Tuesday, July 16, 2024

Auction Record: Henry Taylor’s Epic Painting ‘From Congo to the Capital, and Black Again’ Sells For Nearly $2.5 Million


SHORTLY AFTER HE ARRIVED IN PARIS in 2007, Henry Taylor made an epic painting on a wood shipping crate panel. In a moment of inspiration, he painted a riff on Pablo Picasso’s celebrated “Les Demoiselles d’Avignon” (1907), replacing the artist’s white figures, five female nudes, with images of Black women. A comment on Picasso’s African influences and the politics of representation, Taylor titled his painting “From Congo to the Capital, and black again.”

Taylor was in the French capital for his first European solo exhibition at Atelier Cardenas Bellanger, where he included the new painting in the summer show, “We’re All Water, But Some Of Us Are Muddy” (June-July 2007). The painting was acquired by a private collector in France and 16 years later the owner consigned it for sale at Sotheby’s in New York. Featured in The Now Evening Auction on May 18, the painting sold for $2.48 million, a new artist record.

The result was more than twice Taylor’s previous auction record and marks the first time his work has surpassed the million dollar mark on the secondary market.

Lot 4: HENRY TAYLOR (b. 1958), “From Congo to the Capital, and black again,” 2007 ( acrylic and collage on wood panel, 80 by 76 inches / 203.2 by 193 cm). Signed and titled (on the reverse). | Estimate $1 million-$1.5 million. Sold for $2 million (hammer price), $2.480,000 with fees. RECORD


Focusing on “the art of our time,” The Now Evening Auction featured only 23 lots, premium works by established and highly regarded rising artists. Nine artworks, about 40 percent of the lots, were by Black artists—Taylor, Simone Leigh, David Hammons, Glenn Ligon, Portia Zvavahera, Mark Bradford, Jadé Fadojutimi, Njideka Akunyili Crosby, and Kerry James Marshall. Their works garnered $20.5 million, accounting for 55 percent of the $37.2 million sales total.

New records were also established by Leigh with a sculpture titled “Las Meninas II” (2019) and Zvavahera with a 2016 painting called “Vese Vakanddibata (They all gave me strength).” Marshall’s “Untitled (Mask Boy)” (2014) painting was the auction’s top lot, selling for the highest price (more than $5.7 million).

“From Congo to the Capital, and black again” (2007) carried an estimate ($1 million-$1.5 million) that surpassed Taylor’s existing benchmark, guaranteeing that if it sold it would be a record-setter. His previous auction record was established in November 2018 when “I’ll Put a Spell on You” (2004) sold for $975,000, also at Sotheby’s New York. The result was nearly five times the high estimate ($150,000-$200,000).

The result was more than twice Taylor’s previous auction record and marks the first time his work has surpassed the million dollar mark on the secondary market.

Los Angeles-based Taylor is passionate about the act of painting. He makes richly colored, loosely rendered narrative images, generally producing candid scenes and fascinating portraits of people in his expansive universe—friends, family, neighbors, fellow artists, heroes of Black history, victims of police violence, anyone who strikes his interest. The images are insightful, political, and light-hearted; contain wry humor, love, pride, and pain; and are layered with a spectrum of information loaded into the details.

Taylor has great interest in and knowledge of Western art history, but engaging directly with the canon is not his usual play. “Les Demoiselles d’Avignon” (The Young Ladies of Avignon) is widely described as the first modern masterpiece of the 20th century and signaled Picasso’s turn to cubism.

The elements of the painting are composed in flat planes and the figures are realized in angular silhouettes similar to sculptural forms with two of the figures faces rendered as African masks. A still life comprised of pome fruits and grapes with a ceramic shard is positioned at the bottom of the image. In the title of the painting, “Avignon” refers to a Barcelona street known for brothels in Picasso’s era.


Installation view of “Henry Taylor: B-Side,” Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles (Nov. 6-April 30, 2023). Shown, from left, Untitled” (2021), self-portrait of Taylor as King Henry V of England; “Hammons meets a hyena on holiday” (2016), reimagining “Bliz-aard Ball Sale,” a 1983 performance piece by Hammons; and “From Congo to the Capital, and black again” (2007). | Photo by Jeff McLane/MOCA


Born in Spain, Picasso spent his career in France and found pivotal influences beyond European culture as the Sotheby’s lot essay notes: “Picasso completed Les Demoiselles d’Avignon in Paris in 1907 shortly following a visit to the Musée d’Ethnographie du Trocadéro, where an encounter with the so-called primitive arts of tribal African and Oceanic sculpture influenced his painting’s revolutionary anti-naturalism.”

In Taylor’s version of the painting, dated 100 years after the original work was produced, the nude figures are various shades of brown. The two African masks are present, but the figure on the far left lacks facial features all together. Taylor may have made the choice to emphasize a universal representation of Black women. He has also added to the picture the disembodied arm of a white man wearing a short-sleeved T-shirt. The arm dons a gold watch and grasps the featureless figure at her hip. The gesture reads as a symbol of centuries-long curiosity and obsession, as well as subjugation and exploitation of Black women at the hands of white men.

The central figure in Taylor’s painting is fashioned after Josephine Baker. Her slicked down hair is short and sassy hanging low on one side of her forehead as she is seen many photographs. In an interview with Randy Kennedy, cited online in Hauser & Wirth’s Ursula magazine in December 2020, Taylor likens his homage to Picasso’s work to a musician covering another musician’s song. The artist said: “One time, on the 100th anniversary of ‘Demoiselles D’Avignon,’ I did a cover of that painting with Josephine Baker in the middle of it—you know, just messing around with history.”

“One time, on the 100th anniversary of ‘Demoiselles D’Avignon,’ I did a cover of that painting with Josephine Baker in the middle of it—you know, just messing around with history.” — Henry Taylor

“From Congo to the Capital, and black again” was featured in “B-Side,” Taylor’s recent hometown retrospective at the Museum of Contemporary Art Los Angeles (MOCA), his largest museum exhibition to date (which travels next to the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York, where it opens in October).

The record-setting painting was on view at MOCA near an untitled self-portrait of Taylor that served as the show’s promotional image, appearing on the museum’s website, street banners, a billboard, and the cover of the exhibition catalog. The youngest of eight children, Taylor’s childhood nickname was Henry VIII. In the portrait, the artist depicts himself in profile as Henry V, the King of England in the early 15th century. CT


Editor’s Note: Sales results include auction fees, unless otherwise noted. Estimates do not include fees


“Henry Taylor: Nothing Change, Nothing Strange,” an immersive gallery installation created with found materials, is currently on view at the Fabric Workshop and Museum in Philadelphia, Pa. (March 2-Oct. 22, 2023)


FIND MORE Written by four female scholars, a 2019 op-ed published by Artnet News (that quotes Culture Type) makes the case for artists to receive resale royalty rights when their is sold at auction


WATCH A livestream of Sotheby’s auction captures the three minutes it took for Henry Taylor’s painting “From Congo to the Capital and black again” (2007), to rise from an opening bid of $750,000, past the estimate of $1 million to $1.5 million, before ultimately selling for a record $2 million at the hammer ($2.48 million including fees). | Video by Sotheby’s


“Henry Taylor: B Side” was published to accompany the artist’s current exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles. A hefty volume from 2018, “Henry Taylor” is a fully illustrated, expansive survey with contributions by Zadie Smith, Charles Gaines, Rachel Kaadzi Ghansah, and Sarah Lewis. Published following his MoMA PS1 show, “Henry Taylor” is out of print.


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