BOSTON, MA.- The Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (MFA), recently acquired three paintings by leading African-American artists of the 20th century at the African-American Fine Art Sale at Swann Auctions (NY): Untitled (about 196064) by Norman Lewis; The Juggler #1 (about 1964) by Hughie Lee-Smith; and 715 Washington Street (1947), by Walter Simon. The MFA purchased the Lewis for $312,000the highest price ever realized at auction for an abstract work by an African American artist, and an auction record for any work by the artist. The Simon, which also set an auction record for the artist, was purchased with Museum funds raised by the MFAs Heritage Fund for a Diverse Collectionan art acquisition fund established in 2005 for the purpose of diversifying the Museums collection of American art.
These recent purchases are in keeping with our commitment to deepen the MFAs collection of 20th-century African-American art, said Malcolm Rogers, Ann and Graham Gund Director of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. We are particularly delighted to have acquired works by these three noteworthy artists, which will find a permanent home in the Museums new American Wing when it opens in late 2010.
Untitled by Norman Lewis (19091979), is an exceptionally fine example of the artists abstract style of the 1950s and 1960s. The expansive composition and masterful rendering of color in a range of vibrant and ethereal passages evoke Lewiss sophisticated contribution to the Abstract Expressionist movement, which he experienced first hand in New York City. Clusters of small figures created by calligraphic strokes of paint convey the artists concern with broader issues of individuality and society. Unlike many of Lewiss works that suffered neglect, this pristine canvas was formerly owned by the important modern art collectors, Judge Edward R. and Rae O Dudley. Among his many accomplishments, Judge Dudley was the United States Ambassador to Liberia, the first African-American to hold the title of ambassador, and later Justice of the New York State Supreme Court. His wife Rae was a painter and connoisseur, who knew the artists whose works she collected and championed their careers. This Lewis was never publicly exhibited until it appeared at Swann Galleries. Lewiss work is represented in major museums including the Museum of Modern Art and the Smithsonian American Art Museum. The MFA, Boston has one early work by Lewis titled Harlem Jazz Jamboree (1943, Wein Collection), an energetic and expressionist painting that reflects a transition from Lewiss earlier interest in Social Realism to his later abstractions incorporating multiple figures. Untitled represents the Museums only example of Lewiss abstract work.
The Juggler #1 by Hughie Lee-Smith (19151999), is a premier example of the artists most recognizable and frequently discussed series of paintings from the mid-1960s, all of which are characterized by figures isolated within a bleak, decaying landscape. [Note: Often Lee-Smith includes multiple figures, as he does here.] His sense of personal and professional alienationlinked to the promise of American Dream and the harsh realities of racial prejudicefound visual expression in his jarring surrealist scenes of figures situated in barren landscapes, filled with mystery and haunting melancholy. Despite exceptional training and a lifetime of awards and honors, including his election as a full member of the National Academy of Design in 1967 and his one-man exhibition at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston in 1969which included Juggler #1, Lee-Smith did not receive widespread acclaim until the New Jersey State Museum organized a traveling retrospective in 1988. Since then, he has been celebrated as one of the leading African-American artists of the twentieth century and a major proponent of surrealism. His work can be found the collections of the Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, DC; The Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY; the Detroit Art Institute, MI; the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, NY; the Parrish Art Museum, NY; Howard University, Washington, DC; and in many private collections. This is the first work by Lee-Smith to enter the MFAs collection.
715 Washington Street by Walter Simon (19161979), an abstracted expression of urban life, is a cubist fusion of the colors and textures surrounding the Greenwich Village building where Simon lived while completing his undergraduate degree at New York University. Through a lively overlapping of planes and shapes, with dynamically contrasting surfacesincluding a layer of sand--, the artist establishes the building as a living entity revealed by multilayered views. The composition suggests both the intimate spaces of private apartments and the artists mind, as well as the public façade of ground-level shops, railings, walls, and fire escapes.
Simons known body of work is small, making this painting and its original frame exceptionally rare. Though recognized as a leading artist early in his careerhe took top honors in 1949, 1951, and 1953 at the Atlanta University Annual Exhibition of Black Artists, then the premier national venue for African American artistshis broader contribution to American art has not been fully acknowledged. Simons paintings can be found in the collections of Atlanta University and the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts. This is the first work by Simon to enter the MFAs collection.
These extraordinary paintings will add great beauty and breadth to the collection of American art at the Museum of Fine Arts,, Boston said Elliot Bostwick Davis, John Moors Cabot Chair, Art of the Americas at the MFA. Norman Lewis was a major player in the Abstract Expressionist movement in New York, and the reaffirmation of his important role in the creation of such bold and brilliant compositions made this work extremely desirable. Hughie Lee-Smith, a distinguished artist and educator, is widely recognized for his powerful, surrealist scenes of isolation and anomie. Walter Simon exemplifies the experience of many African-American artists who remain under appreciatedhis 715 Washington Street is a rich and complex self-portrait of a cityscape that inspired Simons journey into cubist-inspired abstraction.
In addition to these new paintings, the MFAs collection includes the following recent acquisitions by African American artists: a clock (1979-1980) by Frank E. Cummings, III, 11 works on paper and 8 paintings by Loïs Mailou Jones, Interior of a Mosque, Cairo (1897) byHenry Ossawa Tanner, 20 pieces of studio jewelry by Art Smith from the Collection of Daphne Farago, as well as eight works from the Wein collection by James Richmond Barthé, Eldzier Cortor, Wifredo Lam, Norman Lewis, Augusta Savage, John Wilson, and Allan Crite. Crites painting Tire Jumping in Front of My Window (1935) was acquired with contributions from The Heritage Fund for a Diverse Collection, established through the generosity of members of the Museums Trustee/Overseer Diversity Advisory Committee.