Contemporary Painters Driving Re-emergence of African American Abstract Artists

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The Economist looks at what seems like growing momentum around a group of African-American artists who were once celebrated Modernists but got dropped from the narrative.

Framed around Sam Gilliam’s resurgent visibility among collectors, in museums and on the art market, the Economist story suggests the trend involves more than one artist:

A younger generation of black American artists—Kerry James Marshall, Glenn Ligon, Kehinde Wiley, Kara Walker, Theaster Gates and Njideka Akunyili Crosby—have found international success. Next year Mark Bradford, a social-abstractionist based in Los Angeles, will represent America at the Venice Biennale. Christopher Bedford, director of the Baltimore Museum of Art, calls Mr Bradford “one of the most significant painters of his generation”.

These artists did not forget their African-American predecessors; indeed, they often championed them in discussions about their work. This endorsement has influenced the art market, especially as collectors often start with contemporary art and work back. Mr Bradford is represented by one the market’s leading galleries, Hauser & Wirth, which earlier this year took on one of his inspirations, a 76-year-old abstract painter, Jack Whitten. “The market is hungry for material, and if the material is good—and relatively undervalued—it will eat it up,” says Franklin Sirmans, director of the Pérez Art Museum in Miami. Swann Galleries, which has dedicated African-American sales, confirms that the market for many of the older generation of artists is growing rapidly.

Mr Gilliam’s prices at auction have risen threefold in just three years. Last December a work by Lewis set a record at Swann, making just under $1m. “Norman Lewis is the founding father of African-American abstract painting and has had a significant influence on the painters of today,” says Mr Bedford.