Contemporary Art

Kerry James Marshall Quadruples Record, As Black Contemporary Artists Reach New Heights at Auction

By Sotheby's

Kerry James Marshall’s pivotal Past Times was a highlight of the artist’s recent mid-career survey organized by the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago; The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; and the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles. The most significant work by the renowned artist to ever come to auction, Past Times has officially quadrupled the artist's auction record, achieving $21,114,500 in Sotheby's Contemporary Art Evening Auction (16 May, New York).

An extraordinary visual feat that positions Marshall’s singular vision in dialogue with the masters of art history, Past Times has been a cornerstone of Kerry James Marshall’s acclaimed career since it debuted at the 1997 Whitney Biennial. As seen in Past Times and five other lots by the artist which performed remarkably in Sotheby's Contemporary Art Day Auction (17 May, New York), Marshall has consciously pushed against the constraints of art history throughout his career. With Past Times, he confidently reclaims the presence of figures of African descent in the canon of Western art.

In this immense 108- by 157-inch canvas, Marshall expands upon his foundational series, the 1994–95 Garden Project paintings, many of which are in esteemed museum collections, such as that of the Denver Art Museum and the Art Institute of Chicago. Comprised of five works of art, this group of paintings depicts the daily routines of black residents in romanticized versions of major housing projects in Los Angeles and Chicago, including the Nickerson Gardens housing project, the artist’s childhood home. As an adolescent and a young adult, Marshall wandered the halls of Los Angeles museums and devoured books in his neighborhood library – through this education, he became acutely aware of the artistic language of the Dutch masters, the French Impressionists and the American Abstract Expressionists, but also the absolute absence of people of African descent in any of these works. This voracious appetite for art history informed Marshall’s singular artistic goal, appropriating the grand artistic gestures of historical movements in order to rectify the glaring absence of the black figure within Western art history. 


The week proved to be tremendous for black artists. All 42 works donated by artists of African descent to benefit The Studio Museum in Harlem were sold, totaling $20.2 million and establishing 24 auction records. 45 auction records were set over the Contemporary Art Evening and Day auctions, many of those setting new benchmarks for black artists in particular. Among them were Barkley L. Hendricks, Njideka Akunyili Crosby and Kehinde Wiley, the painter behind Barack Obama’s official presidential portrait.

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