That’s just one of the reasons why the upcoming auction of African American Fine Art at Swann Galleries on April 5, 2018, is so timely. It rises to this cultural occasion by presenting an impressive survey of art by African Americans from the late 19th century to the current decade. In all, 160 paintings, prints, drawings, photographs, and sculptures by the likes of James Van Der Zee, Romare Bearden, James Little, Jack Whitten, Faith Ringgold, Ed Clark, Sam Gilliam, and Alvin D. Loving, Jr. will be on the block.

One of the many highlights of the sale is “Jitterbugs II,” a screenprint and pochoir on paper board, circa 1941, by William H. Johnson (1901-1970). Johnson only made 17 screenprints in his lifetime, five of which were variations on the Jitterbugs theme—a circa-1941 gouache by Johnson, also titled “Jitterbugs,” is in the collection of the Smithsonian American Art Museum, which happens to be located in the same building as the new Obama portraits. Of the prints, “Jitterbugs II” has found homes in some of the best museums in the country, including the Smithsonian, the Art Institute of Chicago, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Museum of Modern Art, and the Philadelphia Museum of Art. This is the first time “Jitterbugs II” has come to auction, making the Swann auction a unique opportunity to own one of the few copies remaining in private hands.

Similarly scarce is “Head of a Woman,” a small oil-on-linen painting by Elizabeth Catlett (1915-2012). Of Catlett’s New York paintings, executed before her move in 1946 to Mexico, the experts at Swann’s can account for only a dozen in private hands, and “Head of a Woman” is only the second oil on canvas of Catlett’s to come to auction. Stylistically, the painting reveals the artist’s parallel interests in modernism and social realism, which would lead to her exploration of art that did not flinch from tackling issues of race and gender.

From the late 1940s through the early 1950s, Beauford Delaney (1901-1979) lived in a top-floor, studio apartment on Greene Street in New York City’s Greenwich Village. By most accounts, his quarters were cramped and means were meager, but this untitled oil-on-canvas painting of his neighborhood suggests a colorful paradise, where stop signs resemble lollipops and the yellow skies bathe the surreal cityscape with warmth.

In the mid-1950s, Norman Lewis (1909-1979) was known for his monochromatic paintings, but this large (34 x 50 inches) oil-on-linen example from 1956 positively glows with yellows, reds, greens, and blues. No doubt Lewis was influenced, at least in part, by Lionel Feininger and Mark Tobey, who also exhibited at New York City’s Marian Willard Gallery. The year this untitled work was painted, Lewis was one of 36 artists chosen to represent the United States at the 28th Venice Biennale—he and Jacob Lawrence were the only African American artists in the show.

“O Freedom” by Charles White (1918-1979) is an enormous (36 ½ x 62 inches) drawing in charcoal and crayon on illustration board from 1956. It was acquired directly from the artist that same year, and was only exhibited once, at New York’s ACA Galleries in 1958, along with eight other pieces, three of which were listed as being in the collection of Mr. and Mrs. Harry Belafonte. Now, thanks to the upcoming auction at Swann, “O Freedom” is being seen in public again for the first time in 60 years.

Between 1954 and 1956, Jacob Lawrence (1917-2000) painted 30 tempera panels (each 16 x 12 inches) for a series called “Struggle....From the History of the American People.” Number 10 in the series, “Washington Crossing the Delaware” is in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. For its April 5 auction, Swann is offering number 19, which is titled “Tension on the High Seas.” Unlike Washington’s famous crossing, the scene here is less well known, depicting a British naval officer interrogating three captives seized from an American ship called “The Chesapeake,” one of several provocations that preceded the War of 1812.

“High Yella Girl” from the “Colored People Series” by Carrie Mae Weems is one of just three toned gelatin silver prints of this image developed in 1989—a second edition of five “High Yella Girl” prints followed in 1997. In this series, as well as in other examples of her work, Weems tweaks our expectations about skin color, revealing the divisions it causes in our perceptions about race. Here, the artist deliberately saturates her dark-skinned subject in yellow.

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