Photo courtesy of Sotheby's.

When Kerry James Marshall’s ‘Past Times’ Sold To Diddy For $21.1M

Writer and critic Antwaun Sargent tells us about his candidate for "most extra art moment" of 2018.

by Antwaun Sargent; as told to Erin Schwartz
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Dec 13 2018, 2:36pm

Photo courtesy of Sotheby's.

This year, to much acclaim, Sotheby’s sold Kerry James Marshall’s work Past Times for $21.1m— the highest sale price ever for a living black artist. Diddy bought the work. The moment was lauded as a moment of black excellence, a moment of some type of black power. What I found to be extra about the moment is that, if you know anything about auctions, you know that Marshall will see none of the money from it. They say his primary market is going to increase, and that might be a marginal effect of that sale. But when you have works going for millions of dollars anyway, it’s not going to be that great of an increase.

What we should really be talking about is how people perceive artists and their value. I think the conversation should be around how to make sure that artists are benefitting from those auctions. The market value of the work on the primary and the secondary market is directly tied to Marshall’s labor. Shouldn’t an artist benefit from that sale? There’s this extra-ness around trying to say this is happening—“This is a great sale, this black artist is living, OMG”—and using that to say, “Isn’t that progress?” And right below it, things haven’t changed; the people in power are still in power, and they’re still playing by the same rules. Marshall might get some of the glory or some of the nice newspaper headlines, but he saw nothing; the work originally sold for $25,000.

There’s no way in which that painting is not, by whatever rules you want to apply to it, a contemporary masterpiece. We should lead with that. We should lead with: what would make a work of art worth that much money? What about Marshall’s artistic decisions, his arrival at this use of the black figure in this array of black colors, would make this work worth what it’s worth? What is it about his gesture that speaks to not only to the time but also to the history of art?

He’s engaged in Renaissance painting techniques; he’s engaged in abstraction. The history of art shows up in Marshall’s work. That says something not only about black people but about Western culture. If we can break down some of the artistic value in the work, then perhaps we can have more substantial conversations about why this work would go for this much right now but not 10 years ago; and how this artist went from being on the South Side of Chicago, working in his studio, and whether the work sold or not—and for a long time, it didn’t sell—he was still in it. He still believed in what he was doing.

If we had a more robust conversation around all the works, and not just a few, we would also have a multitude of ways of seeing people of color. Marshall’s work is informed by the Black Power movement and informed by the discussions around making positive depictions of African American art that were happening in the late 1960s and early 1970s. What you see as a result are primarily positive depictions in the work, depictions that are in some ways aspirational. Outside the frame of that canvas, you can have a totally different story.