Update: Mansion on Prairie Avenue sold for $30,000–more than four times its high estimate, and a new world auction record for the artist.
What you see: Mansion on Prairie Avenue, a mid-century oil on masonite board by Irene V. Clark. Swann Auction Galleries estimates it at $5,000 to $7,000.
The expert: Nigel Freeman, director of Swann’s African-American fine art department.
Let’s start by talking about Irene Clark–who she was, and why she’s still collected today. She’s an interesting artist. She studied at the Art Institute of Chicago. She was a modern painter at the time when there were few African-American women painters. She was interested in embracing different kinds of imagery and subject matter and embracing the African-American experience.
Was Irene Clark prolific? And do we know how many works she did with a mansion theme? This is a subject she did a number of versions of, but I don’t think it’s a series, in that those I’ve seen are the same subject. It was an interesting subject for her. If you like painting your dog and you keep painting your dog, that doesn’t mean you do dog portraits. Her other work is a little different, usually an isolated figure or a mask on a background. We know this painting is important to her because the other versions are well-known.
But as far as numbers go, do we have an idea of how many artworks Irene Clark produced? I don’t know. I don’t see her work that often. She had a long career, but her market is quite small. She’s had less than 20 works at auction. Most are paintings on wood or paper, in a similar size and format.
And the number of Irene Clark mansion works? I’ve seen two others and this one. The one in the Art Institute of Chicago is almost identical [to the one on offer at Swann]. They are very similar, but not identical. She’s revisiting the subject, not just copying it.
Did Irene Clark start painting mansion works while she was studying at the Art Institute of Chicago, or did they come later? I believe they were done in the 1950s and 1960s, after her Works Progress Administration period. The one in the Art Institute of Chicago collection is circa 1955. I don’t know exactly when these were painted. They’re not dated. [The one offered at Swann has a circa date range of 1955 and 1962, and the one in the museum is circa 1955.]
Is Irene Clark best known for her mansion paintings? I think the best way to put it is because one’s in the Art Institute of Chicago and the other is in Cedric Dover’s book American Negro Art, yes, it’s probably her best known subject.
What makes Irene Clark’s mansions a compelling subject for an artwork? They show how the neighborhoods on the South Side of Chicago were changing. With the Great Migration, the neighborhoods of 19th century mansions changed and became predominantly African-American.
Are the people Irene Clark shows in the windows and in front of the mansion specific characters that appear in every mansion painting? No, they’re a general kind of idea. The South Side of Chicago, with its big stone buildings, was kind of a historic district. They were built for rich white families in the 19th century. Now, African-Americans live there. She’s reflecting on that in the picture. She’s relating it to the African-American experience on the South Side of Chicago.
Is the mansion recognizable as a specific South Side Chicago mansion, or is it a fanciful invention of hers? It’s probably just a fanciful version. It’s just the idea of a mansion in the neighborhood and the people who live there. I guess it could have been done from a sketch, but it’s probably the artist’s interpretation. It seems very much her own. It’s playful and fanciful, with everybody in the windows. It’s her artistic license.
What is the Irene Clark painting like in person? It has a fair amount of texture. It’s painted on wood, and has an underlying solidity. It has texture and weight to it. I think the image gives a good sense of what it looks like in person.
Would the Johnson Publishing Company have commissioned this mansion painting from Irene Clark? I’m not aware of any direct commission, but I don’t have a lot of information. I can’t really say. My feeling is they would have been able to acquire work from the artist if they wanted to, but I don’t know where it was acquired.
I ask because I see in the lot notes that the painting was pictured in a December 1973 issue of Ebony, which was the company’s flagship magazine. Yes, it was illustrated in a later magazine. They were publicizing the [art] collection in the 1970s after the building had opened [at 820 S. Michigan Avenue in Chicago in 1971; in 2017, the city of Chicago declared it as a local landmark.] I’m quite positive it was acquired directly from the artist. A lot of artists were contacted directly for works for the collection, but I don’t have documentation.
How often do Irene Clark works come up at auction? Maybe one every couple of years. There haven’t been many. It depends on the year. It’s infrequent.
What’s the world auction record for an Irene Clark? It was set two years ago at Ripley Auctions in Indianapolis. It was called South Chicago Scene and it sold for $4,750.
So if Mansion on Prairie Avenue sells for its low estimate, that will be a new auction record for Irene Clark. Right.
What are the odds of that happening? I think it will do well for a couple of reasons. It’s a well-known subject of hers. It’s known within the collection because it was featured in Ebony. It’s a good representation of the African-American experience in Chicago. It ticks the boxes.
Is everything in the Johnson Publishing Company sale fresh to market–nothing has appeared at auction before? They did acquire works from galleries and dealers. I don’t believe any works were acquired at auction. Many of these artists, especially works from the 1970s, were acquired directly, and many are new to auction or have few auction records. I think 25 artists [represented] in this collection don’t have auction records.
Wow. I imagine you haven’t had that many debut artists in one sale since you founded the African-American art department at Swann in 2006. That’s right. I wrote a lot of biographical information for this sale. It’s a great collection, because it brings together well-known, important African-American artists across the country.
But I imagine there will be a lot of competition for this Irene Clark work because of its strong Chicago connection? It definitely appeals to collectors of Chicago art and Chicago artists, and it appeals to people who collect early African-American art, and people who known the Johnson Publishing Company collection and know the importance of the company. It will resonate with different types of collectors.
Why will this Irene Clark work stick in your memory? It’s definitely a significant work by her. It speaks to her work, and it’s something that meant a lot to her. It’s very similar to the work in the Art Institute of Chicago. If it’s good enough for an institution, I think it will be sought-after by many collectors. It’s a fascinating subject, and I think it will resonate with people.
How to bid: Mansion on Prairie Avenue by Irene Clark is lot 12 in the January 30, 2020 sale of African-American Art from the Johnson Publishing Company at Swann Auction Galleries.
Nigel Freeman spoke to The Hot Bid previously about an Elizabeth Catlett sculpture that went on to set a new world auction record for the artist; 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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