10 Visionary Contemporary Artists to Celebrate Black History Month

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Every February, Black History Month celebrates the myriad achievements and contributions of African Americans in the spheres culture, science, business and society. In the visual arts, these influences have been both indelible and spectacularly varied — from the expressive landscapes of Henry Ossawa Tanner, the first African American painter to gain international acclaim in the late 19th century, to the impassioned and symbolic graffiti-scrawls of Jean-Michel Basquiat, whose Untitled, 1982, became the most expensive artwork by an American artist ever sold in 2017. In tribute to these innumerable creative visionaries, we’ve chosen 10 artists whose works have dynamically influenced American contemporary art — click ahead to learn more.

10 Visionary Contemporary Artists to Celebrate Black History Month

  • Jacob Lawrence, Menagerie. Estimate $180,000–250,000.
    Jacob Lawrence was one of preeminent American painters, and social chroniclers, of the 20th century, bringing together narrative painting, coded symbology and layered abstraction to speak to sweeping shifts in black life. The present work was painted in the year the artist and his wife traveled to Nigeria, reveling in the cultural sights and street life there, and reflects the artist’s modernist approach to addressing the nuance of history and lived experience.
  • Faith Ringgold, Two Jemimas, 1997. Estimate $150,000–200,000.
    Artist and activist Faith Ringgold’s practice encompasses a diverse range of media and approaches, although she is perhaps best known for her narrative quilts, which use craft techniques to reframe notions of race and gender. In the present work, Ringgold’s depicts two Jemimas, the advertising characters which play on the racist stereotype of Mammy in American culture, in the modernist mode of Willem de Kooning’s Women, complicating straightforward readings of how these cultural figures can function in visual culture.
  • Sam Gilliam, Leah's Favor. Estimate $180,000–250,000.
    Sam Gilliam is an American abstract painter whose style has shifted through various visual idioms, artistic processes and painterly formats, but has remained steadfastly devoted to color-saturated abstraction. Gilliam pioneered various novel painting forms and techniques, notably his Drape and Beveled Edge paintings, as well as a technique which involves applying diluted pigment on upstretched canvas, folding and creasing the soaked material with his hands in a sequence of virtuosic bodily gestures that allow pigments to infuse into unforeseen chromatic compositions.
  • Robert Colescott, Interior I. Estimate $30,000–40,000.
    Robert Colescott’s body of work takes stock of the complexities of shared culture and history, using humor and wit to delineate the intersections of race, power and representation. The present work reflects the time Colescott spent studying with Fernand Léger in Paris – here Colescott inserts a black presence into an art historically revered Modernist mode.
  • Rashid Johnson, Cosmic Slop "Change Of The Century". Estimate $70,000–100,000.
    Rashid Johnson’s body of work spans a wide range of media to address art historical and cultural legacy, by drawing connections between materials, philosophies and conceptual gestures. The present work is composed of black soap, and uses that materiality as a gateway to address African-American experience.
  • Lorna Simpson, Wigs (Portfolio). Estimate $30,000–40,000.
    Lorna Simpson is a conceptual artist whose work is concerned with black female subjectivity, and its relationship to society’s pervading power structures. Wigs is an investigation of conceptions of beauty, and functions as a semiotic device, coalescing in a mosaic visual poetry consisting of consumer products.
  • Kerry James Marshall, Untitled (Painter). Estimate $1,800,000–2,500,00.
    Kerry James Marshall's painting is concerned with the tenets of race and representation in art, using figuration as a vehicle to address the creative sphere and the wider course of history. In the present work, Marshall's subject is the archetypal painter, as well as the act and concept of painting, which are resolved together in one composition through the artist's singular stylistic virtuosity.
  • Henry Taylor, Neighborhood Watch. Estimate $80,000–120,000.
    Henry Taylor’s practice is anchored at the point between intimate portraiture, painterly immediacy, and imagined landscape, rendering compositions which act as both reflections of their sitters and larger assessments of pervading cultural structures.
  • Glenn Ligon, Baldwin #3 (II). Estimate $100,000–150,000.
    Glenn Ligon’s practice spans painting, printmaking, neon sculpture, video, and installation, and explores a complex melding of the visual and textual to invite viewers to contemplate issues of race, sexuality, representation and language. Many of his works draw on rhetorical passages from writers who negotiated the prospects of being black in an oppressively white America, such as James Baldwin, Ralph Ellison and Zora Neale Hurston, bringing to the fore through formal and chromatic complexities the realities of racial visibility.
  • Jack Whitten, Special Checking. Estimate $300,000–500,000.
    For more than five decades, Jack Whitten masterfully explored the formal possibilities and material potentialities of paint and painting, altering the evolution of Western abstraction and establishing his own unique visual language. An exemplar of the artist’s “Slab” paintings, the present work is executed using a “developer,” a floor based tool that spread a layer of paint onto a canvas in a single gesture.
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