DALLAS — Heritage Auctions‘ Diverse Visions: Important Works by American Masters Signature® Auction, taking place Friday, May 12, promises much and is sure to deliver. Works in the sale represent the apex of American artistic achievement, with a host of both expected and unexpected pieces by names that make collectors and institutions sit up and pay attention: George Bellows, Charles White, George Tooker, Maurice Sendak and Winslow Homer. There are only 68 lots in the May 12 lineup, and each one of them is remarkable. Absentee and Internet live bidding will be available through LiveAuctioneers.
The works of American painter Ernie Barnes are experiencing a comeback like that of no other artist of the last decade. Barnes’ circa-1989 painting Quintet is among the most recognizable pieces by the former pro footballer who was once fined by the Denver Broncos’ head coach for sketching during team meetings. Barnes, perhaps best known for his painting The Sugar Shack, used in the credits of the TV show Good Times and on the cover of Marvin Gaye’s 1976 album I Want You, is one of the 20th century’s most distinctive painters. Last year, The Sugar Shack sold at auction for $15.3 million — 76 times its high estimate of $200,000. Quintet has been assigned an estimate of $500,000-$700,000.
“Almost like a more modern Thomas Hart Benton or El Greco, his works are lyrical, as close to dancing as a painting can get. And Quintet is among the most intimate masterworks of his entire oeuvre,” said Heritage’s Senior Vice President of American Art, Aviva Lehmann.
Quintet was exhibited in the fall of 1990 at New York’s Grand Central Art Galleries as part of Barnes’ solo exhibition The Beauty of the Ghetto, which was subtitled Exhibition of Neo-Mannerist Paintings — and that “neo-mannerist” is apropos, given that a hallmark of Barnes’ work is how elongated and fluid his human figures are; Barnes’ background as an athlete granted him a breathtaking interpretation of bodies in motion. And Quintet ranks among Barnes’ masterworks, a joyful depiction of jazz musicians at work and at play, a piece so alive it echoes with a bebop soundtrack. Their eyes are closed — a hallmark of Barnes’ work that dates back to 1971, when he said he first conceived of The Beauty of the Ghetto as an exhibition.
“I began to see, observe, how blind we are to one another’s humanity,” Barnes said at the time. “We don’t see into the depths of our interconnection. The gifts, the strength and potential within other human beings.”
The physicality of his world — the way bodies merge, move, interact and dissolve into one another — has informed his pictures. As often as he painted solo figures, Barnes’ showstoppers (such as The Sugar Shack and Quintet) often feature groups of people in shared and responsive motion. In fact, Heritage’s May 12 auction offers another significant Barnes work — Scrum, a 1980 painting estimated at $30,000-$50,000 that depicts exactly what the word describes: a mass of faceless rugby players locked together through sheer muscular force. Through the dust kicked up by their cleats, a forest of thigh muscles heave in sinewy explosion; expressive hands grasp, dig and push. The perspective puts the viewer so close to the action that you can almost hear the men’s grunts and smell the sweat. It is a tour de force of Barnes’ incisive take on bodies working in unison and in tension. By the 1980s the artist was known for this territory and was asked to create five official posters for the 1984 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles. In this vein, Heritage also offers a study of Barnes’ The Team from 1989, estimated at $50,000-$70,000, which takes us right up to a circle of men discussing their next play. The amateur athletes in this picture — all with bowed heads and closed eyes — present a vertical stack of long limbs, broad shoulders and smooth heads. They confer with one another in a relaxed and smiling moment, a pause of conjoined focus, just before springing back into electrified action.
Barnes is one highlight of a tightly curated auction that marks an evolution in Heritage’s continued strong relationship with the American masters of the 19th and 20th centuries. Charles Wilbert White, one of the best portraitists and draftsmen of the last century, is represented in the May 12 sale by a sepia, charcoal, ink and pastel on paper work from 1959 titled Patriarch, Portrait of John Brown, estimated at $80,000-$120,000. The work depicts abolitionist Brown, who played a crucial role in the anti-slavery movement in the United States during the mid-19th century. This work’s provenance is impeccable; the artist himself gave it to Clarence B. Jones, legal advisor to Martin Luther King, Jr.
Black artists present and past are having a significant moment in the collecting sphere. Another highlight of this auction is Hughie Lee-Smith’s oil-on-Masonite Seascape, from 1954, which has an estimate of $80,000-$120,000. It exemplifies the artist’s highly realistic and somewhat surreal paintings of figures in desolate landscapes that are fraught with psychological tension.
Moving from Surrealism to its younger first cousin, Magic Realism, the May 12 event boasts a couple of true gems: George Tooker’s Sleepers I, from 1951, estimated at $300,000-$500,000, is informed by canny neoclassical techniques while remaining unequivocally modern. During the course of his career, Tooker mastered the art of portraying evocative psychological images in a dreamlike style using the traditional medium of egg tempera.
Henry Koerner, who was a Holocaust survivor, painted The Showboat in 1948, and its tempera-on-Masonite depiction of carnivalesque chaos is a direct reference to Hieronymus Bosch’s Ship of Fools. The Showboat carries an estimate of $300,000-$500,000. Koerner’s Magic Realism exemplifies the best and most important qualities of this subcategory of Modern Art exclusive to America.
The great George Bellows was most famous for his stunning depictions of boxing matches at the turn of the last century, and May 12 brings us a doozy by the master: Introducing the Champion from 1912, estimated at $300,000-$500,000, is rendered in black crayon and India ink with collage on board and shows us the moment the ref calls the fight for the exhausted athlete in the foreground of the ring. In the background, his opponent slumps on his corner stool. No other artist plunges us into the theatrics of a boxing match like Bellows does.
The tight and limber May 12 auction in fact punches well above its weight, lot after lot, and great American illustrators have a strong presence. Joseph Christian Leyendecker’s cover for the July 1, 1911 issue of The Saturday Evening Post is titled Fourth of July and shows us a grinning young boy lighting a firecracker at the feet of an unsuspecting policeman. It is Leyendecker at his playful best.
Maurice Sendak’s Sundance Children’s Theater, a watercolor, ink, and pencil on paper from 1988 with an estimate of $80,000-$120,000, came to fruition while Sendak worked with Robert Redford’s Sundance Institute to develop a national repertory theater for children. It is widely considered the artist’s finest depiction of the so-called ‘real’ world, sans the fantastical creatures of his imagination. This marvelously detailed work is not only a prime example of Sendak’s work in posters, but it exemplifies his creative genius as one of the greatest storytellers of all time. And Elizabeth Shippen Green, Harper’s Monthly illustrator at the turn of the last century, is represented here by the beguiling The King o’ Dreams, created in watercolor and charcoal for the magazine in 1903. In its Japanese-woodcut inflected language, a young woman flanked by cherry blossoms grasps the top rail of a stone balustrade and imagines herself at the prow of a ship.
It would be difficult to name an event “American Masters” without a showing of Winslow Homer and Thomas Moran. They’re both in the May 12 lineup — Homer with Shepherdess Resting, from 1878, in gouache, watercolor, and pencil on paper laid on board, which has an estimate of $200,000-$300,000; and Moran with a breathtaking oil-on-canvas landscape titled Summer Squall, Long Island from 1889, which bears an identical estimate. You can feel the barometric pressure plunging in its deep greens, darkening skies and pale horizon. And another East Coast great, Arthur Wesley Dow, is represented by a surprising and dazzling large painting from 1912 titled Cosmic Cities, Grand Canyon of Arizona. Dow’s expansive trip to out to the American West in 1911 freed his imagination to follow the dictates of the canyon itself. He unveiled the Grand Canyon group at Montross Gallery in New York in April 1913 and showed the world, in his pictures, “a canon quite different from any other known to modern art,” the New York Times would declare at the time.
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