During the summer, when auction schedules slow down, The Hot Bid showcases world auction records.
What you see: Nuvae, a 1968 oil on burlap canvas by the late Jamaican-born artist Mavis Pusey. Rago Arts and Auctions sold it in May 2019 for $42,500, a world auction record for the artist.
The expert: Meredith Hilferty, fine art director at Rago Arts and Auctions.
Could we start by talking about Mavis… how do you pronounce her last name? Poo-SAY.
Can we talk about who she was, and her contributions to art? She was a Jamaican-born artist who came to New York at the age of 18. She decided to enroll with the Art Students League and fell into painting. She was firmly an abstract expressionist artist, which was unusual for a woman and for a black artist. She decided she was an abstract expressionist and she did not waver, though it wasn’t highly accepted. It was important that she did not waver. She didn’t let someone push her in a direction that she didn’t want to go.
Was she prolific? She was prolific, but not insanely prolific. This is the first work of hers we’ve ever handled, and I’ve been at Rago for 13 years. She painted a lot, but her work doesn’t come out on the market very often. I wouldn’t be surprised if more paintings come to market because of the recent sale.
Do collectors just love her work and hang onto it for decades? I think so. I think that’s one factor. Another is while she’s always had significant four- and five-figure prices, people weren’t faced with the decision, “Do I want to cash in on this?” A lot of times they love them as works of art, but there’s a personal connection there–they got it directly from the artist. Selling it was not necessarily on their minds.
Do we know why she named this painting Nuvae? We don’t know what it means. We certainly tried to figure it out, but we hit a dead end. She did title her work. We found other works with similar titles–one word, and they’re not words anyone would recognize. She also used titles that were very descriptive. She was inspired by urban landscapes, and some titles reflect that and are descriptive of that. This title doesn’t lead you in any particular direction. I kind of like that. [Laughs] It’s an abstract expressionist work of art in every sense of the word.
Is Nuvae part of a series, or is it a stand-alone work? I’d say it stands alone, but she did works in a similar style in the late 1960s. All stand-alone major paintings from that period relate to each other, but they’re not a series in that there’s no direct connection to each other.
She painted this on burlap. Is that typical for her? She did do quite a few paintings on burlap in this period, but she also painted on canvas. We don’t know why she used burlap. There’s not enough information to know the answer. It could have been that she’d run out of canvas, or it could have been that she wanted to try something else. It was purposeful. I think she was successful with it, and she used burlap for a good period of time.
Nuvae measures 30 inches by 40 inches. Is that a standard size for her? No, she actually would work bigger than this, oftentimes. It’s a big painting, but in the same period, she did 40 by 50, 50 by 60. The scale is significant, for sure.
Is Nuvae typical or atypical of her work? It’s very typical of her work from the late 1960s. A good part of her work is simply abstract and not representative. Others seem to reference urban landscapes, or the figures are much more direct. This has a more curving form that reminds the viewer of a figure..
Is that central blue passage meant to be a figure? It kind of looks like it has a leg and an arm… I don’t know. There’s certainly a suggestion of a figure there, but I think it’s very loose. I think she was more highly focused on shape and color. She’s not making a direct enough connection for us to say it’s a reclining figure.
Pusey included Nuvae in her application for the Pollock-Krasner Foundation award, and she won it. Does that sort of thing affect a painting’s appeal to collectors? I think it does, absolutely. It’s a great honor for an artist to receive the Pollock-Krasner Foundation award. The appeal to collectors is the artist thought enough of the painting to include it in her application, and she won the award based on that application. It’s hard to say how much it affects the value of the piece, but it appeals to buyers.
What condition is the painting in? For a painting from the late 1960s, it’s in good condition. The things it needs are easily fixed by a good conservator. It’s a little loose on its stretcher.
Would that have anything to do with the burlap canvas? It could be. I’m not a conservator, but burlap is a heavier fabric, and it would certainly put more tension on the stretchers. It’s not really a major issue, but if it’s going to be hung in a museum exhibit or a collector’s home, you’d want it to be at its best, and part of that is having the burlap brought back to a taut configuration.
What is the painting like in person? It goes back to scale. When you stand in front of it, the canvas pulls you in and takes up your vision. The shapes play off each other and almost vibrate. You get the impression of a subtle palette, and it keeps your eye moving around the composition.
What was the previous world auction record for a Mavis Pusey painting? It was the same painting, when it sold at Swann in October 2013 for $33,750. You can see very directly how her market has changed in five and a half years. Before that, her record was set a year before, also at Swann, by Recarte, a larger 1968 painting that sold for $31,200. Not only is her work more and more desirable, but her late 1960s work has held records. That’s what people want.
Mavis Pusey died on April 20, 2019, and the Rago auction took place on May 4, 2019. What role, if any, did the timing of her death play in the new world record? I couldn’t say that it didn’t play a role. Certainly there was a little bit more buzz. But there was serious interest before her death was announced. The catalog came out before that, it was in our advertising and press releases and marketing before that. People were interested in the painting. If [her death] pushed it over…I’m not really convinced it was a major factor. I think this [interest in Pusey] has been building up, and she’s been getting more attention. I don’t think there’s a direct connection there. I don’t think it broke the record because she had just died.
What was your role in the auction? Generally, I put these sales together. Typically, during the day of sale, I’m in my office, talking to buyers about bids. This particular lot had a lot of action. I was called out to the phone table [the table where the auction house manages phone bidders]. I got to watch from the floor and see it break the record. I was glad I was pulled from the office to come out. It was really exciting.
How long do you think this world auction record for Mavis Pusey will stand? What else is out there that could meet or beat it? I think other paintings from the 1960s of the same quality [could do it]. She did also paint larger paintings, so, potentially, you could say they could sell for more, but they haven’t been on the market. We really have to wait and see. We find that when a record is set or an artist dies, more works come on the market. I think it really hinges on that.
Why will this piece stick in your memory? I always like to see an artist who hasn’t gotten the recognition they deserve get recognition. I’ve handled works that have set records for many women artists. It’s a satisfying part of the job.
Text is copyright Sheila Gibson Stoodley. Image is courtesy of Rago Auctions.
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