Artists of Black History Month: Mickalene Thomas

Liz Catalano
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Mixed Media Work Available in Rare Posters’ Mid-February Auction

Mickalene Thomas is conscious of her growing success in the art world. She was among the rising artists who set new auction records in 2020 and notably created the first solo portrait of Michelle Obama. She is known for her elaborate collages made with acrylic and rhinestones. 

Thomas often discusses the historical basis of her work. Speaking with the Smithsonian American Art Museum in 2017, she recalled flipping through art books featuring Black American creators. She later channeled that inspiration in her own artistic practice. “It’s really important for me, as an artist, to have a representation of myself so that youth could see themselves in these particular environments like museums. When they see my work… they see themselves.” 

To honor Black artists and Black history in February, Rare Posters will bring 91 prints and original works to the auction block. A mixed media piece from Mickalene Thomas is among the featured lots. The upcoming Honoring Black History Month auction will begin at 11:00 AM EST on February 12th, 2021. Learn more about Mickalene Thomas before the bidding begins.

Mickalene Thomas at the Baltimore Museum of Art in 2019. Image from Andrew Mangum for The New York Times.
Mickalene Thomas at the Baltimore Museum of Art in 2019. Image from Andrew Mangum for The New York Times.

Mickalene Thomas grew up in New Jersey amid the shifting attitudes of the 1970s. While completing her college studies, Thomas drew on both historical and contemporary art movements to develop her style. She bought felt, yarn, and glitter from craft stores when she couldn’t afford oil paint. In doing so, Thomas felt she was reaching back in time to various outsider art traditions.

Thomas eventually built a career on exploring and challenging the historical art canon. Her collages demonstrate a range of influences. Thomas plays equally with Classical paintings and images from early 1970s Blaxploitation films. In each piece, the artist explores the relationship between Black women and the art world. Thomas’ Le déjeuner sur l’herbe: Les Trois Femmes Noires, for example, replaces the white figures in Édouard Manet’s 1863 painting with three Black women. Bold colors and repeated patterns dominate this acrylic, rhinestone, and enamel piece.

Mickalene Thomas, I’ve Been Good to Me, 2015. Image from Rare Posters.
Mickalene Thomas, I’ve Been Good to Me, 2015. Image from Rare Posters.

In 2013, Thomas created I’ve Been Good to Me. This mixed media portrait captured Qusuquzah, Thomas’ friend, model, and muse. It came to the market in December of 2020 with Phillips, selling for USD 901,200. The price more than tripled the high estimate of $300,000 and set a new auction record for the artist. I’ve Been Good to Me interrogates the gaze of both the subject and the viewer.

Inspired by its composition and visual appeal, Thomas returned to I’ve Been Good to Me two years after its creation for a redesigned print run. One of these 2015 prints will come to auction with Rare Posters this February. It is a reserved artist’s proof from an edition of 20 (estimate: $25,000 – $27,500). Other editions of I’ve Been Good to Me have sold in recent years, ranging in price from $11,000 to $18,750.

Prices for Thomas’ collages and prints have crept up since 2015. Sotheby’s offered Naomi Looking Forward in October of 2019 with an estimate of GBP 150,000 to £200,000 (USD 184,950 – $246,600). It sold for GBP 567,000 (USD 699,111), which set a record at the time. This wood panel collage captures British supermodel Naomi Campbell on a multi-patterned couch.

Mickalene Thomas, Naomi Looking Forward, 2013. Image from Sotheby’s.
Mickalene Thomas, Naomi Looking Forward, 2013. Image from Sotheby’s.

Thomas was not always breaking auction records. She shot to fame in 2012 but still found some resistance in the art world. “I heard from museums, ‘Our audiences aren’t ready for this work,’” she told The New York Times in 2019. “You know, Black women, when you go down the list, we’re the last, right?” Thomas’ success inspired her to assist other rising Black artists. Now, Thomas focuses on building a better present for the art history books. Together with her partner, art consultant and collector Racquel Chevremont, Thomas arranges mentorship and exhibition opportunities for Black and QTPOC (Queer and Trans People of Color) artists. 

In an interview with Elle, Thomas described her vision for the future: “The possibility of all of us doing what we are doing, separately but collectively, creates a power, creates a foundation, a legacy of our art, so that way we can make some change, and call some shots.”

Rare Posters’ upcoming Honoring Black History Month sale will begin on February 12th, 2021, at 11:00 AM EST. Interested bidders will find the work of Mickalene Thomas alongside pieces from Kerry James Marshall, Faith Ringgold, and Jacob Lawrence.  Find more information and place a bid on LiveAuctioneers.

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