What you see: Seated Woman, a 1962 sculpture in mahogany by Elizabeth Catlett. Swann Auction Galleries estimates it at $100,000 to $150,000.
The expert: Nigel Freeman, director of Swann’s African-American fine art department.
Do we know how many sculptures Elizabeth Catlett made? There’s easily over 100, and probably close to 200. What’s interesting about the sculpture is it’s an early piece. She didn’t begin working in wood until she studied woodcarving in Mexico in the late 1950s. Her earliest dates to 1956. This is a significant work of refined sculpture. It shows how quickly she took to wood, and wood quickly became one of her materials.
Did she normally work in mahogany? She did do a number of works in mahogany. There are several mahogany works early in her career. She would do works in tropical woods, cedar, pecan. Mahogany, for a lot of reasons–beauty and durability–was a wood she would use often. It lends itself to the carving that she did.
Is Seated Woman a subject that she returns to over her career as a sculptor, or is this the only instance? Strong representations of women are part of her work, part of her creative impulse, and what she wanted to do. A woman seated on a box appears in the late 1950s in her work, and you see it throughout her work.
Was this sculpture based on a live model, or did Catlett imagine the figure? Most of these were done from her imagination. She may have had a model at some point. She may have done drawings of a model, but I’m not aware of a model for this piece. It’s an anonymous figure. There are later works where we do know the model. Here, the identity is not specific to a particular person. It’s more a universal idea.
What, if anything, do we know about how Catlett carved, and how she might have carved this work? This was actually made from several blocks of wood. She would find blocks of wood she would make into the figure she wanted, and glue them together. This is quite a complex thing to carve in wood.
And I imagine she had to wait to get blocks of wood that would match well. The wood has to be pieced together carefully. It’s stained and polished and made to fit together. It’s kind of the magic of these pieces. This is a typical way she would construct the general form. There were many different stages in the carving, down to the fine modeling and the polishing–very labor-intensive. This is a very finished, polished piece of wood.
And she wouldn’t have had any assistants at this point? I don’t think so.
Seated Woman was purchased by George Crockett, Jr. and his wife, Ethelene J. Crockett. He put his name and his social security number on the base of the sculpture. Do we know why? I understand why he might want to put his name on it, but… his social security number? [Laughs] I think it’s sort of sweet, in a way. He really valued Seated Woman. [He thought, if he put his social security number on it] if it was ever lost or stolen, it would come back to him. His grandchildren, who were involved in consigning it, weren’t aware of it [his unusual anti-theft precaution], but it rang true with his character. It’s endearing. He prized it, and he didn’t want anyone else to claim ownership. [The ID carving] is very small, on the back of the sculpture, on the bottom of the base. You’ll only find it if you look very closely. [It’s not visible in any of the pictures Swann provided.]
Have you handled the Elizabeth Catlett sculpture? It’s in my office. One of the nice perks of the job is getting to live with the art for a while.
What is the Elizabeth Catlett sculpture like in person? It’s got a wonderful presence.
This, more than many things I cover on The Hot Bid, I want to pick up and handle. [Laughs] It has a beautiful surface. It is a thing people want to handle. It stands about two feet tall. It’s larger than its size–it’s got a bigger presence. It’s got a certain heft and weight to it. You’re drawn to it. It’s very attractive.
Are there any aspects or details of the Elizabeth Catlett sculpture that the camera does not pick up? The experiential part of the sculpture. Your eye can move around it. She’s not just square on the base. It’s got a visceral quality and a very animated quality. She gives it life. It works on so many different levels–how dynamic and complicated the pose is, all the curves to it.
What condition is the Elizabeth Catlett sculpture in? It’s in very good condition. This work was in the Crockett family for a long time. With all wood, there’s some aging, and there’s always a few cracks. It was professionally cleaned and preserved for its appearance and to take care of the wood. Now it looks really fantastic.
How does it compare to other Elizabeth Catlett sculptures you’ve handled? We have had other works of hers in terra-cotta and wood. The record is Homage to My Black Sisters, a 68-inch high piece from 1968 that still stands as her auction record. We sold it in October 2009 for $288,000. It’s a decidedly different market today. In 2009, we’d only been doing African-American fine art auctions for two years, and there had been very few Elizabeth Catlett works at auction at that time. It was still early days.
How often do Elizabeth Catlett sculptures come to auction? From time to time. For wood, there have probably been half a dozen at auction. They’re all different. Homage to My Black Sisters was much more abstract, very modern.
Does Seated Woman have a different sort of presence than her later sculptures? This one is much more intense, I think, more intimate. It’s a small figure. The others are more abstracted. This is more representative. It’s an intricate carving, and very complex. It has a life to it. Her earlier works are more realistic and imbued with emotion. In her later works, though they are abstract, they’re more political works of art. This is more subtle. It’s part of its appeal. And she was getting into the prime of her career in the 1960s, which is wonderful.
Why will this Elizabeth Catlett sculpture stick in your memory? It’s from an interesting point in her career, and for the gorgeousness of the sculpture. It’s a really beautiful work. You can see all that went into it and the skill to pull it off–you can see it in the sculpture. It’s an impressive sculpture, and when you see it, you can’t help but be impressed.
Nigel Freeman spoke to The Hot Bid previously about an Emma Amos mixed-media work that ultimately sold for an auction record for the artist; a set of Emperor Jones prints by Harlem Renaissance artist Aaron Douglas, a story quilt that Oprah Winfrey commissioned Faith Ringgold to make about Dr. Maya Angelou, an Elizabeth Catlett painting, and a Sargent Johnson copper mask.
Image is courtesy of Swann Auction Galleries.
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