The yellow sky of Jimmy Lee Sudduth’s The White House emitted a particularly charged glow from the screen of a Christie’s gallery this past Friday, where the painting sold for $12,500 the same morning that a new administration assumed office. Sudduth’s mud-and-paint tableau — which depicts the American landmark framed by minimal landscaping, a fauvist sky, and what appear to be figures dashed in yellow, black, and red on a set of monumental steps — counted among the many artworks that roused competitive bidding at Christie’s Courageous Spirits auction, the lively follow-up to last year’s record-setting, standalone sale of Outside Art, Liberation through Expression.
As in last year’s event, a limestone sculpture by William Edmondson graced the catalogue cover of the auction and also stood triumphantly before a seated crowd of paddle-holders that morning. After an extended battle between bidders on the phone, online, and in the Manhattan salesroom, Edmondson’s Lion fetched a realized price of $511,500, affirming that works by the American sculptor, the son of freed slaves, could readily command attention in one of today’s most insider art venues. Enamel paintings by William Hawkins and drawings by Bill Traylor and James Castle easily attracted buyers, while works by Madge Gill and Carlo Zinelli exceeded their price estimates, their strong performance asserting that old masters from both Europe and America continue to anchor the actively evolving field.
“It’s wonderful to see that these artists are achieving new highs,” said Cara Zimmerman, the Outsider Art specialist who directed the curation of Courageous Spirits and Liberation through Expression, both of which were timed to coincide with the annual Outside Art Fair in New York. “For the second year in a row, we’re seeing that there’s a depth in buying, that people are very engaged with this market.” Zimmerman remarked that this year’s sale attracted a number of collectors who were new to the field or who did not primarily collect Outsider Art. For some works, like White House, buyers clawed their way to the top with bids that tripled the high estimates for the objects. Raymond Coins’s Stele Commemorating the Founding of a Church prompted a showdown that set the soapstone sculpture’s market value at $68,750, more than six times the pre-auction estimate.
In recent years, Outside Art has become an exciting presence in the international art market. In a way, the field inherently promotes a more independent assessment of value, the broadness of its scope preventing an exclusive canon or a dominant set of evaluative criteria from codifying. Outsider Art thus shares a heritage with folk art and decorative art. Yet auction houses like Christie’s have begun to emphasize its association with fine art, hosting standalone sales for a field once seen as a subcategory of traditional folk art. According to Zimmerman, growing interest in the area reflects years, even decades, of momentum that most recently delivered works by self-taught artists into mainstream contemporary art institutions like the Venice Biennale and the New Museum. “It’s still an incredibly new auction market,” she explained, stressing the importance of curating auctions to “guide the field forward.”
Friday’s sale reflected the experimental nature of the Outsider Art auction market. The lots included a range of objects from drawings and paintings by gallery-represented artists like George Widener and Domenico Zindato to vernacular sculptures of obscure provenance like Rose, a lamp base sculpted with an intriguing domestic scene and traced to somewhere along the California-Nevada border.
Once sold on auction, the objects adopt a stable price on which they can be traded, giving auction houses a direct role in generating public value for works of art. “Rather than being on the front lines of theory, we’re on the front lines of deciding what the market is interested in and what the field is interested in,” said Zimmerman, who expressed excitement upon seeing a strong turnout for works by Southern vernacular artists as well as pieces by established figures like Edmondson and Traylor on Friday. “For any field to thrive, you have to have a lot of people invested in it. There are a lot of people — a lot of dealers, collectors, and curators — who care. That’s what makes this a really dynamic area in which to work.”