Auctions | September 10, 2013

Swann Galleries’ October 3 Auction of African-American Fine Art


New York—On Thursday, October 3, Swann Galleries will conduct an auction titled Postwar African-American Fine Art that offers groundbreaking material epitomizing how African-American art evolved in the mid-20th century. This “point of departure” was inspired by the growing internationalism of the art world, and the spread of Abstract Expressionism—the first uniquely American art movement. As a result, many African-American artists were no longer wary of going “Modern.”

The auction features significant transitional works by artists whose careers began in the WPA era and incorporated abstraction, such as Sargent Claude Johnson’s experimental modernist terracotta sculpture, Dancer, circa 1938-1940, which is a radical departure from the naturalist heads the artist produced in the 1930s (estimate: $30,000 to $50,000); Romare Bearden’s Christ Healing the Sick, a stained glass like oil painting from 1945 that is an excellent and early example of his postwar painting ($15,000 to $25,000); and Elizabeth Catlett’s Head, terracotta sculpture, 1947, an iconic work made at the beginning of a great period of creativity in Mexico reflecting an attention to form and exploration of materials characterizing the rest of Catlett’s career ($80,000 to $120,000).

There are works by others who largely resisted this shift, like Charles White, Hughie Lee-Smith and Loïs Mailou Jones. Examples by White include Hope Imprisoned, a tempera painting on paper from 1946 typical of the artist’s work in the mid to late 1940s depicting the plight of the downtrodden ($100,000 to $150,000); and a circa 1967-68 Untitled (Head of a Man), conté crayon, ink and oil wash on board once in the collection of Nat King Cole, which is the first oil wash work by the artist to come to auction, ($30,000 to $50,000).

By Hughie Lee-Smith is Infinity (Infinity Seascape), oil on canvas, circa 1970, a strong example of his mid-career “metaphysical” phase, typified by isolated figures in an urban landscape, this one with elements of a mysterious waterfront ($20,000 to $30,000).

From Loïs Mailou Jones are three paintings, Rue de L’Abreuvoir, Paris, gouache on board, 1948, a charming Montmartre street scene, Untitled (Village Steet Scene), oil on canvas, 1949, a picturesque landscape reflecting the artist’s colorful Impressionist scenes from this era ($15,000 to $25,000 each); and Fishing Smacks, Menemsha, Massachusetts, oil on canvas, 1960, one of the largest known Martha’s Vineyard landscapes by Jones ($20,000 to $30,000).


The biggest transitions are seen in the work of modern painters such as Charles Alston, Beauford Delaney, Norman Lewis and Hale Woodruff, who completely embraced abstraction by 1949. The lot with the highest pre-sale estimate, in fact, is a previously unrecorded Untitled oil painting by Norman Lewis, circa 1957, which is not only an exceptional example of Lewis’s painting, but an exciting discovery. Combined within this painting are the artist’s “ritual” calligraphic figures and a shift toward color field painting ($250,000 to $350,000).

Also significant are Charles Alston’s Untitled (Abstract Composition), oil and sand on board, 1960 ($10,000 to $15,000); Beauford Delaney’s Untitled, oil on canvas, 1968, a representation of an African fertility figure within a saturated yellow color field painting ($50,000 to $75,000); and Hale Woodruff’s Gathering Storm (Blue Landscape), oil on canvas, circa 1958-60 ($60,000 to $90,000).

The auction features abstract paintings from the 1970s, such as a monumental Untitled Frank Bowling acrylic and spray paint on canvas, 1972, one of his important map paintings, and possibly one of the last major works from the series ($40,000 to $60,000); Bill Hutson’s The Black Painting, oil on canvas, 1971, which is the first of the artist’s 1970s abstract paintings, and his largest, to come to auction ($12,000 to $18,000); an Untitled three-cube composition by Al Loving, a great example of his geometric abstractions, circa 1969-70 ($15,000 to $20,000); and William T. Williams’s Chuckerbootstar Last, acrylic on canvas, 1972-73, the first significant work by Williams made after 1971 to come to auction ($75,000 to $100,000).

Contemporary art highlights range from Robert Colescott’s Shakespeare’s Africans, acrylic and gel medium on canvas, 1994, a lush and stirring example of Colescott’s satirical view of the cultural intersections of race and sex ($50,000 to $75,000) to Radcliffe Bailey’s Untitled model ship covered in fabric and black glitter, 2010 ($12,000 to $18,000).

The auction will begin at 2:30 p.m. on Thursday, October 3.

The works will be on public exhibition at Swann Galleries Saturday, September 28, from 12 p.m. to 5 p.m.; Monday, September 30 through Wednesday, October 2, from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.; and Thursday, October 3, from 10 a.m. to noon.

An illustrated auction catalogue, with information on bidding by mail or fax, is available for $35 from Swann Galleries, Inc., 104 East 25th Street, New York, NY 10010, or online at

For further information, and to make advance arrangements to bid by telephone during the auction, please contact Nigel Freeman at 212-254-4710, extension 33, or via email at

Live online bidding is also available via

First image: Elizabeth Catlett’s Head, terracotta sculpture, 1947 (estimate: $80,000 to $120,000).

Second image: Norman Lewis, Untitled, oil painting, circa 1957. (estimate: $250,000 to $350,000).