Heritage Auctions presents 'The Soul of a Nation: Black Art From a Distinguished Collector' in November
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Heritage Auctions presents 'The Soul of a Nation: Black Art From a Distinguished Collector' in November
James Lesesne Wells (American, 1902-1993), Wanderers, circa 1930. Oil on canvas, 18-1/4 x 24-1/2 inches (46.4 x 62.2 cm). Estimate: $30,000 - $50,000.

DALLAS, TX.- Heritage Auctions' American Art Signature® Auction, which takes place Nov. 5, is perhaps the most comprehensive fine art event in the auction house's history. Because amid the Rockwells and Leyendeckers, the Bierstadts and Sandzéns, collectors will find works by Black artists dating from the turn of the century to the modern day, among them James Lesesne Wells' oil painting Wanderers andSargent Claude Johnson's terracotta sculpture Head of a Youth, both from the 1930s.

They are but two of the myriad important and heralded works that make up "The Soul of a Nation: Black Art from a Distinguished Collector." Heritage Auctions is proud and thrilled to present this collection, which features 95 works by more than 60 artists.

The man behind this extraordinary assemblage began his journey by collecting historical documents related to Black history; then, a decade ago, turned his attention to visual art, falling in love with the likes of Romare Bearden, Elizabeth Catlett, Jacob Lawrence, Emma Amos, Mickalene Thomas and others. He now parts with his museum-quality collection because, as he notes, "it's time to give other collectors and institutions the chance to acquire these wonderful works."

"The work was visually exciting, varied, powerful and even revelatory," says the collector, who wishes to remain anonymous. "It was as compelling as any American art of the last 150 years. It dovetailed with all the successive art movements of the time: Classicism, Cubism, Expressionism, Social Realism, Abstract Expressionism, Conceptualism. Yet I had to wonder: Who were all these incredible artists, and where had they all been hiding all this time?"

The answer: in private collections, for the most part, obscured by what Black art expert and essayist Halima Taha calls in her essay the "traditional devaluation and past indifference to meritorious work by American artists of African descent."

Taha attributes this to "the shameful legacy of elitism, racism, and ignorance within the art world among dealers, appraisers, curators, critics, collectors and auction houses," and notes that only within the last 35 years has Black art "become the most actively sought work by private and institutional collections worldwide" as they look to fill the significant "historic and aesthetic gaps in their American art collections."

Wells' Wanderers is certainly high on the list of major works in this event, for numerous reasons: The Atlanta native, and son of a minister, was not only a painter and graphic artist, but was considered a pioneer in modern art education during his 39-year tenure as a professor at Howard University, where he founded its graphics art department. He was an activist, too: As the African American Registry notes, Wells "joined his brother-in-law, Eugene Davidson, president of the local NAACP chapter, in protesting segregation in lunch counters, stores, and the nearly all-white police department and as a result, was often harassed."

Wanderers, which depicts three Black women migrating (likely from the South northward), is among his major early works, having received the Gold Medal at the Harmon Foundation's 1931 "Exhibition of the Work of Negro Artists." As Wells noted in his 1989 oral history with the Smithsonian Institution, Black art "wasn't accepted by white galleries" during this period, nor were Black artists allowed to even visit most galleries.

Taha notes in her accompanying essay that Wanderers depicts the migration of Black Americans to cities offering better economic opportunities and a better quality of life. She writes, "The title of this piece Wanderers is Wells' statement that Black people in America were unwanted peoples in a country that did not respect their humanity despite their contributions."

Sargent Claude Johnson is no less a significant and impactful figure. He was born in Boston on Oct. 7, 1887, and like Wells showed his work frequently during Harmon Foundation exhibitions in the 1930s, his most productive period. As the Smithsonian notes on its website, his works were influenced by Cubism as well as the art of West Africa, Latin America and Mexico. But it was the story of the Black American in which he was most interested, and his "earliest interest in African art became manifest around 1930 when he executed several copper masks based on African prototypes."

The terra cotta Head of a Youth is among those early works, alongside 1938's Head of a Woman, also part of this auction. Similar works from that period are in the permanent collection of the Smithsonian American Art Museum, which notes that with these sculptures, "Johnson situated the image of the black face within a dialogue about race taking place among Alain Locke, W.E.B. Du Bois, and Langston Hughes and other poets and intellectuals of the Harlem Renaissance."

As the artist himself told the San Francisco Chronicle in 1971, during a retrospective of his life's work, "It is the pure American Negro I am concerned with, aiming to show the natural beauty and dignity in that characteristic lip and that characteristic hair, bearing and manner; and I wish to show that beauty not so much to the white man as to the Negro himself."

That sentiment, and its impact, is seen throughout "The Soul of a Nation," in works ranging from Harlem Renaissance artist Lois Mailou Jones' calendar illustrations depicting Black women as doctors, business executives and college professors; to Romare Howard Bearden's circa-1956 Harlequin, a Modernist collage that looks like the jazz of that period sounds; to Elizabeth Catlett's linocuts, among them 1947's Barbed Wire; to Charles Wilbert White's 1946 relief Joven; to Mickalene Thomas 2018 digital pigment print Racquel Come to Me Two, which uses the imagery of Blaxploitation cinema to subvert notions of race, gender and sexuality.

"I love that what we're offering here is a century's worth of Black art," says Aviva Lehmann, Heritage Auctions' Director of American Art. "This is a major event, and we are thrilled to be part of it."

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