From the Collection of the “Champion of Women Artists”

Liz Catalano
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Works by Joan Mitchell and Helen Frankenthaler Available in Sotheby’s Auction

Alternately described as a trailblazer, the “champion of women artists,” and a cowgirl, Ginny Williams was a widely-known collector and gallery owner from Denver, Colorado. “She aspired to be a combination of Mame, Mrs. Robinson, and Maude from Harold and Maude all rolled into one,” said her daughter, Elle Williams, “and I think she succeeded.”

Over 450 items from Williams’ extensive collection of post-war and contemporary art will become available at Sotheby’s in a series of auctions this year. The first event in the projected series will be held at 6:30 PM EDT on June 29th, 2020 in New York. 18 lots will be offered in this evening sale, including some of the largest and most notable pieces in Williams’ collection. The available fine art pieces each have stories attached to them, an outgrowth of the long-term friendships Williams built with the artists she collected.

Ginny Williams. Image from Westword, courtesy of Elle Williams.
Ginny Williams. Image from Westword, courtesy of Elle Williams.

Williams had a particularly close relationship with Louise Bourgeois, an Abstract Expressionist associated with the feminist art movement. By supporting Bourgeois early in her career, Williams helped her gain entrance to the art market. Williams acquired over 40 of Bourgeois’ works over several decades, of which two examples will be available in the upcoming auction. Eye Benches I, a pair of Zimbabwe black granite sculptures shaped like lidded human eyes, is particularly featured. Executed between 1996 and 1997, Bourgeois linked the sculptures to “the story of the voyeur… it is the quality of your eyes and the strength of your eyes that are expressed here.” The benches have an estimate of USD 800,000 to $1,200,000. One of the artist’s smaller pink marble works is offered as well, showing rounded forms poking out of a roughly cut piece of marble. Untitled (with Growth) is estimated to sell between $1,200,000 and $1,800,000.

Bourgeois was not the only 20th-century artist to benefit from Williams’ patronage. The collector was deeply passionate about supporting her contemporaries, a lifelong interest that was fueled by her own background as a photographer. Williams’ 50s saw her return to school, where she obtained a Masters in Art History degree at Colorado Women’s College. From there, she founded the Ginny Williams Gallery in Denver to showcase her own work and that of other women artists.

Helen Frankenthaler, Royal Fireworks, 1975. Image from Sotheby’s
Helen Frankenthaler, Royal Fireworks, 1975. Image from Sotheby’s

Helen Frankenthaler was among those supported by Williams. In 2011, the collector set Frankenthaler’s record at a Christie’s auction. She purchased Royal Fireworks for $818,500, more than double the high estimate of $350,000. It returns to the auction block in this sale with a new estimate of $2,000,000 to $3,000,000. The item’s lot essay describes the 13-foot wide orange canvas as “a lyrical treatise on color and form… the apex of Helen Frankenthaler’s mature practice.” 

Williams used her public influence to help her fellow artists get into museums and galleries, as well as her own living room walls. She sat on the boards of the Denver Art Museum, Washington’s Hirshhorn Museum, and the Guggenheim in New York. “I was at the Guggenheim Museum in the 1990s and early 2000s,” says Anthony Calnek, a former deputy director. “It was really because of her that the museum started acquiring works by important women artists.”

Williams passed away in September of 2019, though her influence as both a collector and supporter of women artists continues. “The fact that she bought artists who were practically ignored by the market in the time in which she bought them is a testament to… her vision,” Saara Pritchard, Sotheby’s senior specialist of contemporary art, said about Williams.

Joan Mitchell, Garden Party, 1961-62. Image from Sotheby’s.
Joan Mitchell, Garden Party, 1961-62. Image from Sotheby’s.

Thanks in part to her financial patronage, artists such as Agnes Martin, Joan Mitchell, and Lee Krasner have become household names in Abstract Expressionism and contemporary art. Three works by Mitchell lead the auction catalog, each with starting estimates of $4,000,000 or above. Painted within a 20-year period, the available works trace Mitchell’s artistic development in both New York and Paris. 

The Williams collection is expected to fetch more than $50 million over the sales series, which will return in mid-July. Bidding for the first group of items begins at 6:30 PM EDT on June 29th, 2020. Visit Sotheby’s for more information and to place a bid.

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