Kehinde Wiley - 20th c. & Contemporary Art Evening Sale New York Monday, December 7, 2020 | Phillips

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  • Painted in 2017, Portrait of Mickalene Thomas, the Coyote is a monumental work from Kehinde Wiley’s Trickster series—a highly acclaimed body of work comprising 11 portraits of influential contemporary artists. Wiley’s oeuvre has continually subverted the context of canonized Western portraiture to celebrate those who have long been excluded from the art historical narrative. As such, he typically selects people off the streets of New York City, highlighting the lives of everyday Black figures in larger-than-life scale, rich colors and ornate details. In the Trickster series, Wiley pivots from his typical anonymous sitters to heroize his own artist peers, including Glenn Ligon, Kerry James Marshall, Carrie Mae Weems, and—in the present work—Mickalene Thomas.  


    Peers as Icons 


    By employing his friends and contemporaries as the subject matter for his Trickster series, Wiley pays homage to his community. Portrait of Mickalene Thomas, the Coyote depicts the titular artist striking a dramatic pose straight out of an Old Masters painting and accompanied by her loyal coyote companions, standing before a theatrical landscape. The present work is particularly significant to the fundamental concepts of Wiley’s series as it is a reflection of the close relationship between the artist and sitter: both having attended Yale University to receive their MFAs, Thomas and Wiley are good friends and close influences on each other’s work. 

    "The exciting part is knowing that there’s room for all of us at the table ... you [Wiley] have taken each of us and put us in these lights, as you will, and allowed an essence of ourselves to come through painting, through the formalities of painting but also through the history of painting."
     — Mickalene Thomas



    The subject of his second solo show with Sean Kelly in New York in 2017, Wiley’s Trickster series takes its name from the fictitious trouble-making animals that take on human-like roles—long-standing mythological archetypes which are found in virtually every culture’s folklore. In each of the exhibited paintings, including Portrait of Mickalene Thomas, the Coyote, Wiley refers to these shapeshifting creatures that, despite their wily actions, are victorious in ways that change the course of history. 



    This trope appealed to the artist because of its central metaphor: it is the role of artists to upend conventions and challenge the status quo, altering how we think and see the world around us. Moreover, the artists of color that Wiley depicts in this body of work are constantly navigating the professional and social boundaries inherent to a Eurocentric art world. “The trickster element points directly to the African-American tradition of using shapeshifting as a means of survival: in the ways that they speak, in the ways that they sing, this kind of coded language that begins in American chattel slavery like talking behind the master’s back and continues on into blues and jazz,” Wiley elucidated, “and even arguably hip-hop culture, which is now being beamed out into the rest of the world.” i


    Cunning, intelligent creatures known for their wisdom, the coyote is one of the most infamous and creative Native American tricksters. The coyote’s placement next to Thomas indexes the artist’s subversive approach, likening her to this mythological creator and deeming her a trickster of the art world. 


    Looking Back to the Old Masters


    [left] Detail of the present lot. [right] Anthony van Dyck, Portrait of George Digby, Earl of Bristol, circa 1638-1639. Dulwich Picture Gallery, London.

    Continuing to draw from the Western canon, Wiley uses Francisco Goya’s acclaimed Black Paintings, 14 works which he executed between 1819 and 1823, as his primary aesthetic inspiration for his Trickster series. In Portrait of Mickalene Thomas, the Coyote, the artist diverges from his signature brightly patterned backdrops and instead renders a sparse landscape in an ominous palette which evokes Goya’s mysterious and horrifying murals that reflected the artist’s deep-rooted fears of insanity and the pitfalls of humanity. 


    The only glimpse of light in the present portrait is reflected on Thomas’s body, highlighting her proud stature and luminous skin. In alternating between light and dark, Wiley explored the dichotomy of good and evil, notions that are encompassed by both mythical and everyday Tricksters. Redolent of the legendary narratives of the Old Masters, Portrait of Mickalene Thomas, the Coyote most prominently exemplifies Wiley’s profound influence from art historical genealogy. 


    In Conversation: Wiley and Thomas


    The below is an excerpt from a 2017 conversation with Wiley and Thomas for Interview Magazine.


    Mickalene Thomas and Kehinde Wiley.

    WILEY: The crux of this exhibition…is about community, and it’s about hero worship in as much as it is about recognizing your peers and the people that you rely on and the people you grew up with. So much of my work has to do with this difference between the way that the outside world sees a Black body and the way that you inhabit it yourself, that cognitive distance between two-dimensional stereotypes versus the flavor in my mouth, the feel in my skin, the way that someone looks at me, the shock or the surprise or the welcome that appears in another human being’s body. It’s a very corporeal thing, it’s a very ideational thing, and I think at its best it’s something that we have to come to terms with as viewers, as Americans, as art consumers. It’s not abstract and it all starts with the families that we have as creative people. 


    THOMAS: Also recognizing that with each other, within that community, and allowing that space. The exciting part is knowing that there’s room for all of us at the table. What I like about this show is how you have taken each of us and put us in these lights, as you will, and allowed an essence of ourselves to come through painting, through the formalities of painting but also through the history of painting. It’s interesting because as I was walking through it just now, I can understand while we’re each in those positions. [laughs] And a lot of them, you hit the nail on the head, thinking of the Goya paintings with Derrick [Adams] and Hank [Willis Thomas]. It starts to make sense when you start thinking about those particular artists, and who they are, and not only their trajectories, but their practices and how they navigate the world within their own communities. You see it in the work, and I think that’s a really beautiful thing, to start to align and build that conversation within each painting. 


    Find the rest of the interview here. 


    The Collection of Pamela K. and William A. Royall Jr.


    The present work arrives at auction from the collection of pioneering Virginia-based philanthropists Pamela and William Royall, prominent collectors of 20th century and contemporary art in the American South. The collection reflects their broad interests, from well-known artists from the 20th century to emerging and established Black artists. Committed arts patrons and forces of change in Richmond, the Royalls spearhead the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts’s recent acquisition of Wiley’s sculpture Rumors of War as board members of the institution and were instrumental to the museum’s expansion of the diversity of its collection. Believing in a vision of greater inclusivity for Richmond, the Royalls established a non-profit art gallery for the collection, Try-me, which was open without charge to the public, which fostered a space for local artists and education.


    i Kehinde Wiley, quoted in Miss Rosen, “Kehinde Wiley’s Trickster,” Dazed, June 6, 2017, online.

    • Provenance

      Sean Kelly, New York
      Acquired from the above by the present owners

    • Exhibited

      New York, Sean Kelly, Kehinde Wiley: Trickster, May 6 - June 17, 2017

    • Literature

      Mickalene Thomas, "Kehinde Wiley", Interview Magazine, May 22, 2017, online (illustrated)
      Priscilla Frank, "Kehinde Wiley Paints The Formative Black Artists Our Time", HuffPost, May 26, 2017, online (illustrated)
      Miss Rosen, "View a series of portraits of extraordinary black artists", Dazed Magazine, June 6, 2017, online (illustrated)
      Seph Rodney, "Kehinde Wiley's Pentheon of Black Artists", Hyperallergic, June 9, 2017, online (illustrated)
      Gabrielle Bruney, "All Hail Kehinde Wiley's Portraits of Black Art Royalty", Vice, June 19, 2017, online (illustrated)

Property from the Collection of Pamela K. and William A. Royall Jr.


Portrait of Mickalene Thomas, the Coyote

signed and dated "Kehinde Wiley 2017" on the reverse
oil on canvas, in artist's frame
130 3/8 x 94 7/8 x 4 1/2 in. (331.2 x 241 x 11.4 cm)
Painted in 2017.

Full Cataloguing

$100,000 - 150,000 

Sold for $378,000

Contact Specialist

Amanda Lo Iacono
Head of Auctions
New York
+1 212 940 1278 


20th c. & Contemporary Art Evening Sale

New York Auction 7 December 2020