New Collectors and Museum Interest Help Drive New York’s Old Master Auctions to $150 Million—a High Not Seen in Years

The latest round of Old Master sales at Christie’s and Sotheby’s marked the most robust in recent seasons, bolstered by top-notch private collection offerings (each house could boast a “white glove” sale), museum interest, and to an increasing extent, fresh interest from new buyers, both crossing over from other collecting categories or bubbling up from new pockets of regional interest around the world.

Christie’s pulled in $62.8 million on Wednesday with an offering of roughly 75 works with no-reserve prices, from the fully-sold collection of J.E. Safra ($18.5 million) and the main Old Masters sale ($44.2 million).

Yesterday, Sotheby’s took in a hefty total of $86.6 million for a main Old Master auction that realized $28.8 million, as well as a “white glove” or 100 percent sold offering of the prestigious Fisch Davidson collection that brought in $49.6 million for 10 lots alone, and was the highest-earning individual auction of the week. Yet another Sotheby’s single owner sale of Dutch paintings from the Theiline Schumann collection added $8 million to the total.

Both houses also held smaller related sales of Old Master drawings, which reflected lower price points and wider circles of interest. Underscoring the serious quality and connoisseur demand at even these smaller day sales, this morning, the Rijksmuseum scooped up an early 17th-century bronze figure of an “écorché” man by Willlem Danielsz. van Tetrode for $1.5 million, while the Cleveland Museum of Art bought the bronze group of Apollo Flaying Marsyas (1691–1700) by Giovanni Battista Foggini for $882,000. More on the marquee museum purchases later.

The total for the main sales at both houses was just under $150 million ($149.4 million). While of course not an exact apples-to-apples comparison, consider that the most recent round of major sales in London last month, pulled in a combined $56 million, and that marked one of the best seasons in years. As Midnight Publishing Group News noted at the time, experiments to reinvent the category—such as developing new art historical narratives, several of which have highlighted female artists, and extensive presale touring of work—seem to be paying off.

“There were more paintings on the market this week than there had been for many years and it was hugely encouraging how many important pictures sold,” said Milo Dickinson, who recently left Christie’s Old Masters department to take on the role of managing director at Dickinson in London. “There is clearly more depth to the Old Master market than is often appreciated,” he added.

“It is always hard to say who is buying what, but there were new faces at the auction and of course some of the old faces were buying for other new faces not seen,” said veteran New York-based dealer Robert Simon. “There is little question that new buyers are beginning to recognize the fundamental value in Old Masters, especially in contrast to contemporary art.”

Further, a calendar move by Christie’s seems to have created greater cohesion and momentum. As Dickinson noted, Christie’s moved their sales back to January after “a failed experiment moving to April.” Now, both auction houses are aligned again in the sale calendar across all major Old Master sales, he said, noting it “had a positive impact on the sales as there was visibly a much better turnout from private clients, museums, and the trade during the week, and there was a renewed buzz and excitement.”

Christie’s said the Safra offering “showed the power of the no-reserve strategy,” since all works found buyers. Ten were backed by third-party, or outside bids. The highest price of $2.7 million was paid for an album containing a frontispiece and 138 illustrations for books I to VI of the Fables of Jean de La Fontaine by Jean-Baptiste Oudry. It marked a new auction record for Oudry.

Jean-Baptistie Oudrey, Album containing a frontispiece and 138 illustrations for books I to VI of the Fables of Jean de La Fontaine Image courtesy Christie's.

Jean-Baptistie Oudrey, Album containing a frontispiece and 138 illustrations for books I to VI of the Fables of Jean de La Fontaine. Photo courtesy Christie’s.

It was followed by the $1 million result for J.M.W. Turner’s The Splügen Pass (albeit it missing the low $1.5 million estimate) and the price of $945,000 paid for Joos van Cleve’s Portrait of a gentleman holding gloves, half-length.

Dickinson said that Christie’s “took a significant risk by offering the Safra collection with no reserves and although there were some low prices, Christie’s did well to ensure there was competitive bidding on all the top lots.”

The top lot of the main sale was a double portrait by Goya, Portrait of Doña María Vicenta Barruso Valdés, seated on a sofa with a lap-dog; and Portrait of her mother Doña Leonora Antonia Valdés de Barruso, seated on a chair holding a fan, that sold for a mid-estimate $16.4 million (estimate: $15–20 million), more than doubling the existing $7.7 million auction record for the artist.

Two portraits by Francisco Goya, set a new artist auction record at Christie's Old Master auction on January 25, 2023 in New York.

Two portraits by Francisco Goya, set a new artist auction record at Christie’s Old Master auction on January 25, 2023 in New York. Photo courtesy Christie’s.

The second highest price of the sale, given for another Turner, was just a fraction of that, at $4.6 million for Pope’s Villa at Twickenham. The third-highest price of $2.9 million was realized for Pieter Brueghel II’s The Kermesse of Saint George.

Meanwhile, another work from the collection of late Microsoft co-founder and billionaire Paul Allen, Canaletto’s The Rialto Bridge, Venice, from the south with an embarkation, traditionally identified as the Prince of Saxony during his visit to Venice in 1740, sold for $2.7 million. It was intentionally kept back from the blockbuster Paul Allen collection sale held last November.

“Whoever bought it got an excellent painting for a fraction of the price that it would have made if it was the initial collection sale, which shows that context is very important,” said Dickinson.

In addition to the Goya and Oudry results, Christie’s set new records for Marinus van Reymerswale, Gerard de Lairesse, Thomas Daniell, Giuseppe Bartolomeo Chiari, and Jean Valette-Falgores, called Penot.

“The Old Masters market showed depth and strength today,” commented François de Poortere, Christie’s head of Old Master Paintings. “American bidders led the way, along with Europe and China, and strong activity from the trade.”

Sir Peter Paul Rubens, Salome presented with the head of Saint John the Baptist Image courtesy Sotheby's.

Sir Peter Paul Rubens, Salome presented with the head of Saint John the Baptist. Photo courtesy Sotheby’s.

Sotheby’s started off the morning with a bang with the aforementioned Fisch Davidson Collection—widely considered one of the most important collections of Baroque art to ever appear on the market. The entire sale was guaranteed, reportedly at high prices by both the house and various outside guarantors or third-party backers.

One such outside guarantee was for the blockbuster top lot, Peter Paul Rubens’ Salome presented with the head of Saint John the Baptist, which sold for just under $27 million, a new auction record.

The next two highest lots scored identical prices of $4.89 million each, namely Christ crowned with thorns by Valentin de Boulogne, and Penitent Saint Mary Magdalene by Orazio Gentileschi. Both were estimated at $4 million to $6 million.

The Stockholm Nationalmuseum bought a painting of a young man asleep before an open book by an artist active in the circle of Rembrandt van Rijn, for $945,000.

Agnolo di Cosimo, called Bronzino, Portrait of a young man with a quill and a sheet of paper, possibly a self-portrait of the artist Image courtest Sotheby's.

Agnolo di Cosimo, called Bronzino, Portrait of a young man with a quill and a sheet of paper, possibly a self-portrait of the artist. Photo courtesy Sotheby’s.

In the main sale, one of the fireworks was a newly rediscovered and restituted painting, Agnolo Bronzino’s Portrait of a young man with a quill and a sheet of paper. It sold to a buyer in the room following a five-minute bidding contest, for $10.7 million, doubling its $5 million high estimate, and setting a new auction record for the artist. Proceeds of the sale will benefit Selfhelp Community Services, which supports Holocaust survivors in North America, and The Lighthouse Guild, a Jewish healthcare organization.

The Cleveland Museum of Art also bought Anna Dorothea Therbusch’s Portrait of a scientist seated at a desk by candlelight for $441,000. It was also previously from the J.E. Safra collection. An insider said that given that Christie’s had the lion’s share of Safra material, this may have been part of a previous consignment to Sotheby’s. Safra had acquired it from Sotheby’s London in December 1996 for $64,500 (£38,900), according to the Midnight Publishing Group Price Database.

Anna Dorothea Therbusch, A scientist seated at a desk by candlelight. Image courtesy Sotheby's.

Anna Dorothea Therbusch, A scientist seated at a desk by candlelight. Photo courtesy Sotheby’s.

The Dutch offerings from the Theiline Scheumann collection, where eight of the 12 works on offer were sold, was led by Frans van Mieris the Elder’s A young woman sealing a letter by candlelight, which sold for $2.7 million.

Dickinson said the new influx of buyers may make for more robust sales, but also some uncertainty as to demand. “There are new buyers in the market, most of them from the United States and some from Asia, but their collecting habits are very wide-ranging and therefore less predictable than before.”

And Simon said that Old Masters are likely to continue to appeal to new and seasoned buyers alike: “With the established track record of the work of the Old Masters, many collectors find the confidence to put some of their assets into work they enjoy, with the assurance that if they wish to sell at some future time, they will likely reap some reward. One does not have to wait for an artist to be discovered and acclaimed if the artist’s work has been hanging on museum walls for centuries!”

Follow Midnight Publishing Group News on Facebook:

Hope Runs High at the New Art SG Fair. But Slow Early Sales Cast Doubt on Whether Singapore Can Lead the Region’s Market

The long-awaited opening of Singapore’s ART SG fair, which finally took place this week at the Marina Bay Sands, is significant for many reasons. The first is that as one of the early fairs in an already busy art calendar, its results can set the tone for the year. Second, as those in the art world are keen to explore new markets, the fair’s debut is a test to see if this city-state in Southeast Asia can bounce back from the dramatic cancellation of Art Stage in 2019 and become a key market hub in the region alongside Hong Kong and Seoul.

The first two days of the fair, which opened to VIPs on Wednesday, showed some promising signs. Excitement was palpable in the (hot and humid) air this week, especially since the event’s debut had been postponed four times before. A notable crowd traveled to Singapore for the event, helped by the recent relaxation of Covid-19 restrictions in the region as even China had dropped its zero-Covid policy (albeit very abruptly), with Hong Kong following suit and opening its borders.

Art lovers journeyed not just from neighboring Southeast Asian countries, but also from South Korea, Hong Kong, Taiwan, mainland China, and Japan, as well as from Europe and beyond. While in town, many indulged in local delicacies like pepper crab and chicken rice and partied until almost dawn at the local nightclub Marquee. Collectors seen on the ground include: Swiss mega collector Uli Sigg; Patrick Sun and Alan Lo from Hong Kong; Alain Servais from Belgium; Noh JaeMyung from South Korea; Singapore-based Linda Neo and Albert Lim and Nathaniel Gunawan; and the controversial collector and museum founder Michael Xufu Huang from China.

Art lovers taking snap shots at Sullivan+Strumpf's booth at ART SG. Photo: Vivienne Chow.

Art lovers taking snapshots at Sullivan+Strumpf’s booth at ART SG. Photo: Vivienne Chow.

“Southeast Asian collectors are excited about the fair, one that is finally happening in our neighboring country Singapore, which is a hub for the region,” said Manila-based Timothy Tan, one of the collectors who flew in to attend the fair. “Some of the international galleries exhibiting are new to collectors from the region and they are interesting.”

Tan pointed out that buyers from the region tend to focus more on art originating locally, but this is beginning to change. “More are open to collecting works from other places. [ART SG] is a nice gateway to meet the galleries,” he noted.

But perhaps more importantly for an art fair, some galleries were reporting sales, albeit they were less robust than those typically seen at major contemporary art fairs in the West, Hong Kong, or even Seoul. The art market outlook for 2023 may not be as grim as some industry insiders in the West had predicted—or at least not in Asia. It seems Southeast Asia—a region largely overlooked by the West but where deep-pocketed collectors have quietly bought art for a long time—may be a conducive market after all, especially now that Singapore is experiencing an influx of Chinese money.

Rich elites reportedly have been fleeing mainland China and Hong Kong amid the increasingly unpredictable socio-political and geopolitical environment. The number of family offices in the city-state has gone from 400 in 2020 to 700 today. “ART SG has arrived at a perfect time,” said Leo Xu, a senior director at David Zwirner in Hong Kong.

Tomio Koyama Gallery. Courtesy of ART SG.

Tomio Koyama Gallery. Courtesy of ART SG.

Of the 160 galleries from 30 countries and regions featured in the inaugural edition of ART SG, nearly half have shops outside the Asia-Pacific region. The rest have locations across the region, from Japan and South Korea to mainland China and Hong Kong. Around 20 operate in Singapore, and less than 10 in Jakarta, Bangkok, and Kuala Lumpur. Prices of works on show were diverse, ranging from a few thousand to over a million dollars—a very high price point for the region.

Exhibitors spanning two floors of the exhibition center were assigned to categories similar to most major art fairs. There was a main galleries sector; a “Focus” section for presentations of solo or duo artists or thematic exhibitions; “Futures” area to showcase galleries under six years old; and “Reframe,” which focuses on digital and crypto art.

Some collectors commented that the basement floor, which was where most of the big galleries were located, reminded them of Art Basel Hong Kong. The Art Assembly, the team behind ART SG, is the very same crew that launched ART HK in 2008, which was then sold to Art Basel’s parent company MCH, becoming Art Basel Hong Kong in 2013.

International blue-chip galleries all reported sales during the first two days. White Cube, for example, said it sold 17 works on the opening day alone, totaling around $3 million. Notable sales from the gallery include: Anselm Kiefer’s 1981 canvas  Dein Goldenes Haar Margarete, which sold to a collector in Indonesia for €1.2 million ($1.3 million); Antony Gormley’s cast iron sculpture Nerve (2020), priced at £450,000 ($549,144); a David Altmejd sculpture ($60,000, sold to an Australian); two editions of Tracey Emin’s bronze Belligerence (2014), which went to European and Asia collectors for £95,000 each ($115,930); Christine Ay Tjoe’s paintings Soluble Integrants ($165,000, sold to a buyer in China) and Docile Black 3 ($260,000, sold to a Hong Kong collector); and a work by Marguerite Humeau (£65,000/$79,320, sold to a buyer in Taiwan).

Jaume Plensa sculptures on show at ART SG 2023. Courtesy of ART SG.

Jaume Plensa sculptures on show at ART SG 2023. Courtesy of ART SG.

The Museum MACAN in Jakarta bought two works by the late artist Ashley Bickerton for an undisclosed sum from Gagosian. Pace sold several pieces, including those by James Turrell ($950,000), Keith Haring ($250,000), Lee Ufan ($150,000), and Louise Nevelson ($105,000). More than half the works on David Zwirner’s booth found buyers, including pieces by Neo Rauch, Wolfgang Tillmans, and Wolfgang Tillmans, totaling more than $2.5 million.

Lehmann Maupin, which just appointed former deputy director of the Asia Society Museum in New York Ken Tan as its Singapore-based director, placed works in local collections. Tammy Nguyen’s Our Ministry (2022) sold for $90,000 to a private collection in Singapore, while four new works by Mandy El-Sayegh, priced at a combined total of $335,000, went to different collections across Singapore and the region.

The U.K. gallery Unit London, which amassed a strong following in Asia during the pandemic through its social media channels, made its fair debut in Asia, selling out its two-artist booth of works by Hong Kong’s Stephen Wong Chun Hei and Seth Armstrong from Los Angeles, priced between $10,000 and $30,500. One of Wong’s paintings went to a Malaysian private collector, who is a trustee of several institutions across the world.

“It is our first time here in Singapore… Many local collectors were already aware of our program as they’ve engaged with the gallery online for the last few years. But we have been delighted to meet lots of new collectors that really span all age groups—from very active budding collectors in their late 20s through to the more senior collectors who are interested in diversifying their collections of Southeast Asian artists,” Unit London’s co-founder, Joe Kennedy, told Midnight Publishing Group News.

Works by Hong Kong artist Mak2 on show at de Sarthe's booth at ART SG. Photo: Vivienne Chow.

Works by Hong Kong artist Mak2 on show at De Sarthe’s booth at ART SG. Photo: Vivienne Chow.

Regional galleries also reported sales. Whitestone, which recently opened a new space in Singapore, sold out all its pieces by the hot young Japanese painter Etsu Egami, priced at $10,000 to $30,000. WOAW Gallery, which also just inaugurated an outpost in the area, sold works by James Goss, Jon Burgerman, and Charlie Roberts for prices ranging from $9,000 to $22,800. Hong Kong’s De Sarthe gallery, which opened a space in Arizona last year, sold works by Mak2 and a painting by Zhong Wei, for prices ranging between $10,000 and $30,000. Artworks by young Singaporean artists Faris Heizer, Aisha Rosli, and Khairulddin Wahab, priced between $5,800 to $9,500, found buyers at Singapore’s Cuturi Gallery.

“The Southeast Asian market has been too rooted in their own local culture, but change is happening. Collectors have the desire to embrace what’s happening on the global stage and in international art,” noted dealer Pascal de Sarthe.

However, some regional dealers reported that sales have been slower than expected, Midnight Publishing Group News has learned. They still made sales, but to existing clients in the region rather than to new ones. While the VIP day and vernissage were packed with visitors, the aisles felt much more spacious on the second and third days. Some collectors took more time to make their purchases, especially those contemplating works by Southeast Asian artists new to them.

neugerriemschneider's booth at ART SG 2023. Courtesy of ART SG.

Neugerriemschneider’s booth at ART SG 2023. Courtesy of ART SG.

This led some to question, despite the amount of wealth in the city-state and the region’s potential growth, if the collector pool in the region was big enough to sustain a fair of this size and a growing art market.

Many dealers, however, chose not to speculate as they wanted to see the fair and its co-founder Magnus Renfrew—a highly respected figure in Asia’s art scene—succeed.

“For a first-year fair, I think it’s got off to a very good start. The sales have been okay. My feeling is that there’s going to be activity right up until 5 pm on Sunday,” Renfrew told Midnight Publishing Group News. “We are really expecting things to be happening throughout the upcoming days. The energy has been positive. People feel welcomed by the city, and that there’s a sense of the potential for the future. This is really just the first step.”

While sales have traditionally been an important benchmark for an art fair’s success, a new barometer is needed for fairs in Asia, especially for young fairs in young markets, Zwirner’s Xu pointed out.

“For example, established, active collectors may know about us, but not the younger ones. That’s why we want to do the fair—we want to reach out to those who buy cars, shoes, Street art, and NFTs, and introduce them to other kinds of art and other galleries. This is a conversion process,” Xu noted.

ART SG runs through Sunday, January 15, 2023.


More Trending Stories:

German Researchers Used Neutrons to Peek Inside an 800-Year-Old Amulet⁠—and Discovered Tiny Bones

French Archaeologists Make ‘Unprecedented Discovery’ of What May Be the Remains of a Roman-Era Mausoleum

Art Industry News: A San Francisco Dealer Was Caught on Video Hosing Down a Homeless Woman in Front of His Gallery + Other Stories

In an Ironic Twist, an Illustrator Was Banned From a Reddit Forum for Posting Art That Looked Too Much Like an A.I.-Generated Image

Instagram Has Removed an Illustration From Cardi B’s Account After the Artist Threatened to Sue for Copyright Infringement

A Minnesota University Is Under Fire for Dismissing an Art History Professor Who Showed Medieval Paintings of the Prophet Muhammad

The Truth About Anna and Larry’s Relationship Status, Jens Hoffmann and His Imaginary Friends Start a Gallery, and More Juicy Art World Gossip

Follow Midnight Publishing Group News on Facebook:

The Art of Craft: Chanel Celebrates 100 Years of Its Storied No. 5 Fragrance With a Daring High Jewelry Collection

It’s difficult to think of a fragrance more renown than Chanel No. 5, that powerful and hyper-feminine scent that Gabrielle Chanel conceived in 1921 as “a woman’s perfume with the scent of a woman.”

For years, it has trailed into rooms behind the likes of Anna Wintour, Lauren Hutton, and Marilyn Monroe, who once quipped she wore nothing to bed save for five drops of the perfume.

The scent has permeated culture arguably more than any other, influencing Andy Warhol (who fashioned Pop art odes to its sleek glass flacon), Richard Avedon, Ridley Scott, and Baz Luhrmann, who directed campaigns for the fragrance fronted by stars like Nicole Kidman and Catherine Deneuve.

Actress Marilyn Monroe gets ready to go see the play "Cat On A Hot Tin Roof" by applying her make up and Chanel No. 5 perfume on March 24, 1955 at the Ambassador Hotel in New York City, New York. (Photo by Ed Feingersh/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)

Marilyn Monroe with Chanel No. 5 perfume. (Photo by Ed Feingersh/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)

In 1959, the Museum of Modern Art acquired a No.5 bottle and packaging for its permanent collection. And a new book penned by German historian Karl Schlögel entitled dives into how the fragrance came to be, marking all the ways in which its creation was not only an olfactory revelation, but an important lesson in history—a tale rife with political intrigue and family betrayal that dates all the way back to the Russian Revolution. 

Indeed, stories abound about Chanel No. 5, which celebrates its 100th birthday this year.

In celebration, the house of Chanel has designed its latest collection of high jewelry in its honor—the first to be dedicated wholly to a perfume.

Photomontage of American photographer Weegee (1899 - 1968) taking a photograph of a woman in a bathing suit inside a Chanel No. 5 bottle in the late 1950s. (Photo by Weegee(Arthur Fellig)/International Center of Photography/Getty Images)

Weegee (1899–1968) taking a photograph of a woman in a bathing suit inside a Chanel No. 5 bottle in the late 1950s. (Photo by Weegee (Arthur Fellig)/International Center of Photography/Getty Images)

The collection comprises 123 pieces and was designed by Chanel’s fine jewelry director, Patrice Leguéreau, who took inspiration from the boldness of Gabrielle Chanel’s 1932 Bijoux de Diamants collection (her first and only jewelry collection), which was crafted exclusively in platinum and diamonds that together broke the codes of French high jewelry at the time.

Many objects, in fact, were constructed with flexible structures that wearers could bend and adjust to their will. The point of the collection was to celebrate free-spirited strength. In a bold gesture, Chanel presented her pieces in an exhibition at her private townhouse at 29 Faubourg Saint-Honore in Paris on the bodies of eerily realistic wax figures said to be inspired by Chanel’s Surrealist friends, such as Salvador Dalí.

A wax mannequin wearing a necklace and jewelled headband designed by French fashion designer Coco Chanel, Paris, circa 1932. (Photo by Albert Harlingue/Roger Viollet via Getty Images)

A wax mannequin wearing a necklace and jewelled headband designed by French fashion designer Coco Chanel, Paris, circa 1932. (Photo by Albert Harlingue/Roger Viollet via Getty Images)

In many ways, this latest high jewelry collection represents much of Chanel’s history through both its homage to the No. 5 fragrance, and its echoes to its founder’s jewelry line.

But the most striking piece is no doubt its 55.55 white-gold and diamond necklace, which simulates the curves of the No. 5 bottle in a series of dazzling, custom-cut diamonds and platinum. At its center is a show-stopping emerald-cut diamond, crafted to weigh exactly 55.55 karats in homage to Gabrielle Chanel’s favorite number. 

The stone is set in an 18-karat white gold bezel and is framed by 104 round and 42 baguette diamonds, which together form the No. 5 bottle shape and its prismic stopper.

Chanel's 55.55 necklace. Photo courtesy Chanel.

Chanel’s 55.55 necklace. Photo courtesy Chanel.

From there, a cascade of round and pear-shaped diamonds fall down around the bottom of the enormous center diamond, calling attention to the decollete of the wearer.

The various parts are secured by invisible white-gold fixtures, which culminate in a diamond-encrusted number five-shape clasp at the back of the wearer’s neck.

The piece, notes the house, immortalizes the key elements of the fragrance’s allure: its bottle, its stopper, its number, its flowers, and its sillage.

Unfortunately for those dying to try it on, Chanel has chosen to keep the work in its archive so it can remain safely part of the house’s legacy for years to come.

Still, there are plenty of other pieces to ponder, and interested readers can find out more about the collection, which officially debuts next month, here.

Follow Midnight Publishing Group News on Facebook:

In Honor of 4/20, Here Is a Selection of Artworks You Will Really Enjoy Looking at If You Are High, We Have Heard Second-Hand

On March 31, 2021, embattled governor Andrew Cuomo signed legislation legalizing recreational cannabis use, making New York the 15th state to take the momentous step toward mainstream marijuana consumption. It’s no secret in the art world that partaking in pot-smoking is not only a recreational activity, but a legitimate commercial past time. Richard Prince launched his own line of bud in 2019 called “Katz & Dogg,” and a sneaky art gallery in Washington DC managed to thwart local laws by gifting gallery-goers weed with every artwork purchase (it should be noted that the paintings were made by a four-year-old Alaskan Klee Kai dog named Sudo).

Now that it’s 4/20, the international day for spliff-smoking, we asked our sources to suggest some of the trippiest, weirdest, and most mind-bending art to enjoy on this most sacred of holidays. Here’s were the top suggestions. Enjoy. ✌️


Pipilotti Rist, Sip My Ocean 1996

Pipilotti Rist, Sip My Ocean (1996). © Pipilotti Rist.


Camille Henrot, Grosse Fatigue 2013

Camille Henrot. Grosse Fatigue. 2013

Camille Henrot. Grosse Fatigue [still] (2013).

How Bisa Butler Went From Being a High School Art Teacher to an In-Demand Quilter With a Show at the Art Institute of Chicago

Bisa Butler’s intricate portrait quilts are often based on found black-and-white photographs of Black people—some famous, some anonymous, some familial.

The New Jersey-based artist can spend thousands of hours translating these photographs into meticulously dazzling images. The process, Butler says, is akin to pulling her subjects out of the past and into life today; as she works, she wonders what these people were like. What did they sound like? What made them tick?

While Butler has been making quilts since the mid-’90s, the past year has proven a watershed moment for the 47-year-old artist. Though long delayed by the pandemic, an exhibition of her portraits has just opened at New York’s Katonah Museum and is already a critical hit. Another solo show—her most prominent outing to date—is on view now at the Art Institute of Chicago, featuring 20 of her luminous, multi-layered fabric portraits.

Butler, who is represented by New York’s Claire Oliver Gallery, has also recently been tapped to create portraits of influential figures such as Kenosha, Wisconsin, activist Porche Bennett-Bey. (Butler’s image of Bennett-Bey appeared on the cover of Time magazine when the activist was named the Guardian of the Year.)

Just last week, it was announced that Butler’s portrait of Me Too founder and activist Tarana Burke will appear on the cover of Burke’s forthcoming memoir, Unbound (available September 14). 

We spoke with Butler about her whirlwind year, why finding success in her 40s has been a blessing, and how she recharges in stressful times.

Courtesy of the artist.

Courtesy of the artist.

Your quilts are often based on old black-and-white photographs. How do you find these images? Do you search for particular figures, or do you just wait to see an image that draws you in? 

Mostly, it’s a person who captures my attention. I follow different archivists on Instagram and sometimes a photo will catch me. You’ll notice in my works that people usually look directly out and at you. That kind of gaze stops me too, and I get thinking, “What is this person about?” Then I start looking around them for clues: what they’re wearing and what they might be doing. So at first, I won’t really know the context beyond the year the photograph was taken.

Say I find a photograph and the description or title is simply something like “Negro girls, Virginia.” I’ll just know the year, where they’re from, and that they’re Black. Then I have to fill in the blanks for the context. That makes it more interesting for me too, because then I’m like a detective trying to find out what was happening in Richmond, Virginia, in the ‘40s. What was the state of life for the average Black person? If these girls are in school, I know most likely that it’s a segregated school. What was happening in the country around that time? How did that impact this community? 

It was interesting in the Katonah Museum exhibition to read about how you don’t necessarily feel the need to directly transpose a photograph into a quilted form, it’s more of an inspiration. Can you talk about that process?

There is a work called The Four Little Girls, a reference to the four little girls who were killed in the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing in 1963. I had actually found a photograph with three little girls on a stoop, in what looked like church clothes. All I thought was, “Oh, this is so cute. Look how adorable these kids are.” I was working on it and then my husband walked by and he didn’t notice how many girls were he just said, “Oh, the four little girls.”

He made this connection that made that whole historical reference so much deeper—because these weren’t those little girls that were killed. I wound up adding the fourth girl. But it was revealing of our collective memory—when we see a group of little Black girls together in their church clothes, our mind goes to that bombing, which wound up being a catalyst for the Civil Rights movement.

Bisa Butler, The Equestrian (2019). Photograph by Margaret Fox.

Bisa Butler, The Equestrian (2019). Photograph by Margaret Fox.

One of your works, The Equestrian, is a portrait of Selika Lazevski, the famous Black woman equestrian who lived in Belle Epoque-era Paris. The quilt is based on a photograph by Félix Nadar, but it’s so vibrant in color. It has a kind of Wizard of Oz feeling for me, coming into color. Do you ever feel that way, that you’re bringing these figures back to life?

That’s interesting that you even mentioned it. In the very first quilt work I ever made, I was trying to imagine what my grandfather looked like. My father’s father was from West Africa. My father’s in his 80s now and his father died in the 1950s from appendicitis. They didn’t have any photographs of him—he was living in rural Ghana and if there were photographs of him, they didn’t survive.

I had this desire to recapture him. I looked up men from Northern Ghana because there’s a distinct look to people from that area. They had migrated into the country from places like Mali, and were a desert tribe of people, not the Ashanti people we think of generally. So I started looking at photographs, and in making that work, I was trying to recapture my grandfather in color, and imagining what it would be like if I could talk to him. What are the things that he would have to say to me? What did his voice sound like? That sense of longing spreads to how I look at other photos, too. Who is this person I am looking at? I want to bring them back in a way.

Bisa Butler, Dear Mama (2019). Collection of Scott and Cissy Wolfe. Photograph by Margaret Fox.

Bisa Butler, Dear Mama (2019). Collection of Scott and Cissy Wolfe. Photograph by Margaret Fox.

There are an incredible number of different types of fabric in each work. In these little itty bits of area, you have multiple types of fabrics layered in. Where do you find all these? Do they have any certain significance to you? 

One of the best things about working on a wider national scale is that more people see what I’m doing, so I’m getting help finding fabrics. Before, all I had were my mother’s and my grandmother’s leftover fabrics because I couldn’t afford to buy new fabrics, and they had so many remnants that I didn’t need big pieces. I started out using mostly dressmaker’s fabrics. Traditional quilters would never be using silk and lace and chiffon all together, but those were what was available. My mother had bits of fabric from wool to gaberdine to tweeds and my mindset was, “What can I do with this?”

But that forced me to expand my definition of what a quilt could look like. My grandmother used a lot of vintage African fabrics. African fabrics only have a short run—companies will put them out for a month and then they retire that print and that’s it. One print had these squares on it and for whatever reason women in the marketplace saw it and they call it “that billionaire.” It got really popular and so it became like a status symbol. If you were wearing that billionaire fabric, it meant that you bought it within a certain month. It is very cool because when people see it they say, “Oh, I know that fabric. I remember when billionaire came out.”

Do you have a least favorite part when you’re working on a new work? Is there some part that you’re dreading doing? 

I don’t know why, but every time I start a new face, I’m always a little worried that I won’t get it. I kind of say a little prayer to myself like “Oh God, I hope I get this right.” Because if I don’t, then I have to scrap it and start all over again. I have like a bunch of half-done faces—a little catalog of them that I just had to put aside. I will just have to say, “Nope. I’ve been working on this thing for three days straight, 10 hours each time, and it’s not right. It’s actually getting worse.” 

Courtesy of the Art Institute of Chicago, Cavigga Family Trust Fund, and the artist.

Bisa Butler, The Safety Patrol (2018). Courtesy of the Art Institute of Chicago, Cavigga Family Trust Fund, and the artist.

You were a high school art teacher for many years. Do you think that teaching had any effect on your work? 

Oh, for sure. The influence of the kids helped a lot, being around their energy and their interests. I started doing these images of children, especially when I was getting ready to leave teaching and was feeling sad about it. I made some of my favorite pieces then, like The Safety Patrol and South Side, Sunday Morning. I had a student, this young girl Vivi, and her mom owns a yarn shop in town. She just came in with a big bag of fabric and was like, “Oh, I was just thinking about you, Ms. B.!” 

The past year has been trying on a number of levels. How do you try to recharge?

I really love to read and lately, I’ve been really into Gua sha. It makes me feel so relaxed and helps with tension. 

Recently, you’ve made portraits of some of the activists you admire, including Porche Bennett-Bey and Tarana Burke. But I wonder, who are some of the artists who inspire you?

I think about Elizabeth Catlett, Romare Bearden, Faith Ringgold, and Jacob Lawrence, who were educators for years and years. Elizabeth Catlett worked until she was 98. Aside from Jacob Lawrence, these artists worked well into their 40s before they were recognized. I feel a kinship because I wasn’t able to work on a national stage until recently.

Another artist I love is Alma Thomas. She graduated from Howard, too, and taught in the DC public schools until she was in her 60s. She went big time after she retired and became the first Black woman to have a show at the Whitney when she was in her 70s. She worked until she couldn’t. So if Alma could do it, there is no reason for me to sit around and act like I can’t.

Follow Midnight Publishing Group News on Facebook: