Mickalene Thomas - 20th Century & Contemporary Art Evening Sale New York Tuesday, November 15, 2022 | Phillips

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  • "The person who has that authority of the gaze is always the sitter. I think the sitter’s the most powerful person who resides in that space of how they’re going to deliver the gaze."
    —Mickalene Thomas
    The nude sitter of Mickalene Thomas’s 2006 work, I Can’t See Me Without You, gazes out directly at the viewer. Her expression is both confrontational and seductive; she sees you seeing her, lips pressed together, the tilt of her head invites you to keep looking. She lounges at ease in a riotous ground of floral, collaged patterns. Rhinestones embellish her breasts, thighs, and the folds of her stomach. This is Maya, the artist’s friend, ex-girlfriend, and muse.

    The present work gave a version of its title to a major exhibition of Thomas’ work in 2018 at the Wexner Center for the Arts in Columbus, Ohio. The show, I Can’t See You Without Me, was curated in collaboration with the artist around the theme of models, with each section of the exhibition dedicated to one of the artist’s inspirations: her mother, the artist herself, her current partner, Racquel, and her ex-girlfriend, Maya. For Thomas, her relationship with her models is an interpersonal one, built on mutual trust and exchange, and she needs this trust in order to create such monumental, yet intimate, paintings. Her work could not exist without the collaboration of her models; in other words, Thomas might say, I can’t see me without you.


    Domenico Campagnola, Venus Reclining in a Landscape, 1517, The National Gallery, Washington D.C. Image: National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C. Rosenwald Collection, 1943.3.2700

    Thomas’s interpersonal intimacy with her models creates the emotional ground upon which she builds her subversive oeuvre. The large scale of her paintings on panel, including I Can’t See Me Without You, present larger-than-life-size nude figures that intentionally quote the Western art historical tradition of female nudes painted by male artists. The uneven gaze of such painted relationships, where the (presumed male) viewer is looking at a nude female, who does not see or return his gaze, has long been criticized by feminist art historians, such as Laura Mulvey.i While, for a historical male painter, a female muse is a passive, pretty object, for Thomas, the word muse “has a verbal and active form that signifies what she does with that inspiration: become immersed in thought, contemplate, and…shift canons as well as create them anew.”ii


    [left] Ingres, La Grande Odalisque, 1814, Musée du Louvre. Image: © RMN-Grand Palais / Art Resource, NY [right] Mickalene Thomas, Mama Bush III: One of a Kind Two, 2009. Hara Museum of Contemporary Art, Tokyo.

    As a queer, Black woman, painting monumental nudes of other queer and Black women, Thomas not only challenges and undercuts the male gaze of art history, but she also constructs her own world of mutual respect and radical love for Black, queer bodies. Thomas, in the mid-2000s in particular, turns her attention to the nude figure of the odalisque, a type of courtesan who worked in a Turkish harem and was the favored subject of the exoticizing, sexualizing gaze of 19th century male painters.


    Pam Grier, c. 1970s. Image: Pictorial Press Ltd / Alamy Stock Photo

    "Thomas’s reclining nudes and their interior stagings are acts of world making—the origins of a universe—through the oeuvre of a Black female artist and centered on Black women’s erotic exchanges, fantasies, and performative identification."
    —Nicole R. Fleetwood
    In addition to quoting historical nudes, Maya in I Can’t See Me Without You, with her afro and gold earrings, recalls 1970s Black American sex symbols such as actress Pam Grier. As the star of a series of successful Blaxsploitation action films in the early 1970s, Grier redefined popular beauty and sexuality in unapologetically Black terms, just as Thomas’s nudes, Black, and queer, and covered in rhinestones, take up space in contemporary art history. 

    I Can’t See Me Without You embodies, in both title and composition, the mutual work necessary to Thomas’s world-building. The work’s lasting relevance, sixteen years after its making, marks the continued significance, and cultural urgency, of Thomas’s creative work.

    i Laura Mulvey, “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema,” Screen 16, no. 3, 1975.
    ii Kellie Jones, “Sensorium,” in Mickalene Thomas, New York; London, 2021, p. 118.

    • Provenance

      Luggage Store Gallery, San Francisco
      Acquired from the above by the present owner in 2007

    • Exhibited

      San Francisco, Luggage Store Gallery, My Love is a 187, February 9–March 24, 2007
      Columbus, Wexner Center for the Arts, Ohio State University, Mickalene Thomas: I Can’t See You Without Me, September 14–December 30, 2018, p. 121 (illustrated, p. 79; titled and dated as I Can’t See You Without Me, 2006)

    • Literature

      Doll Artist Randi Channel, Mickalene Thomas Art at the Wex, PBS: Broad & High, October 11, 2018, short film (Wexner Center for the Arts, Columbus, 2018, installation view and detail illustrated, 10:56-11:04, 11:38-11:42)
      Roxane Gay and Kellie Jones, Mickalene Thomas, London, 2021, pp. 35, 266 (The Luggage Store, San Francisco, 2007, installation view illustrated)

    • Artist Biography

      Mickalene Thomas

      American • 1971

      Glamour and feminism need not be foes, as evinced by the wonderful work of Mickalene Thomas. The artist examines these qualities through the lens of the African-American female experience. Whether with her rhinestone-inflected, '70s-glam-inspired portraits of black beauty and power or her photographic installations of her mother's living room, Thomas personalizes while aestheticizing a visual conversation about race. By tackling classical art historical themes, she writes African-American aesthetics into traditional conventions.

      Blockbuster retrospectives at the Brooklyn Museum and ICA Boston thrust Thomas into contemporary art's mainstage. Her platform extends her creative pursuits into fashion, interiors and DJ'ing. Thomas' market has also grown at a steady pace with auction prices increasing each year.

      View More Works


I Can’t See Me Without You

signed, titled, inscribed and dated ""I CAN'T SEE ME WITHOUT YOU," 2007 (COLLAGE SERIES) M. Thomas" on the reverse
rhinestones, acrylic and enamel on wood panel
72 x 72 in. (183 x 183 cm)
Executed in 2007.

Full Cataloguing

$350,000 - 550,000 

Sold for $441,000

Contact Specialist

Amanda Lo Iacono
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20th Century & Contemporary Art Evening Sale

New York Auction 15 November 2022