Yvonne Pickering Carter (South Carolina, 83 years old) has always painted, exhibited occasionally and in her eighties frequently gave away her paintings. Overall, I also didn’t think it likely that they would have any other function. Now, however, one of her works is fetching €12,500 from one of Chelsea’s ultramodern galleries, Hunter Dunbar: The sudden rediscovery of her work has given artist status to this black woman, who has lived most of her life on Wadmalaw Island of 2,611 historically undervalued.
The twist was purely accidental. In 2019, her daughter noticed that Pickering Carter sometimes forgot to take her medication and decided to take her out of the house where she lived alone and bring her to Washington DC to keep her close. It was the movers who realized that the work on these walls, abstract explosions of color, had aesthetic value. One of them told Joanna White, a gallerist from the state, that the Yvonne Pickering Carter name was gaining weight and that it was being included in the April 70 exhibition, 70 Years of Women and Abstraction.
More informationArtwork ‘Linear Variation series: Untitled’ by Yvonne Pickering Carter, 1975.
Not because Martian history is unusual. Cuban Carmen Herrera (1915-2022) began painting, including abstract and geometric experiments, in the 1930s with no income other than the salary of her husband, a high school language teacher, with whom she moved to New York. Her work, not far removed intellectually from Lissitzky and other abstract masters, did not come from this Manhattan apartment, which she did not seem particularly interested in. Despite arthritis and the need for a wheelchair, he continued to paint over the years until he sold a painting in 2004. A painter friend of his had recommended him to a gallery owner, and from then on his discovery at the age of 89 shook the New York (i.e. American) art world. MoMA, the Hirshhorn and the Tate Modern have included it in their permanent catalogues. The Observer newspaper then asked, “How could we have missed these beautiful compositions?”
Work “Red with White Triangle” by Carmen Herrera, 1961.
The salvaged masterpiece for the eyes of the present has become an unexpectedly common phenomenon, a sudden connection between a white male-dominated past and a present more interested in women and people of color. The Reina Sofía has also highlighted Un Mundo by Ángeles Santos, a painter who died in 2013 at the age of 101, in its new permanent collection. Violinist Anne Sophie Mutter recently defended the repertoire of Joseph Bologne (1745-1799), a brilliant African-American composer, a contemporary of Mozart, who lived in Paris. The pianist David Kadouch also included the composer Louise Farrenc (1804 -1875) in his repertoire. “I like her wildness, she’s very strict in her work and at the same time she exudes a raw pride in all her music,” explains the performer.
Moving is a common element in these stories. In 2009, a couple trying to remodel a rather dilapidated house in St. Anne, a town in Illinois, came across a set of sheet music in terrible condition. Its author was Florence Price (1887-1953), an African American who began composing after divorcing her husband in 1927. From children’s songs she moved on to more complicated and symphonic things, somewhere between Dvorak, Wagner and African American spiritual music. They didn’t have much impact then. “I have two obstacles: my race and my gender,” Price lamented in a letter. Not today. Even in the world of classical music, where the most respected people are men and dead, a place has been found for his symphonies and concertos to be recorded and performed in the United States.
One of Florence Price’s scores.
These re-emerging artists raise certain questions. Would they be valued the same way if they weren’t women of color? (On the other hand, if the story weren’t so steeped in machismo and racism, would so many white men have succeeded?) How do you find your place in the canon? And who is looking for it? “There is a risk,” warns Manuel Segade, director of the Dos de Mayo arts center. “Every emergency in art is an economic value, it represents the new and can become a commercial strategy to expand the market and disable its capacity for social transformation.”
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