and Malcolm X (“Black Prince,” 1971), which are formed by precisely placed typography characterized by energetic movement.
THE JARRELL WORK offered at Ahlers & Ogletree was made years later. Many of the style cues that show up in his 1990s work are present in the horse race scene, including leaves, circular motifs, figures with saucer-like eyes, patterned embellishments, and textural moments on the horses, in the sky and elsewhere in the scene created with striations of paint.
I asked Cleveland-based Jarrell about the painting. I wanted to learn more about his choice of subject, what he recalled about the work, and when he made it. In the lot detail, Ahlers & Ogletree states the painting was acquired directly from the artist circa 1981. By email, Jarrell told me he made it a decade later.
“The painting that you are inquiring about, I can’t remember the title, was made around 1991 or ’92 when I lived in Atlanta, and it was bought by a local gallery owner,” Jarrell said. “…The painting is in acrylic with a technique referred to as combing, which is influenced by Benin art (sculpture with incised striations), and of course with my personal signature of leaves through out the painting.”
The artist pointed out key elements of interest in the painting, including the leader board in the background, which features “all current information concerning the race,” and the three spectators in a box seat. The one on the right is holding a Diet Coca-Cola can.
Jarrell said he started painting jockeys in the 1960s, interpreting what he saw when he visited horse tracks. His subjects were always white because he had never seen a black jockey. That changed in 1980 when, through research, Jarrell discovered the storied history of African American jockeys. More than a dozen black jockeys rode in the inaugural Kentucky Derby in 1875. According to NPR, “Black jockeys won 15 of the first 28 Derbies. Why? Because the first black jockeys had been born into slavery or grew up as children of slaves tasked with caring for the horses on plantations and farms.”
“THERE IS NO REAL STORY on this painting, I have been painting horse races since the early ’60s. I lived in Chicago then and I would go out to the tracks, Arlington and Hawthorne, with a sketchpad and capture the action with pencil which later became paintings. I stop painting horse racing in the 1970s and concentrated on other subjects. At that time, all jockeys that I saw were white,” Jarrell said.
“In 1980, when I was a professor at the University of Georgia, I did research on African American jockeys in thoroughbred racing and that opened up another world of horse racing. From that point on, the jockeys astride my horses were African American, and I made paintings relating to famous African American jockeys and special events like the Kentucky Derby. I have paintings, large, medium and small of jockeys from the ’60s to the ’90s. For most of the ’60s, horse races, bar scenes, and jazz musicians were my principle subjects.”
“I did research on African American jockeys in thoroughbred racing and that opened up another world of horse racing. From that point on, the jockeys astride my horses were African American, and I made paintings relating to famous African American jockeys and special events like the Kentucky Derby.” — Wadsworth Jarrell
Jarrell’s horse race painting carried a starting bid of $15,000 and was estimated to sell for $30,000-$40,000. The lot was passed and went unsold.
In 2016, “Diz E Bird,” another painting by Jarrell depicting jazz musicians Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie sold for $17,000 at Ahlers & Ogletree. The same sale also featured “At the Three Deuces,” an undated screen print by the artist that went for $1,000.
At Swann Auction Galleries, Jarrell’s “Revolutionary” print has been offered and four paintings by the artist have come to auction in 2016-17, including “Untitled (African Rhythm, Our Heritage),” a 1973 mixed-media painting that fetched $97,500 (including fees), an artist record.
The record-setting painting was acquired by the Cleveland Museum of Art and inspired “Heritage: Wadsworth and Jae Jarrell” (Nov. 19, 2017-Feb. 25, 2018), a survey exhibition of 15 works by the artists dating from the mid-1960s to the present.
Work by the Jarrells is also featured in “Soul of a Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power,” which was organized by the Tate Modern in London. “A rare opportunity to see era-defining artworks that changed the face of art in America,” the exhibition features works by more than 60 artists. After making its U.S. debut at the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, “Soul of a Nation” will open at the Brooklyn Museum in September.
Also in September, Kavi Gupta Gallery in Chicago is commemorating AfriCOBRA’s 50th anniversary with an exhibition curated by Gerald Williams, a co-founder of the collective. Williams, Wadsworth Jarrell, Jae Jarrell, Barbara Jones-Hogu, Carolyn Lawrence, Bernard Williams, Shahar Caren Weaver and Robert Paige are contributing to “AfriCOBRA 50,” which is on view Sept. 8-Nov. 24, 2018. “At the Races,” a 1992 horse race painting by Jarrell is among the featured works. CT
“Soul of a Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power” documents the landmark exhibition featuring work by more than 60 artists, including Wadsworth Jarrell. Published by Pomegranate, “Wadsworth Jarrell: The Artist As Revolutionary” by Robert L. Douglas explores the life and work of Jarrell.
Lot 244: WADSWORTH JARRELL, “Untitled, Horse Race,” circa 1981 (acrylic on canvas, approximately 47.75 x 72 inches unframed). | Estimate $30,000-$40,000. UNSOLD
SUPPORT CULTURE TYPE
To help offset a small portion of the countless hours and expense required to research, report, write and produce the content on this website, Culture Type participates in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate program designed to help sites earn commissions by linking to amazon.com. When you make ANY merchandise purchase from Amazon, and the many independent booksellers and vendors that partner with Amazon, via a link from this site, Culture Type receives a minute percentage of its price. Your support is much appreciated.