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Christie’s Sets a Record for Outsider Art at Auction With a $785,000 William Edmondson

William Edmondson, Boxer, 1936.COURTESY CHRISTIE'S

William Edmondson, Boxer, 1936.

COURTESY CHRISTIE’S

Christie’s announced today that it set a record for a work of outsider art at auction in its inaugural sale of self-taught artists, called “Liberation Through Expression: Outsider and Vernacular Art.” The top lot was William Edmondson’s Boxer, with a final hammer price of $785,000. This shattered Edmondson’s previous record of $263,000, set in 2014 for a work called Mother and Child, and surpassed the old category record, held by Henry Darger’s Sans titre, which sold for $745,076, also in 2014.

The term outsider art is a touch trickier than, say, modern or contemporary, as far as genre descriptors deployed by auction houses go. Historically, the term has carried the onerous subtext of “not white” and “didn’t go to art school” and has marginalization built into its very definition. But for years now, so-called outsider artists have been canonized as towering figures in American art. Bill Traylor, one of the most famous artists to carry the outsider label, had a justifiably large role in the Whitney Museum’s recent collection survey, “America Is Hard to See,” as my colleague pointed out yesterday in a piece about the Outsider Art Fair, which is on view through the weekend in New York. And many prominent artists branded as outsiders are now collected by major institutions, with their work commonly selling in the six figures. Artists like Edmondson and Darger both command evening-sale prices, but rather than group them into a larger auction of modern art, the term outsider has proven to be a powerful marketing tool for auction houses like Christie’s.

And yet calling Edmondson himself an outsider at this point is full of problematic implications. He was the child of freed slaves, worked for a time as a janitor in a Nashville hospital, and didn’t start making sculpture until the age of 57. But, as stated in a biographical note on the artist published by the Cheekwood Botanical Garden and Museum of Art in Nashville, which organized an Edmondson show in 2011, he was also exhibiting at the Museum of Modern Art in New York as early as 1937, when he was the first African American artist to receive a solo show at that institution.

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  • Mark S

    The last paragraph belies a shallow understanding of Edmondson’s biography and work. He had exactly one major solo show during his lifetime, and that was the initial 1937 MoMA show. That show was the result of a “discovery” of the elderly janitor-turned-tombstone maker working in his backyard workshop in a black neighborhood of Nashville. He was championed by connected white patrons, and the show mounted by visionary MoMA head Alfredd Barr. However, critics sniffed, and the art world immediately dismissed him as a mere curiosity. MoMA never acquired any of his works, as they turned away from “primitive” artists. Edmondson was completely forgotten outside of Nashville by his death in 1951. He remained a tiny footnote until the “folk art” resurgence of the 1970’s and 1980’s. Even so, the first comprehensive retrospective wasn’t mounted until 1984 (in Nashville) and 1999 (again, in Nashville).

    It was the 1999 Cheekwood traveling exhibition, and its comprehensive catalog, that presented the first serious scholarship on his work (outside of a slim 1972 volume by Edmund Fuller, collector and amateur biographer.) Edmondson remained an “outsider” during his lifetime and for decades afterward. To suggest otherwise is a misreading of his story.

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