AN IMAGE OF BLACK LOVE by Kerry James Marshall was highly sought this week. Nearly six-feet tall, “Vignette 19” (2014) depicts three couples captured in a park-like vignette framed with strokes of pink and a glittery heart. Offered at Sotheby’s Contemporary Art Evening Auction on Nov. 14 in New York, the painting was expected to reach $6.5 million-$7.5 million. It sold for $18,488,000 (fees are included in all prices cited), more than twice the high estimate.

The price is historic, the second-highest ever paid at auction for a work by a living Africa American artist. The record is held by another Marshall painting, “Past Times” (1997) which sold for $21.1 million in May 2018. “Vignette 19” surpassed by Mark Bradford’s monumental painting “Helter Skelter I” (2007), which was previously the second-most expensive having sold for $11,977,943 in March 2018 at Phillips London.

Lot 19: KERRY JAMES MARSHALL, “Vignette 19,” 2014 (acrylic on PVC, 71 3/4 by 60 inches / 182.2 by 152.4 cm). | Estimate $6.5 million-$7.5 million. Sold for $18,488,000 fees included ($16 million hammer price)

In the retrospective catalog “Kerry James Marshall: Mastry,” Abigail Winograd provides context for the artist’s idyllic Vignette painting:

Marshall’s ongoing series Vignettes, based on Jean-Honoré Fragonard’s late-eighteenth-century series The Progress of Love, borrows the conceit of the vignette, an ornamental or pictorial device used in book publishing during the French rococo period. The rococo emerged in early eighteenth-century France and embraced the florid, the fecund, and the festooned, deploying images culled from daily life as a challenge to the rigidity of the French academies. Focusing on romantic love, freed from the moralizing of traditional genre scenes or the political and financial arrangements that structured aristocratic marriage, rococo paintings created a space of fantasy in which amorous bliss came to be associated with individual freedom. Marshall’s Vignette paintings deploy the irreverent, decorative spirit of the rococo as a strategy for imaging quotidian black love, a nearly invisible category in the canon of Western painting.

Winograd adds: “The Vignettes are part of Marshall’s ongoing effort to create narrative paintings that eschew images of the black figure contending with violence or trauma in favor of an almost Rockwellian normalcy, defying expectations to create a new sense of black domesticity.”

“Marshall’s Vignette paintings deploy the irreverent, decorative spirit of the rococo as a strategy for imaging quotidian black love, a nearly invisible category in the canon of Western painting.” — Abigail Winograd

The Sotheby’s auction featured 50 lots and totaled $270.6 million. Among the top lots, “Vignette 19” yielded the fourth-highest result. The sale opened with “Ye Shall Inherit the Earth” (1953), a record-setting drawing by Charles White (1918-1979) that garnered $1.76 million. Later in the sale, “Ritual” (1962) by Norman Lewis (1909-1979) also set a new artist record, reaching $2.74 million. Both White and Lewis shattered their previous records and it was the first time the 20th century artists were represented in the evening auction, a marquee sale dedicated to premium works of art.

Major paintings by Bradford, Jean-Michel Basquiat (1960-1988), Julie Mehretu, and Jack Whitten were also featured in the sale. In addition, a second painting by Marshall was offered and, like “Vignette 19,” fared well. “Small Pin-Up (Lens Flare)” (2013) sold for more $5.5 million, handily surpassing the estimate. CT

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“Kerry James Marshall: History of Painting” is a new volume published in September. From Phaidon, “Kerry James Marshall” is a fully illustrated documentation of the artist’s career. The volume includes a conversation with fellow artist Charles Gaines and an image of “Vignette 19” (2014) by Marshall. “Kerry James Marshall: Mastry,” a comprehensive, cloth-covered catalog was published to accompany the artist’s 30-year survey and features brief background information about his ongoing Vignette series. An extensive interview with Marshall is published in the exhibition catalog “Painting and Other Stuff.” Finally, “Kerry James Marshall: Look See” coincided with the artists’s first exhibition with David Zwirner gallery in London in 2014.