Mark Bradford ‘Helter Skelter’ Painting Sells for $10.4 Million, Highest-Ever Auction Price for Work by Living African American Artist

MARK BRADFORD, Detail of “Helter Skelter I,” 2007


A MONUMENTAL PAINTING by Mark Bradford reached a historic benchmark at Phillips London on March 8. “Helter Skelter I” sold for about $10.4 million (nearly $12 million, including fees), an artist record, and the highest-ever auction price achieved by a living African American artist, according to Phillips and previous sales data.

John McEnroe, the tennis champion and ESPN analyst, consigned the nearly 34-foot long painting for sale. Made in 2007, the mixed-media work was featured in “Collage: The Unmonumental Picture” (2008), a group exhibition at the New Museum in New York City. McEnroe expressed an interest in ‘Helter Skelter I” going to a museum, giving the public more access to view and enjoy it. I inquired whether an institution had purchased the work. Phillips said it was unable to disclose any details about the buyer.

Among the largest paintings created by Bradford, “Helter Skelter I” was positioned to set a record against stated estimates of approximately $8.3 million – $11 million, which far exceeded Bradford’s previous auction high mark. “Helter Skelter I” sold to a phone bidder for the equivalent of $10,359,750 (hammer price), $11,977,943 (including fees), in Phillips 20th Century and Contemporary Art Evening Sale.

“This is a historic result for Phillips as our 20th Century & Contemporary Art team achieved the highest sale total in the history of the company. Our total of £97.8 million exceeds last year’s result by almost seven times…” Dina Amin, Head of Phillips 20th Century & Contemporary Art, Europe, said in a statement. “Our terrific showing was bolstered by a world-record price for Mark Bradford’s Helter Skelter I, an astonishing work by one of the greatest painters of our time. It was truly a great night.”

“Our terrific showing was bolstered by a world-record price for Mark Bradford’s Helter Skelter I, an astonishing work by one of the greatest painters of our time. It was truly a great night.”
— Dina Amin, Phillips Europe

Lot 14: MARK BRADFORD, “Helter Skelter I,” 2007 (mixed media collage on canvas, 144 x 407 7/8 inches). | Estimate £6,000,000 – £8,000,000 ($8.3 million – $11 million). Sold for £7,500,000 ($10,359,750) hammer price, £8,671,500 ($11,977,943) including fees.


Leading up to the sale, Bradford’s auction record was set more than two years ago when “Constitution IV” sold at Phillips London for £3,778,500 ($5,743,320 million) on Oct. 14, 2015. Then, on March 6, 2018, “Bear Running from the Shotgun” by Bradford sold £3,833,750 ($5,325,079) at Christie’s London—a momentary high mark before “Helter Skelter I” sold two days later for a new artist record. (The London sales were in pounds, determining the record prices, which vary when converted to US dollars based on exchange rates at the time of each auction.)

In 2013, David Hammons consigned his own work, a crystal-embellished basketball hoop chandelier, for sale at Phillips New York. It sold for more than $8 million including fees, landing Hammons on the top 10 list of most expensive living artists, and no. 1 among living black artists. “Helter Skelter” rocketed past this previous record, making Bradford’s work the most expensive ever by a living African American artist at auction.

LOS ANGELES-BASED BRADFORD builds up meaning in his abstract collage paintings using discarded flyers and merchant posters found near his Liemert Park studio that speak to social justice and cultural issues. A number of words, perhaps symbolic, are visible within the layered, silver surface “Helter Skelter I,” including Candy, King, loud, and Best. A skull can be seen near the center of the canvas and on the top right, there is a singular “S” that resembles the logo for Sketchers.

Phillips catalog essay provides context for the title of the record-breaking work:

    Helter Skelter I’s title refers to a real moment of racial tension in American history. While ‘helter-skelter’ is generally synonymous with disorder or confusion, and in British English recalls an amusement park slide famously eternalised in The Beatles’ eponymous song, it here evokes a particularly harrowing episode in Los Angeles’ history. In the late 1960s, cult leader Charles Manson attempted to incite what he dubbed ‘Helter Skelter’, an apocalyptic race war he thought he could ignite by killing white people and blaming black militants. The gruesome killings that his followers committed, its victims including Hollywood actress Sharon Tate, shocked and fascinated the American public alike. The shockwaves that reverberated through America have come into focus again with Manson’s recent death, making Helter Skelter I a timely piece that addresses the persistent issues of race, crime and celebrity culture that continue to structure urban America.


Installation view of Mark Bradford’s “Helter Skelter I” in John McEnroe’s New York residence. | via Phillips


MCENROE HAS BEEN A SERIOUS COLLECTOR for decades and has purchased works by a number of African American artists, including Bob Thompson, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Glenn Ligon, and Kara Walker, in addition to Bradford.

“I felt like these artists’ time had finally come. It feels like it’s taken far too much time historically. Obviously, there are other great artists, but having lived the life I’ve lived, being around a lot of different people and traveling to a lot of different places, it became interesting to me to be part of what I felt was a new generation of artists who were really able to make a statement and change the way people were looking at art in general,” said McEnroe, in an interview with Phillips.

“With Bradford, there’s just something about him. I haven’t known him that long, but I’ve had the opportunity to speak to him over the course of the last number of years. I remember how Annie Philbin, whom I know from way back when she was at the Drawing Center, was like, ‘you gotta get a Mark Bradford.’ …He’s very engaged and I just found his whole persona and being very appealing. It made me want to spend more time figuring out what you’re actually looking at in his work.” CT


“Mark Bradford: Tomorrow is Another Day” was published to coincide with his solo exhibition in the U.S. Pavilion at the 2017 Venice Biennale. Released last month, “Mark Bradford: Pickett’s Charge” complements the artist’s installation at the Smithsonian’s Hirshhorn Museum—Bradford’s largest work to date, and his first-ever exhibition in Washington, D.C.


Installation view of “Helter Skelter I” and “Helter Skelter II” by Mark Bradford, featured in “Collage: The Unmonumental Picture,” at New Museum (2008). | via New Museum


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