KERRY JAMES MARSHALL, “Past Times,” 1997 (acrylic and collage on unstretched canvas). | Estimate $8 million-$12 million
MARQUIS WORKS BY AFRICAN AMERICAN ARTISTS are increasingly showing up at major auction houses. The latest is “Past Times” by Kerry James Marshall, which is being offered by Sotheby’s New York on May 16. Described by Sotheby’s as a “cornerstone” of the Contemporary Art Evening Auction, “Past Times” carries a pre-sale estimate of $8 million-$12 million.
The ambitious estimate positions “Past Times” to set an artist record. Marshall’s previous high mark was achieved last November when his portrait of Harriet Tubman sold for $5,037,500 (including fees) at Christie’s New York.
“Past Times” (1997) was featured in “Kerry James Marshall: Mastry,” the Chicago-based artist’s highly praised 30-year survey that was on view at MCA Chicago, The Met Breuer, and MOCA Los Angeles from 2016-17. An urban pastoral scene featuring black figures engaged in golf, croquet, waterskiing and boating, three figures gaze directly at the viewer in the foreground. The immense acrylic and collage on canvas painting measures 108 x 157 inches.
The Metropolitan Pier and Exposition Authority (MPEA) in Chicago consigned “Past Times” for sale at Sotheby’s. A municipal corporation, MPEA owns McCormick Place, the largest convention center in North America. In 1997, MPEA purchased Marshall’s work from a Los Angeles gallery and it was put on display near one of the main entrances of the South Building.
McCormick invests in public art and its collection features more than 100 works on view throughout the convention center campus, which includes two hotels. Artist from Chicago, Illinois and around the world are represented in the collection, Radcliffe Bailey, Nick Cave, Richard Hunt, Allen Stringfellow, and Marshall, among them.
In 2016, “Past Times” was loaned to MCA Chicago for the “Mastry” exhibition and a photographic replica of the painting was hung in its place. Since the exhibition closed, the original painting has been in storage.
Cynthia McCafferty is president of Hawthorne Strategy Group and serves as a spokesperson for the Chicago Convention Center. She told me the board of trustees voted yesterday to auction “Past Times.” The decision was made in the course of a regular assessment process.
“As part of a routine review, where we were looking at the insurance and valuation of all the paintings, we realized how much it had appreciated in value,” McCafferty said. “We are a convention center not a museum, so we certainly don’t have the level and type of security and display space you would have in a museum for something that valuable. Because of that, it is not feasible to maintain it and keep it on public display and we are not able to donate it or permanently loan it out so it was determined that a public auction was the best approach forward.”
“As part of a routine review, where we were looking at the insurance and valuation of all the paintings, we realized how much it had appreciated in value. We are a convention center not a museum, so we certainly don’t have the level and type of security and display space you would have in a museum for something that valuable.”
— Cynthia McCafferty, Chicago Convention Center
McCafferty explained Marshall’s “Past Times” could not be donated, to a museum for example, because of restrictions on the funds used to purchase the painting.
“It’s a little complicated,” she said. “We purchased the painting when we were expanding and building one of the buildings on our campus called the South Building. One of the things we do as part of all of our construction work is we invest in public art for display. We actually have a pretty sizable collection on campus. The funds, they were called Public Expansion Bonds, that were used for the purchase of the painting were part of the construction. We are not legally allowed to give something away that was purchased with that.”
When MPEA bought “Past Times” in 1997, the price was $25,000, according to McCafferty. It was acquired from Koplin Gallery in Los Angeles. Koplin and its successor Koplin Del Rio Gallery were in business from 1982-2004.
Based on Sotheby’s estimate, the value of Marshall’s “Past Times” has increased about 300-500 times the purchase price. The enormous proceeds, McCafferty indicated, will not be earmarked for additional art acquisitions because of the same restrictions that preclude donating the painting.
“The decision is actually not really ours to make,” she said. “Based on the funds that were used for the purchase of the painting, the proceeds are going to go into a reserve fund to pay for capital maintenance on campus. It would pay for maintenance and repairs and that sort of thing. It would go into a reserve fund specifically for that purpose.”
Marshall completed “Past Times” in the wake of his Garden Project series (1994-95), his first cohesive body of work. The five paintings reimagine public housing projects in Chicago and Los Angeles (where Marshall grew up with his family in Nickerson Gardens), casting black figures at the center of romanticized pastoral scenes inspired by Italian Renaissance paintings.
The artist made three additional paintings at the conclusion of the Garden Project series, including “Past Times.” He produced all eight of the large-scale works on un-stretched canvas affixed with grommets for hanging.
In a statement announcing the sale of “Past Times,” Saara Pritchard, Sotheby’s Senior Specialist in Contemporary Art, said:
Past Times reimagines art history, taking as his point of departure Western masterworks of narrative painting such as Giorgione’s The Tempest, Édouard Manet’s Le Déjeuner sur l’herbe and Georges Seurat’s A Sunday on La Grande Jatte. The final product is a brilliant reinterpretation of pastoral scenes in which aristocrats frolicking in Europe are replaced with black figures relaxing on the shores of Lake Michigan in Chicago: sailboats, crew shells and parasols are substituted with motorboats, water skiers and boom boxes: a summer breeze is swept aside by lyrics from Motown and Snoop Dogg. Boldly re-invigorating the grand tradition of Western painting in the service of those made invisible within the same tradition, Marshall’s virtuosic mastery of the grand style demands that the absence of the black artist and subject be not only recognized, but immediately and irrevocably rectified.
“‘Past Times’ reimagines art history… The final product is a brilliant reinterpretation of pastoral scenes in which aristocrats frolicking in Europe are replaced with black figures relaxing on the shores of Lake Michigan in Chicago.” — Saara Pritchard, Sotheby’s
Sotheby’s May 16-17 contemporary sales will also feature art by 42 critically recognized African American artists who are donating their works to benefit the Studio Museum in Harlem’s new building project, which designed by Adjaye Associates in collaboration with Cooper Robertson.
Meanwhile, Phillips announced another Marshall painting is a highlight of its May 17 sale in New York. “Untitled (Blanket Couple), a 2014 painting by the artist will be offered at Phillips 20th Century & Contemporary Art Evening Sale with a $3.5 million-$5.5 million pre-sale estimate.
At Sotheby’s, expectations are high for Marshall’s “Past Times.”
“We are privileged to be entrusted with the sale of Past Times, an undisputable masterpiece by Kerry James Marshall that both defines and transcends our time,” Pritchard said. “Artistically complex, politically engaged and career-defining, it is an awe-inspiring work of art.” CT
READ MORE About how artists might benefit from maintaining a stake in their work, based on a new study
Recently released by Phaidon, “Kerry James Marshall” is a fully illustrated documentation of the artist’s career and includes a conversation with fellow artist Charles Gaines. “Kerry James Marshall: Mastry,” a comprehensive, cloth-covered catalog was published to accompany the artist’s 30-year survey. An extensive interview with Marshall is featured in the exhibition catalog “Painting and Other Stuff.” “Kerry James Marshall: Look See” coincided with the artists’s first exhibition with David Zwirner gallery in London in 2014.
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