What you see: Subway, a 1970 Wadsworth Jarrell painting. Swann Auction Galleries estimates it at $100,000 to $150,000.
The expert: Nigel Freeman, director of Swann’s African-American fine art department.
Who is Wadsworth Jarrell? He’s a living artist who turns 91 on November 20. He’s best known as a painter and a founding member of the AfriCOBRA movement in Chicago. [The group’s full name is “the African Commune Of Bad Relevant Artists”.] His work from the late 1960s and early 1970s is rising in stature and prominence.
Is Jarrell still working? I don’t know how much he’s painting at this moment, but he continues to paint and be active. He’s had a wonderful, long career.
Where was he in his career in 1970, when he painted Subway? By 1968, he had been living and working as an artist for quite some time. With the assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X and the growth of the Civil Rights movement, a lot of artists became more socially active. Jarrell was one of the founding members of AfriCOBRA, a group of artists who decided they wanted to reach a larger audience, and who felt that art should not be reserved for the gallery scene. AfriCOBRA brought these artists together, and they made a lot of strong artwork that culminated in a 1970 exhibition at the Studio Museum in Harlem that really put them on the map.
Was Subway a part of that show? This artwork was not, but AfriCOBRA continued to do group exhibitions. In 1968, he cofounded AfriCOBRA, and by 1970 and 1971, he was reaching a peak with AfriCOBRA exhibitions.
Is AfriCOBRA still around? Not really, no, but many of the artists are still alive.
How does Jarrell’s experience with AfriCOBRA shape what we see in Subway? The AfriCOBRA movement wanted to depict art that everyday people could relate to. They did figurative subjects, not abstraction. They wanted to speak to social and political consciousness, and they wanted to show that art could change peoples’ lives with positive images. The AfriCOBRA style used bright colors, images of people without complex compositions, direct messages people could understand, and the artists brought themselves to their work.
How did Jarrell bring himself to his work? There’s a wonderful variety of things in his paintings. There’s the “coolade colors”–artificial colors not necessarily found in nature, but were bright and vibrant and got peoples’ attention. The floating letters, the “B”s, are representative of black power, blackness, and beauty. They permeate his paintings. The text [in his work] is sometimes explicit. It could be from a speech from Malcolm X or more subtle floating Bs, but there’s a message in his work. Subway fits right into the AfriCOBRA ethos and it’s typical of Jarrell’s work at the time.
I understand the letter referenced another b-word of the time that appears in AfriCOBRA’s name: Bad. Could you explain what “bad” meant in this context in 1970? It meant something good. But the Bs were more about blackness and beauty. They were positive signifiers. If you look at other paintings of Jarrell’s from this time, such as Revolutionary, they have Bs floating through the painting. The visual representation, along with the colors and the shapes, give the work a positive vibe. It’s not just a handsome portrait or a bustling subway scene. The floating letters became a device in his paintings for good things happening in the community–it’s in the air.
So the Bs sort of capture the spirit of the community, and the sense that things were changing for the better? I guess it’s the opposite of Edvard Munch’s The Scream and the anxious, nervous energy that emanates from that painting. Subway is the flipside of that.
Is the Chicago subway stop in the Wadsworth Jarrell painting identifiable? I don’t think it is. There’s nothing in the painting that says it’s this stop or that stop.
Did Jarrell include portraits of himself, his wife, or his friends in the painting? The artist might have done these things, but not that I’m aware of. What is specific in the painting is the details in the subway posters, the references to political campaigns that were going on at the time. It’s as if Trump or Biden posters were up today. But Subway is not about a specific group of people. It’s about part of everyday life in Chicago, going to work, going to school. It’s a great subject for an AfriCOBRA painting.
So it’s fair to say that this Wadsworth Jarrell painting is a good representation of his work in the early 1970s? The colors, the composition, the floating letter device–all those things make it typical of that time.
How often do Wadsworth Jarrell paintings come to market? He’s had about 18 works at auction in the last ten years. His market has been slowly developing. He had a breakthrough in 2016 when we sold a painting of his from 1973. It was untitled, but a title was attributed to it later. It was estimated at $25,000 to $35,000 and it sold for $97,500. It was the first significant painting from his prime AfriCOBRA period at auction. That’s why we’re excited about this painting. It has the potential to change his market.
If Subway sells for its low estimate, it will automatically set a new world auction record for the artist, yes? Correct.
What makes this Wadsworth Jarrell painting likely to break the record? It checks all the boxes. It’s a work of his from that moment, it’s a great subject, a good size. Given the current interest in his work and the scarcity of these paintings at auction, we expect it to do well.
What is this Wadsworth Jarrell painting like in person? There’s a life and a character and a wonderful energy to his work that you have to experience in person, but the representation in the catalog is a pretty good one.
What’s your favorite detail of the painting? I like the composition of the figures. I like how he shows people relaxed and talking, and I like how your eye goes around to look at each one. There’s no prominent figure. I see something new and different in the painting every time I look at it.
What does Subway and the record-setting Wadsworth Jarrell painting have in common, aside from having been painted around the same time? They share the same kind of energy, with the floating letters and a lot of busy-ness. The 1973 painting has two saxophone players back to back. It’s a bit more abstract in its colors and patterns. This has more of a feel of city life and the subway.
With Subway, it seems to me that Jarrell is putting as much as he can in the composition without overcrowding it. He definitely pushes it. But there are quiet spaces in the painting. Subway is a little different in that you can identify the place. A lot of his paintings focus on the message and the people.
Why will this Wadsworth Jarrell painting stick in your memory? It’s a great painting with a lot of qualities we look for in his work. I enjoy seeing the subway scene and seeing all the thought he put into it. It’s not just a subject, it’s the message.
Nigel Freeman spoke to The Hot Bid previously about an early piece by David Hammons, an Irene V. Clark painting from the Johnson Publishing Company collection, 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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