Christie’s annual Outsider and Vernacular art auction in New York, open for bidding on 18 January 2023, will include a notable group of lots from the personal collection of actor and activist Jane Fonda: 14 artworks by Thornton Dial, his brother, Arthur Dial, and his son, Thornton Dial, Jr. Acquired by the actress over the past two decades, the works range from painted, animal-shaped benches by Dial Jr., each estimated to fetch $2,000 to $4,000, to large-scale mixed media wall works by Thornton Dial, estimated to sell for between $50,000 and $100,000.
Fonda has long collected works by self-taught Black artists from the American South, including Missionary Mary L. Proctor, Purvis Young and Ronald Lockett, the cousin of Thornton Dial. She was introduced to the Dial family through the late collector Bill Arnett, whose Atlanta home she visited in the 1990s. According to Christie’s, Fonda had previously collected mostly plein air paintings by women, and she was deeply moved by works she saw by artists such as Dial, Lonnie Holley and Joe Minter. “I couldn’t believe the dynamism, the energy, the courage, the rawness of these works,” she says, adding that she bought several on the spot.
The 14 works up for auction have lived with Fonda through the years. Leading the sale are two early 1990s assemblages by Thornton Dial, the son of Alabama sharecroppers who in his sixties gained prominence for dynamic sculptures and wall pieces he constructed from found objects, paint and other materials. Other works by Dial include an oil painting on wood from around 1988 that depicts four trees and spans four feet tall and ten feet long (est $30,000-$50,000); a larger-than-life sized painted canvas-and-plywood image of Uncle Sam from 1989 (est $20,000-$40,000) and several smaller works on paper depicting women (est $3,000-$5,000). His brother Arthur, who turns more to narrative figuration, is represented by two mixed media works on boards, both from 1989.
Fonda considers the Dials to be part of the canon of great American art. “Found objects are a tradition of 20th century art. It’s Marcel Duchamp, his conversion of urinals into a so-called fountain, all the way to my friend Bob Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns—it’s not unique to these artists of the South,” she said in a statement. “[Thornton] Dial used found objects in his environment, which I think is just so beautiful. He gave discarded things a second life, brilliantly repurposing material with an impact that very few artists ever had.”
In addition to collecting art, Fonda has invested in Tinwood Alliance, Arnett’s foundation to support Black vernacular art that has promoted the works of the Gee’s Bend quilters in Alabama through exhibitions and a book. She also serves as a trustee of the Souls Grown Deep Foundation, the nonprofit dedicated to championing the works of Black artists from the South.
Fonda has previously sold at least one work by Thornton Dial at auction, the highly textural assemblage Trophies (Doll Factory) (1999). Consigned to Christie’s in 2019, the work sold over its high estimate of £200,000, fetching £225,000 (including fees).