The Rest of the Story
Collector Bob Holmes talks to the IRAAA
Writing in the premier issue of Black Art: an international quarterly (now IRAAA), Bob Holmes said that Larry Rivers, a white artist/jazz musician had, with the possible exception of Romare Bearden, achieved more recognition than any African American artist dealing with black subject matter.
Holmes wrote in 1976:
. . . Sotheby has not to this day held an auction event specifically dealing with art works by African Americans – an indication not of Sotheby Parke-Bernet's unawareness of Black art, but a definite barometer of the apparent opinion of the world's largest and most prestigious auction house that no groundswell of valuable interest exists for Black art.”
Three and a half decades later, on February 15, 2012, Orange Sports Figure, a canvas masterpiece by black artist Jean Michel-Basquiat, sold for $6,402,334 at Sotheby's Contemporary Art Evening Auction in London. Until this spring, the two highest prices for Basquiat works had been $13,522,500 for his 1982 Untitled (Boxer), sold at a Christie's auction in 2008; and $14.6 million for a 1981 Untitled painting sold at Sotheby's in 2007. Those dollar figures were surpassed at the contemporary art auction at Phillips de Pury on May 10, 2012, when yet another 1981 Basquiat Untitled sold for $16,322,600.
Despite sensational achievements for a handful of contemporary African American artists, large disparities still exist. Holmes feels that these can be narrowed by reducing the elitism surrounding art. “The fact that the Journal is going to go online is terrific,” Holmes says. “I think there is a need for writing about black art in a more popular fashion.” Because an appreciation of African American art has not yet reached the general culture, there is a void to fill by spreading the word about this art and presenting human-interest stories about the artists, he says. “Journals are very necessary for fueling the kind of interest that's needed for research and the creation of legacy, but we need to know who these artists are.”
BRING THE PEOPLE IN
“You go to the African American art museums today and you find, unfortunately, that there are not a lot of African American people going through the exhibition halls. So we need to proselytize about art in a way that brings people into the museums. We have people who will go to a sports event to see an African American athlete, go to a music event to see an African American performer. There is a lot of press out there about that, and those are popular things to do, but we don't have yet the kind of writing and publicity in the African American cultural world that would necessarily bring an African American person who is not knowledgeable about art into the museum. Because we don't have enough people who know what the difference is between a lithograph and an aquatint, or a lithograph and an etching, or what is a hard ground surface. These technical terms are not generally known among the general populace. It's not just an African American issue, but we need to know things like that. We need to create out there a knowledge that is not too far above what people are questing for,” says Holmes.
RAISING THE VALUES
The media message about art and artists affects the money side of the business. “You have a major Charles White drawing called General Moses, a huge piece, a fantastic piece, created by someone who is arguably among the top three or five African American artists of the 20th century,” illustrates Holmes. “The subject matter is Harriet Tubman -- he calls her 'General Moses' -- a person who historically was responsible for the escape and freedom of so many African American slaves. So you have a great artist, creating a great technical work of a large size about a larger-than-life personage, and that piece only sells for $300,000 at auction. It should have sold for $3 million.”
STORY vs ABSTRACTION
Generating public enthusiasm for art collides head-on into a creative issue black artists themselves face: whether to do traditional "figurative" works that represent easy-to-identify objects like people or scenes from nature, versus doing more modern "abstract" pieces that display colors, shapes, patterns and textures as ends in themselves.
"When you start getting away from the figurative, the art can become very academic, more about the application of the medium, the paint on the canvas, and less about the story," says Holmes. "We're at the point in our development where people are looking for the story more than they are about the application of the paint on canvas. And some academicians say this is a bad thing, to be too figurative, to look for story; but until very recently in the art world, art was about story. Throughout the centuries, art was about story. It ran into trouble in the 20th century when art became something more -- or some would argue, something less -- but I think that if we are going to develop an arts scene among young African American kids, to create a reason for them to go into museums, it's going to have to be more about story."
FACE TO FACE
"I used to run into Romare Bearden every now and then. I ran into David Hammons recently in Harlem uptown at a restaurant," recalls Holmes. "I want to know just in a social context what these guys liked. We know that Romare Bearden loved jazz, and so much of his art reflects that. But we want to know who he was, why he loved jazz so much, what artists he particularly liked. Because, unless we create information about who these artists really were in terms of the kind of people you would sit down and talk to -- I think that limits the value of their art."