London Frieze Week: 20th Century African-American artists; and the avant-garde Japanese artists associated with the Gutai group

London Frieze Week: 20th Century African-American artists; and the avant-garde Japanese artists associated with the Gutai group

If you sift through the range of exhibitions and the contents of gallery stands at major art fairs, you will quickly get a sense of where the market is bubbling. In London this week, Frieze Week, two groups of artists from the pool of previously undervalued and now historic 20th Century artists stand out; the African-Americans, and the avant garde Japanese artists associated with the Gutai group.

Playing a significant role in the former, is Tate Modern, whose Age of Black Power exhibition, ‘Soul of a Nation’, is up and running. Several artists featured there have concurrent solo shows. Experiencing a volcanic explosion of interest is 78 year-old abstract artist, Jack Whitten, who emerged into the limelight when he was recently signed up by the Hauser & Wirth Gallery and is having his first exhibition in London. Everything in the show, which opened last week has been sold at prices up to $500,000 (£374,000), prices he had never dreamed of before.

Jack Whitten at the opening of his show at Hauser & Wirth London CREDIT: COLIN GLEADELL

The slightly younger sculptor, Martin Puryear, has been in the mainstream for longer, but only experienced lift-off in the last seven years, selling for almost $2 million at auction in 2014. His retrospective exhibition at Parasol unit in North London is his first in a public gallery in the UK, and while nothing is ostensibly for sale, his New York dealer, Matthew Marks, is only three miles away at the Frieze Art Fair to field enquiries.

Also at the fair, London gallerist Stephen Friedman is devoting his stand to the sculptures of 80 year-old Melvin Edwards whose somewhat sinister series of ‘Lynch Fragment’ bronzes resemble instruments of torture from the Slave Trade era and are priced from $90,000 to $350,000.

But the largest array of modern Afro-American art is supplied by New York dealer, Michael Rosenfeld, who has brought works by ten artists represented in the Tate show to the Frieze Art Fair’s sibling event for older art, Frieze Masters. Rosenfeld has been exhibiting black American artists for 28 years, and to begin with «no one was interested.» But in the last five years «there has been a snowball effect,» he says. A combination of worldwide museum interest and the realisation the artists were undervalued were probably the key drivers.

At the fair, Rosenfeld boasts masterpieces that far outshine anything that has been seen at auction. A two metre fabric collage, ‘Liberty #6’, which critiques The Statue of Liberty during the Vietnam War is by Benny Andrews, an artist who was brought up picking cotton in the deep South. The work is priced at $375,000, 10 times the artist’s auction record. Mercer’s Way, 1971, an equally large abstraction by the reclusive William T Williams, who went without gallery representation for nearly fifty years until last year, is a companion piece to a work in the Tate show, and is priced at $875,000 , six times his auction record.

William T. Williams, Mercer’s Stop, 1971 acrylic on canvas CREDIT: © WILLIAM T. WILLIAMS /COURTESY OF MICHAEL ROSENFELD GALLERY LLC, NEW YORK, NY

Another market explosion has been taking place for post-war Japanese art associated with the Gutai group. There were around sixty members of this group during its short lifespan from 1954-72. Dedicated to doing «what has never been done before» against a backdrop of political and social revolution in Japan, much of the art was linked to performance, the exploration of unusual materials and visual effects.

It has taken history a while to assess their work, notably with a large survey at the Guggenheim Museum in New York in 2013, and the market has lapped up examples by the founder members – Kazuo Shiraga, Atsuko Tanaka and Shozo Shimamoto — pricing it in the millions. Two years ago, that market levelled off, but since then, another phase has developed, exploring the later members of the group where prices have not moved on so far. Currently there are three Gutai exhibitions in London featuring younger members — one at Sotheby’s S/2 gallery which has sold a number of works by Yuko Nasaka priced between £50,000-120,000 , and another at the Dover Street Arts Club where Takesada Matsutani holds his own with his Gutai seniors. At Frieze Masters this week, Hauser & Wirth will also show a small work by Matsutami priced at $89,000.

Minoru Onoda, Work61-13, 1961. Oil, wood and glue on plywood CREDIT: ANNE MOSSERI-MARLIO-MARLIO GALLERY

The really new addition to the Gutai phenomenon, though, is cosmic dot painter, Minoru Onoda, who died in 2008 having never exhibited outside Japan. At Frieze Masters the Anne Mosseri-Marlio Galerie from Basel is presenting his first solo show in London. With no precedents at auction to go by, the gallery is pricing Onoda’s work from 1961 to 1984 in line with other younger generation Gutai artists, from $30,000 to 175,000.