Material Culture to auction noted folk art collection May 4
Kristina Barbara Johnson was named one of America’s Top 100 Collectors in Art and Antiques from 1986 to 1996, and her truly notable collection comprises over 1,000 lots in this sale. She spent 40 years as a trustee of the American Folk Art Museum, curating several exhibitions and introducing a yearly lecture series. Her eye for folk and self-taught or outsider art was both intuitive and informed. Her daughter Jeniah describes the pieces in her mother’s collection as “items that will not only enhance, or even launch, a folk art collection, but will also lend depth, warmth and humanity to an abstract collection or lightness of being and historical relevance to a traditional academic collection.”
The variety of art and artifacts in the auction also represents a life lived as a “voyage of discovery,” in Jeniah’s words. “Like any good explorer,” Jeniah says, “she kept a watchful eye for the new, the unusual, the exotic, the beautiful and the alluring. … She discerned good and bad; and the good came into her home.” The breadth of art – sculpture, illustration art, photography, pop art, pottery, textiles, and couture in addition to painting and drawing – along with antiques, vintage mid-century collectibles and Americana are a testament to Johnson’s inexhaustible energy for collecting.
The auction opens with work by several notable self-taught artists. A human figure in river stone by Virginian carver Raymond Coins (1904-1994) starts the day. Sister Gertrude Morgan (1900-1980), a preacher, missionary, musician and poet who worked primarily in New Orleans, is represented in an oil, watercolor and ballpoint pen painting on paper that bears many of the hallmarks of her work. Text often appears in her paintings, and the figures here appear against a backdrop of cursive words. The seated woman to the left is likely a depiction of the artist, who frequently placed herself within her own work, identified by the all-white attire Sister Morgan wore in life.
An oil painting on board by Pennsylvanian self-taught artist Justin McCarthy (1892-1977) demonstrates both his bright, expressionistic colors and his love of fashion plates. Hat Fashions, dating to 1961, shows the head and shoulders of five women in varying styles of hats in a long, horizontal frame. A double-sided mixed media collage by Felipe Jesus Consalvos (1891-1960) bears provenance including the Fleisher-Ollman Gallery of Philadelphia. The piece, titled White Eagle, is a superb example of the artist’s usage of the cigar-band collage tradition of his Cuban heritage to achieve playful political satire.
Self-taught and folk sculpture at the auction includes a statue by Vernon Burwell (1916-1990), an artist from North Carolina. He worked in concrete, painting his human and animal figures brightly, as with this painted cement statue of a preacher, with an inscription that reads “I AM THE LIGHT OF THE WORLD / JESUS CARES.” Two other painted concrete statues of a hunter and his dog come to auction from American artist Henry Marques. The hunter, measuring 37 1/2 inches high, is signed “Henry/1942;” the dog, titled Caego, measures 15 1/2 inches high. With provenance through Robert Anderson of Upper Black Eddy, Pa., this duo of figures also appears in Animals in American Folk Art by Wendy Lavitt. Seven lots of sculpture by Cuban artist Saturnino Portuonda “Pucho” Odio (1928-1997) are led by his spectacular Black Angel. This carved statue of painted wood, signed and dated “10-08-82,” depicts an angel in what could be either flight or repose. Originally owned by Trinidadian actor Geoffrey Holder, this sculpture was exhibited at the Katonah Museum of Art, in the exhibition “Spirits: Selections from the Collection of Geoffrey Holder and Carmen de Lavallade,” and appears in the catalog for the same.
Johnson curated or consulted for numerous shows at the Metropolitan Museum, the Whitney Museum, and others, but was most proud of her exhibition of hooked rugs, “American Classics.” Her love for this medium can be seen in the selection of hooked rugs, comprising over 60 lots in the auction. Pictorial and abstract designs are both on offer, in an array of shapes and sizes. A particularly outstanding antique pictorial rug, inscribed “I LOVE MY MAN WITH A TENDER DEVOTOIN (sic)/BUT I CANNOT GO HIS KIN!,” shows a married couple surrounded by apparently unsympathetic in-laws. The piece, mounted on a stretcher, measures 32 by 53 inches, with provenance that includes Dorothy Schlesinger, of New York, and Olde Hope Antiques, of New Hope, Pa. Like many artifacts and art in Johnson’s collection, this rug appeared in several exhibitions and publications, including Labors of Love: America’s Textiles and Needlework, 1650-1930 (New York, 1987), by Judith Reiter Weissman and Wendy Lavitt, American Classics: Hooked Rugs from the Barbara Johnson Collection (Princeton, N.J., 1988), by Barbara Johnson and Wendy Lavitt, and Hooked Rugs: An American Folk Art (New York, 1992), by Lesley Linsley.
Other exceptional pieces of American folk art coming to auction from Johnson’s collection include a carved and painted panel of Washington at Mount Vernon. The reverse is incised with the words, “Carved by J.W. Montgomery Dalton, Pa,” likely Jacob W. Montgomery, born in 1867, verified by genealogical and first-hand accounts. The carving shows George and Martha Washington at a table, accompanied by an African-American house servant, a dog and a cat, and is a variant of the famous painting by Edward Savage (1761-1817), known widely by engravings. The carving measures 16 by 30 inches, with provenance through Freeman’s Auctions of Philadelphia. A delightful paint-decorated tole weather vane, showing a farmer digging a spade into the earth, dates to the late 19th century. This piece from Pennsylvania appears in several publications, including Folk Art in America (Exton, Pa., 1984), by Adele Earnest, A Gallery of American Weather Vanes and Whirligigs (New York, 1984), by Robert Bishop and Patricia Coblentz, and Folk Art: Imaginative Works from American Hands (Alexandria, Va., 1990).
As a young woman, Johnson was an artist’s agent in the advertising industry, representing Raymond Savignac (French, 1907-2002) and becoming acquainted with Andy Warhol (American, 1928-1987) in his early days of fashion illustration, and her taste for both pop art and her connections to these artists are also in evidence in the sale. An original line drawing by Warhol titled Happy, depicts two young girls laughing. Hand-colored and drawn with blotted ink, this delicate work on paper dates to circa 1954. Other pop art includes a selection of Savignac commercial posters, and a screenprint in color by Peter Phillips (English, b. 1939), titled Custom Print No. 1. Signed, dated and numbered 46/200 in pencil, the piece was part of 11 Pop Artists, Volume I (1965).
Other items are also the fruit of Johnson’s connection to Warhol, including several lots that were previously in Warhol’s collection. One such artifact is a fine Native American squash blossom necklace of silver and turquoise, signed “M.A.W.” and dating to the early 20th century. The most exceptional piece of jewelry in the auction, however, is a large gold pendant with two balancing monkeys that is possibly pre-Columbian, dating to A.D. 600-1600.
Johnson’s Asian art is led by nearly 70 lots of Japanese woodblock prints. Particularly notable are works by Utagawa Hiroshige (1797-1858), considered the last great master of the ukiyo-e tradition. A complete set of his famous series The Fifty-Three Stations of the Tokaido Road comprises 55 polychrome woodblock prints. Single prints are also available, as with Hiroshige’s instantly recognizable Evening Shower at Atake and the Great Bridge, number 52 in his series One Hundred Famous Views of Edo. Other woodblock print artists represented in the sale include Kitagawa Utamaro (1753-1806) and Katsukawa Shunko (1743-1812). Arguably the finest lot of Chinese art at the auction is a pair of jeweled gilt bronze foo dogs. In vessel form, these spectacular beasts measure 15 by 9 by 10 inches each, and are covered in a variety of jewels and stones.
Photography is highlighted in a silver gelatin emulsion photograph by Manuel Alverez Bravo (Mexican, 1902-2002), titled Ventana A Los Magueyes. Dating to 1976, this striking image of the leaves of maguey plants appearing to reach towards the window of a house, bears provenance that includes the Witkin Gallery of New York. Copies of this photograph appear in the collections of the Brooklyn Museum and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Over 25 lots of original illustration art are led by a painting of ink and watercolor on paper by George Carlson (American, 1887-1962), a cover for Drawing Funnies.
Johnson’s remarkable collection of antiques offers many gems. One of many lots of silver is an exquisite tea set, which includes three sterling silver pieces made in circa 1814 by Gerardus Boyce of New York City, along with two sterling silver pieces and two silver-plated pieces made to match by Tiffany.
Among the selection of fine antique furniture, a handsome early 18th century pine cupboard from Hudson Valley, New York stands out. A pair of cast-iron whippets may well have been made by J.W. Fiske & Co., the leading American manufacturer of decorative cast-iron in the second half of the 19th century. Over 30 lots of French Jaspe pottery, many dating to the late 19th or early 20th century, include plates, bowls, teapots, jars, pitchers, creamers and jugs.
Also at auction is a vintage automobile owned by Johnson, a 1950 Pontiac Chieftain convertible. Other vintage items include a selection of hats and several bags by Louis Vuitton and Hermes. Johnson’s diverse enthusiasm can be seen in her collections of fish decoys, comprising 25 lots, whaling-era artifacts, canes, metal cars and airplanes, coins and more.
Nearly 100 lots of art and fixtures suitable for outdoor decorating come to auction from Johnson’s garden. The finest in garden sculpture is an exquisite 19th century French cast-iron fountain figure of a woman in Grecian clothing. Labeled “Bertrand Forest, LYON,” the statue measures 48 by 16 by 12 inches. A fine pair of Adams and Storrie, Philadelphia Victorian cast-iron urns remain in excellent condition. Also of interest is an artisan-made cast stone figure of a policeman. This large piece, measuring 69 inches high, comes with his own shelter in the style of Spanish architect Antoni Gaudi.
An exhibition party to celebrate Kristina Johnson and the legacy of her diverse collection will be held on Friday, May 2, from 7 to 11 p.m., with live music, a DJ, and refreshments. Material Culture’s new restaurant, Baba Olga’s Café & Supper Club, which serves lunch daily, will additionally be open for dinner that evening, from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. Both the exhibition and the party are free and open to the public.
View the fully illustrated catalog and register to bid absentee or live via the Internet as the sale is taking place by logging on to www.LiveAuctioneers.com.
ADDITIONAL LOTS OF NOTE