HEART OF THE COLLECTION | American Self-Taught, Haitian, Jamaican and African Art From the Collections of Jonathan Demme and Ford Wheeler
by Ellen Adair
PHILADELPHIA, Feb. 21, 2017: Jonathan Demme and Ford Wheeler, two artists who have long collaborated in the world of film, have now joined forces to bring their exceptional art collections to market, in a dedicated auction presented by Material Culture. “Heart of the Collection: American Self-Taught, Haitian, Jamaican and African Art From the Collections of Jonathan Demme and Ford Wheeler” finds a natural home in Material Culture, a Philadelphia-based auction house that specializes in folk and self-taught art from around the world. The multicultural scope of Demme and Wheeler’s artistic tastes are reflected in their buoyant collections, encompassing Haitian and American self-taught artists of the 20th and 21st centuries, as well as art and collectibles from Africa, Asia, and North America.
More than 550 lots will come to auction on Sunday, March 19, 2017 starting at 11 AM EST. Live online bidding will be available through Liveauctioneers, Bidsquare, and Invaluable. Material Culture’s gallery space will also house an exhibition of the vibrant collections of Demme and Wheeler for several weeks leading up to the auction. The public will have the chance to view the artwork, free of charge, from 11 AM to 5 PM, March 4 through March 18. The public is also invited to the opening reception (free) on Saturday, March 4 (1-4PM), as well as a special pre-auction party (free; RSVP required) on Saturday, March 18 (7PM-11PM).
Jonathan Demme is best known as a film director, having helmed films such as The Silence of the Lambs (1991), for which he won an Academy Award, Philadelphia (1993), The Manchurian Candidate (2004), and Rachel Getting Married (2008). The film Philadelphia was one of Ford Wheeler’s first jobs in film, working as a set dresser, and he has since made a name for himself as a production designer and set decorator for dozens of films, several of them with Demme. In a profile of Wheeler in the New York Times, Demme is quoted as describing Wheeler’s role as a production designer as being “his eyes:” “He reads the script, makes a little movie in his head and feeds the look. What Ford saw, I wanted to see.”
Both Demme and Wheeler, however, have spectacular eyes for collecting as well as filmmaking. Before the two men met, Wheeler spent many years running the popular but now-shuttered Craft Caravan, a shop in Soho specializing in African and Asian art, furnishings and design elements. Wheeler has had a lifelong practice of collecting a diverse range of whimsical objects and creating assemblages or home installations, but his position at Craft Caravan meant he got to apply it on an international scale, taking frequent trips to restock the store. Demme finds the root of his curatorial habit in going to flea markets and antique stores with his mother, an amateur artist. “If this collecting or gathering thing is contagious,” he says, “she is the one that gave me the bug.” He describes encountering a store called the Haitian Corner, not far from his Manhattan apartment in the 1980s, as “a transformative moment.” He was inspired to visit the country, where he learned Creole and befriended local artists and musicians. Two documentaries, Haiti Dreams of Democracy (1988) and The Agronomist (2002), focusing on the life of prominent Haitian journalist and activist Jean Dominique, are the fruit of his time spent there.
The stunning array of Haitian art, forming the core of the sale, is the other product of Demme’s decades-long love affair with the country and its people. More than 200 lots of Haitian painting are headlined by a masterpiece by Hector Hyppolite (1894-1948), regarded as one of Haiti’s foremost painters of the period. The painting of oil on board is entitled “Bosou Toi Conne” (lot 220), most likely a variant spelling of ‘Bossou Twa Kon,’ one of the names of the loa (or lwa) Bossou, a very powerful spirit in the Vodou religion. Hyppolite was a third generation Vodou priest, and his paintings are often populated with scenes and symbols from his religion. Bossou is often depicted in red, as is the impressive military-style jacket fitted on the painting’s central figure; however, he is normally shown with three horns, and this spirit has four. On the pale blue ground surrounding him are two figures, a cow and a lion, though likely these are also spirits, given their own unusual horn-like protrusions. The cow on the left may well be his wife, Madan Bossou, who usually takes this bovine form.
Hyppolite is just one of the examples of artists in the sale who developed their careers at the Centre d’Art, an establishment founded by American artist Dewitt Peters in 1944. The Centre, located in the capital city of Port-au-Prince, is famous for fostering the creation of some of Haiti’s greatest artistic masterpieces. Georges Liautaud (1899-1992), often regarded as the father of contemporary and 20th century metalwork in the country, was invited to the Centre d’Art after Peters saw several of his intricate iron crosses in a local cemetery. With the encouragement to explore other representational elements, the artist brought forth a wholly new genre of art in Haiti, cutting figures from old oil drums or scrap metal and then filing down the rough outline. Several of Liautaud’s figural sculptures are in the auction, including a splendid mermaid (lot 100), merman (lot 101), and an andiron sculpture called “The Marassa Twins” (lot 99) the sacred twins of Voudou who are even more ancient than the other loa. Sexless identical twins, the Marassa represent the abundance of creation and the mystery of the divine, and are depicted by Liautaud with merperson-like tails and their hands joined in a mirror image.
Several other pieces attributed to Liautaud but as likely forged by one of his many protégées also appear in the auction (lots 88-93). Many other artists who are considered to be Masters of 20th century Haitian painting are showcased in the sale. Nine paintings by Peterson Laurent (1888-1958) include several that have been part of international exhibitions. His charming oil painting “Three Vases” (lot 222), in which three multicolored striped vases sprout with rich blooms, bears labels from the Staatliche Kunsthalle Baden-Baden in Germany and the Herbert F. Johnson Museum of Art at New York’s Cornell University. Its counterpart, shown at The Brooklyn Museum, the Milwaukee Art Center and the New Orleans Museum of Art, follows in the sale; “Three Fishes” (lot 223) features three cheerful-looking fish who appear to be swimming against their blue background in a parallel formation. Close, dream-like depictions of animals or nature is one of Laurent’s preferred subjects, while the other—landscapes with small processions or collections of figures—can be seen at auction in the dazzling “Boardwalk Houses” (lot 224), “Yoce Deux Malottes” (lot 225), “Gathering Bananas” (lot 227) and others. A magnificent painting by Castera Bazile (1923-1965) was part of the same exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum and the Milwaukee Art Center; the artist has painted himself as Henri Cristophe, an important leader in the Haitian revolution (lot 232).
An early masterpiece by Denis Vergin, titled “Ascension” (lot 221), shows the ascension of Jesus, the disciples standing in a ring of surreal hills that are the same in number—eleven—as the amazed spectators. The oil painting on cardboard is dated to 1948, before Vergin would break from the Centre d’Art to be a part of the formation of the Foyer des Artes Plastiques. The piece appears in the book Mon Reve: A Visual Record of Haiti Since the Departure of the Duvaliers (1989). Six paintings by the famed Prefete Duffaut (1923-2012) are highlighted by two from around the same period. The wonderfully detailed “Harbor” (lot 240) dates to 1949, an example of his penchant for cityscapes, sometimes imaginary, while “Voici ma maison…(Here is my house…)” dates to 1947 (lot 245), before Duffault had even left his native Jacmel to paint at the Centre d’Art. Another of the remarkable pieces by Duffault is “Ceremonia Sisbi-Deux Aus” (lot 244) a splendid depiction of a Vodou ceremony dating to 1952. Of the four jewel-toned paintings by Micius Stephane (1912-1996), the magnificent “Scaring Off Birds” (lot 256) carries the highest pedigree. The painting, in which an almost geometrical formation of birds seems to be flying towards the viewer after having been shooed from the grain field below, has been shown in different exhibitions that travelled around England, Germany, Yugoslavia, and Switzerland. The painting was singled out in a review of “Popular Paintings from Haiti” in the London Arts Review and can be found in the book published about the same 1969 exhibition.
And the paintings already enumerated only constitute the beginning of museum-quality Haitian art in the sale. Toussaint Auguste (b. 1925), considered one of the Masters of the first generation of Centre d’Art painters, contributes two oil paintings on wood of animal groups, whose bright colors and crisp outlines are almost reminiscent of finely-detailed applique. “Serpents and Goats” (lot 230), in which three serpents in a tree appear to face off a group of eleven goats, has been featured in several exhibition publications, including Allegories of Haitian Life, by the Bass Museum of Miami Beach. Four paintings by Sénéque Obin (1893-1977) include the marvelous landscape “Senateur De 1901” (lot 115) and “La Reine et Le Roi D’Haiti” (lot 117), which was exhibited at Ramapo College in New Jersey. In the same 2014 exhibition was the painting “Incendie du Cap 1802” (lot 110) by Ludovic Jean (20th c.), a depiction of the burning of Cap-Haitien by the Haitian Revolutionary forces.
Five paintings come to auction by Andre Pierre (1916-2005), often regarded as the foremost artist of the second generation of the Centre d’Art and Hector Hyppolite’s spiritual heir. Like Hyppolite, Pierre frequently painted Voudou subjects, as seen in his spectacular “Simbi enn deux eaux” (lot 275) another spelling of ‘Simbi Andezo,’ a powerful serpent loa associated with water, and “Kouzen Zaka Ceremony” (lot 274), which shows a gathering of faithful beneath a tree connecting with the patron loa of farmers and workers. Pierre’s contemporary Edger Jean-Baptiste (1917-1992), by contrast, more often depicted scenes of secular and political life in Haiti, the one exception in the wealth of his ten paintings in the sale being “Les Forces Personnifiees De La Lune: Selene, Diane, Lilith and Hecate” (lot 266) which features goddesses from Greek, Roman and Jewish mythology. His most intriguing painting at auction, though may be the oil on masonite work “Nixon Family” (lot 265), in which Richard Nixon is shown with his wife, daughters, and sons-in-law in front of a gigantic, surreal blue eagle. The work is dated 1973, the year of mounting revelations about the Watergate Scandal.
A titan of Haitian art, sculptor and painter Wilson Bigaud (1931-2010) is shown in three paintings at auction, the most superb of which may be “Trinite Vivant / Worshippers Gather at ‘Living Trinity’” (lot 233). Perhaps best known for his paintings of large crowds, parades, and other gatherings, his “Self-Portrait with Shoe-Shine Man” is a good-humored departure (lot 234). Similarly, Murat Brierre (1938-1988), chiefly thought of as a metal sculptor inspired by Georges Liautaud, is represented by both a metal sculpture of loas (lot 94) and a canvas painting, “Seaside Fun” (lot 236). Six paintings by Charles Anatole commence with the oil painting “Do not take what is not yours” (lot 118), showing a person being whipped, presumably for the crime of stealing. Of the five gorgeous, prismatic paintings by Andre Saturne (1927-1983), his “Towering Still Life – Flowers” (lot 349) may be the most magnetic. Other Haitian artists in the sale include Maryse Altieri (20th c.), Antony Belizaire (20th c.), Sisson Blanchard (1929-1981), Bourmond Byron (1920-2004), Louis Gédéus (b. 1953), Jacques-Enguerrand Gourgue (1930-1996), Eugene Jean (b. 1950), Joseph-Jean Laurent (1893-1976), Andre Laurent (20th c.), Penius Leriche (b. 1940), Salnave Philippe-Auguste (b. 1908), Odilon Pierre (1933-1988), Toussaint St. Pierre (1923-1985), Pierre-Joseph Valcin (1925-2000) and Pauléus Vital (b. 1918).
Some of the most exciting lots in the auction, however, are those in the realm of American self-taught art, sometimes referred to as “Outsider” art. Extraordinary pieces by Howard Finster (1916-2001), one of the best known American self-taught artists, come to the sale from the collection of Ford Wheeler, who actually helped install Finster’s first show in New York City, at the Phyllis Kind Gallery. Finster’s magnificent “Castle” (lot 187) crowns this category in the sale, an impressive sculpture of a tower that stands at over six feet in height. The tower’s structure is wooden, carved to give it the appearance of masonry, and each of the more than 120 windows in the castle are inlaid with mirrors. It is here, in the windows, that Finster’s distinct style, so recognizable for its use in popular culture in the late 20th century, is on spectacular display. Each is illustrated with a different scene, many of them Biblical, a common theme for Finster in his life as a Baptist minister, or with text, also a frequent element in Finster’s art. The castle, which is actually four distinct pieces, includes directions written on its interior by the artist as to how to assemble and best display it. Another notable piece by Finster is a smaller wooden sculpture entitled “Jesus Saves” (lot 185) that was a gift directly to Wheeler from the artist.
Laura Pope Forrester (1873-1953) provides another stand-out lot in the realm of American self-taught art. Forrester is best known for her sculpture, having transformed her Georgia home into an outdoor “museum” with over 200 figural statues, bas-relief and sculptural architectural elements, predominantly made with concrete. The majority of these installed sculptures, which were iconic subjects from literature and history, largely female, were destroyed by new owners in the 1970s and 1980s, making her surviving art very precious. Her piece at auction, “Four Planes in a Golden Sky” (lot 191) is all the more rare for being painting and not sculpture, and shows four airplanes receding into the sunset between two seaside cliffs. The oil on masonite painting is still shown in the original frame that Forrester created for her own work.
Another one of the leading self-taught artists from Demme’s collection is Minnie Evans (1892-1987). Born in North Carolina, Evans worked chiefly with crayon, colored pencil and ink, frequently depicting dreams or images with other visionary significance. Of particular interest are two early pieces—Evans did not devote herself to drawing until her late forties—that both date to circa 1946. “Profile at Sunset” (lot 193) and “Sunrise Sacrifice” (lot 192), both rendered in colored pencil, ink and graphite, could almost be companion pieces, with their central figures, shown in profile but facing opposite directions, a parallel to the warm orange sunset of one and the still-blue dawn of the other. Evans’ seven pieces at auction also include several, such as “Smiling Figure” (lot 197) and “Four Faces” (lot 198), that exemplify the integration of human faces with symmetrical designs that are most often associated with her work.
Four oil paintings by New York City self-taught artist Victor Joseph Gatto (1893–1965) make another significant contribution to this category. The ocean could be said to be the subject of three of them, less of a demonstration of Gatto’s devotion to nautical themes than his continued depiction of action and the dynamic forces of life and nature. “The Pearl Divers (Under the Sea)” shows a submarine parked on the ocean floor; in the foreground, a naked figure swims between two people in deep-sea diving helmets and gear, one of whom is gutting an attacking shark (lot 200). Also arresting is the following lot, “Ship on a Stormy Sea” (lot 201), in which a boat is swamped with water, and “Survivors Of The Sinking Of The USS Indianapolis, Pacific Ocean WWII” (Lot 203), an aerial view of ten men in a dinghy waving for help. Daniel Pressley (1918-1971), a South Carolinian artist, is shown in three oil paintings which all feature animals; a similar sense of nature’s oppositional forces are seen in “Blood and Sand (Bullfight)” (lot 188), and the striking “Cockfight,” (lot 190), a flurry of feathers, claws and beaks. The latter painting is featured in the 1999 book By Hand by Dan, and is one of the many paintings at auction with provenance that includes the Cavin-Morris Gallery of New York.
Other highlights in self-taught art include a painting by Reverend Johnnie Swearingen (1908-1993) entitled “Country House with Chickens” (lot 204). This type of rural Texas landscape, its cheerful yellow road winding into the background, was Rev. Swearingen’s favorite subject. Three paintings by Jon Serl (1894-1993) each bear a remarkably different tone: “High Lake, Gray Sky” (lot 206) is a brooding landscape, quite naturalistic for Serl, “Face” (lot 207) is an uncharacteristically spare but pleasant portrait in profile, while “Hippy Symbols” (lot 208) buzzes with three fanciful, perhaps even hallucinogenic, figures. Justin McCarthy (1891-1977) can be seen in eight of his bright, expressionistic paintings, several of which feature animals–such as “Two Polar Bears” (lot 212)—one of McCarthy’s many favored subjects. Miami-based artist Javier Mayoral showcases both his sense of humor and his taste for the surreal in his twenty-one paintings at auction; some seem to channel Dali or Magritte, while others use his penchant for hilarious captions, as in the painting with the words “They told me it was the toughest, longest wearing tire I could buy” written in the sky above a car with a flat tire (lot 28). Other artists with large showings in the sale include David Olson, with sixteen of his crayon drawings on paper, and M. Zoeller, with nine oil on board landscapes.
Rounding out the auction is an array of hand-crafted art and collectibles. The Haitian painting is accompanied by twelve lots of sequined Vodou flags, or ‘drapeau,’ along with textiles from a variety of African and Asian countries. Twenty-four hand-painted popular art signs from Africa, advertising hairdressers or other businesses are joined by a small selection of international movie posters. Other categories include American folk art and “tramp art,” Brazilian ex voto figures, and toys from Africa and Mexico.