Derek Fordjour - Modern & Contemporary Art Evening Sale New York Tuesday, May 14, 2024 | Phillips

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  • Derek Fordjour’s 2018 mixed media painting Numbers critiques the commodification and exploitation of Black labor within the high-stakes arena of professional sports in the United States, serving as a poignant metaphor for the broader stratification of identity within American democracy. Numbers was prominently featured in the 2018 exhibition Sidelined at Galerie Lelong & Co., New York, which was curated by artist Samuel Levi Jones and inspired by the 2016 protests of NFL players during the national anthem, spearheaded by quarterback Colin Kaepernick. The exhibition brought together artists responding to injustices experienced by people of color both on and off the sports field, including Melvin Edwards and Lauren Halsey, who engage with themes of race, representation, and the spectacle of athleticism throughout their larger practices. In Numbers, Fordjour eloquently illustrates the dichotomy of spectacle versus spectator, capturing a moment that, while seemingly routine, reveals the harsh realities of an industry that thrives on the physical assessment and valuation of its players. 

     “At an early age, a politician told me a sports analogy that exposed societal inequalities… Essentially, he explained that performance doesn't matter if there are two different sets of rules for the same game.”
    —Derek Fordjour

    In Numbers, Fordjour employs a vibrant, celebratory palette that juxtaposes the darker implications of his subject matter. The scene depicted—an athlete being weighed in a room where men in suits scrutinize data on sheets of paper—transforms the canvas into a theater of power dynamics. These men, representatives of the managerial and evaluative class, hold sway over the athlete's professional fate, determining his value in a system where physical attributes are quantified and monetized. With his face turned away from the viewer, the athlete is stripped of individuality and reduced to numeric values such as weight, height, and sprint times, becoming a commodity within a highly lucrative sports industry.


    Mickalene Thomas, A Little Taste Outside of Love, 2007. The Brooklyn Museum, New York. Artwork: © 2024 Mickalene Thomas / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York 

    Here, Fordjour not only captures the literal weighing of an athlete but also invokes the metaphorical weighing of human value within a capitalistic framework. The businessmen, distant yet controlling, embody a class that consumes and judges without partaking in the physical risks, much like the spectators in the stands or the broader electorate in a democracy. This separation between those who watch and those who perform—whether on the sports field or the socio-economic stage—serves as a critical commentary on the roles and expectations that society imposes based on race, class, and other identities.


    The present work comments on the spectator culture of American sports, where audiences consume performances without always acknowledging the personal and physical toll on the players. The bright colors and dynamic composition mask a moment of valuation, pointing to the wider societal obsession with rankings and metrics. Here, Fordjour reflects on the dual existence of athletes as both celebrated heroes and exploited laborers, their identities bifurcated by the public’s adoration and the industry’s dehumanization.

     “Fordjour often depicts Black athletes and performers— dancers, riders, rowers, drum-majors —as strivers who navigate the ambiguities that come with their achievement, and the racial scrutiny that accompanies visibility in the mainstream culture.”
    —Siddhartha Mitter, New York Timesi

    The metaphor extends to American democracy itself, a system purportedly founded on the ideals of equality and opportunity but often criticized for its hierarchical and exclusionary practices. Just as athletes are rewarded or penalized based on physical statistics, individuals in society are frequently assessed based on socio-economic metrics, racial profiles, and other arbitrary measures that dictate access to resources and power. Fordjour's use of sports as a lens to view these disparities highlights the performative and sometimes punitive nature of American social structures.


    Moreover, Fordjour's choice of materials—acrylic, charcoal, oilstick and foil on newspaper mounted to canvas—adds another layer of critique. The newspaper, a medium that traditionally conveys information and authority, becomes the substrate for a narrative about the manipulation and control of information. By fragmenting and painting over this medium, Fordjour may be signaling the occlusion and manipulation of narratives, particularly regarding the labor and contributions of Black athletes.


    Georges Seurat, Circus Sideshow (Parade de cirque), 1887-1888. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. Image: © Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Bequest of Stephen C. Clark, 1960, 61.101.17

    Fordjour's painting process is characterized by its material complexity and rich textural elements. He begins with a foundational layer of paint on canvas or wood, then adds layers of cardboard tiles and newspaper. By alternating between the addition and subtraction of materials—by turns scraping surfaces, cutting and pasting shapes, and building up and the tearing away—Fordjour crafts his own unique topography in the vein of Mark Bradford’s monumental collages. He enhances these textured surfaces with charcoal and oil pastel, which results in multi-dimensional artworks that captivate and draw viewers into intricate visual narratives.

    “Experimenting with ways to create more support ended up creating a new kind of surface. Now I react to something in every painting. I never just deal with the whiteness of the canvas. I'm always reacting to an embedded history in the work. There are about ten layers on every surface.”
    —Derek Fordjour

    This textural technique also underscores the complexity of Fordjour’s themes. The physical layering of materials in Numbers serves as a metaphor for the multifaceted nature of human identity and societal roles. Each layer contributes depth while simultaneously obscuring the underlying elements, mirroring the way societal roles and labels define and often constrain individuals. Even Fordjour’s preferred periodical, The Financial Times, is used not just for its distinctive pink color, but also for its content and implications in dialogue with Fordjour’s examination of commodification and racial inequity. “I was thinking about personal value and perceived value,” he says, adding that “The Financial Times is making an effort to differentiate itself from the pool of other newsprint with its distinctive color. The idea of individuation—the desire to distinguish oneself in the face of being stereotyped or grouped—has a tension that I identify with.”ii


    Pierre Bonnard, La sortie de la baignoire (Getting Out of the Bath), circa 1926-1930. Basil & Elise Goulandris Foundation, Athens. Image: Bridgeman Images

    Elucidating on his theory of optical color mixing, Fordjour credits much his works’ optical richness to his technique, saying “By working through various surfaces and allowing space for interaction, I can achieve a vibrancy. A lot of the colors in my work are situated next to each other. The eye does the work of putting them together.”iii Fordjour's mixed media painting technique mirrors post-Impressionist strategies in its vibrant layering and juxtaposition of colors, which create vivid optical depth and dynamic interplay of light and shadow. This approach enriches the visual texture and evokes a strong emotional and sensory response, similar to that found in the works of artists such as Pierre Bonnard, whose broad, dry brushstrokes create a sense of dynamism, and Georges Pierre Seurat, known for his flickering colors and Pointillism. Fordjour’s nuanced synthesis of color and form is strikingly illustrated in Numbers, where he blurs the lines between painting and collage, dream and reality.

    “It’s in that space between real life and the unreal that we create.”
    —Derek Fordjour

    i Siddhartha Mitter, “Derek Fordjour, From Anguish to Transcendence,” The New York Times, November 19 2020, online.

    ii Paul Laster, “Derek Fordjour's Vibrant Interactions,” Ocula, June 23 2021, online.

    iii Ibid.

    • Provenance

      Galerie Lelong & Co., New York
      Private Collection
      Acquired from the above by the present owner

    • Exhibited

      New York, Galerie Lelong & Co., Sidelined, January 5–February 17, 2018

    • Literature

      Seph Rodney, “The Political Truths That Ground Our Athletic Heroes,” Hyperallergic, February 8, 2018, online (illustrated; dated 2017)



signed and dated "Fordjour '18" on the reverse
acrylic, charcoal and oil pastel on newspaper, mounted on canvas
72 x 48 in. (182.9 x 121.9 cm)
Executed in 2018.

Full Cataloguing

$400,000 - 600,000 

Sold for $889,000

Contact Specialist

Carolyn Kolberg
Associate Specialist, Head of Evening Sale, New York
+1 212 940 1206

Modern & Contemporary Art Evening Sale

New York Auction 14 May 2024