Mickalene Thomas - 20th Century & Contemporary Art Evening Sale London Thursday, March 7, 2024 | Phillips

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  • “I like my women to be presented as very conscientious, very empowered, very charismatic – strong women who are aware of their environment and their experiences. I’m not making them do anything. It’s a collaborative effort because I’m taking the image, I’m photographing them, but they’re aware of me doing this with them. It’s not as though the artist is explaining the sitter.”
    —Mickalene Thomas 


    Known for her stunning portraits of confident, self-possessed Black women, Mickalene Thomas blends the personal and the political, challenging art historical convention and engaging with contemporary cultural debate around the representation of women historically and today. A key work from a formative period in Thomas’ career, Keri On is one of a series of portraits to feature the same subject, one of which now resides in the permanent collection of The Museum of Modern Art in New York. As a trans woman, Keri’s determination to represent herself authentically speaks powerfully to Thomas’ own project, and her belief that ‘the sitter has the power […] over what’s being presented […] They are presenting to me, through their lens, how they want to be represented.’i


    Larger than life, Keri adopts a dynamic and playful pose here, her hand on her hip and upper body twisted back towards us as she turns her head over her shoulder. Dressed in vibrant primary contrasts of yellow and blue, Thomas accentuates the decorative and performative aspects of fashion through her rhinestone embellishments, here emphasising the details of her shirt, statement jewellery, bobbed hair, and make-up. A riot of bright colour and pattern, Thomas’ compositional structure here visually recalls the pioneering papier collé experiments undertaken by the Cubists, where flat planes of pasted colour paper radically reoriented pictorial space and introduced pattern, texture, and the material of everyday life into their compositions. Although Thomas often sets her figures against wood-panelled interiors that deliberately reference 1970s domestic décor, the inclusion of these elements here in a distinctly Cubistic arrangement of forms also references Pablo Picasso’s pivotal inclusion of oil cloth printed with a faux rattan weave in his 1912 Still Life with Chair Caning, at once introducing a fragment of material reality into his work, and playfully interrogating questions of authenticity and representation. In the same manner, Thomas uses collage to both invoke this radical spirit, and to critique the 20th century avant-garde’s own problematic relationship to so-called ‘Primitivist’ sources.   


    Pablo Picasso, Women at Their Toilette, 1938, Musée Picasso, Paris. Image: Photo Josse/Scala, Florence, Artwork: © Succession Picasso / DACS, London 2024

    Working in dialogue with ‘the brilliance of her palette, the luminosity of her surfaces, the complexity of her compositions’, Thomas’s bright Pop palette here highlights the extent to which she ‘employ[s] colour as architectonic form that constructs her surfaces with intention’ across her practice.ii On a more autobiographical note, it also draws on the rich colours and clashing textiles of Thomas’ 1970s childhood, further evoked in the environments that she recreates for her sitters, wood-panelled interiors and overstuffed armchairs familiar to the homes and family sitcoms of the era, the places where ‘the women in family would come together for intense dialogues.’iii So integral are these domestic environments in realising Thomas’ portraits of empowered womanhood that they have also formed an important element in several of her exhibitions, immersive installations which invite her viewers to adopt the same claims to visibility and self-possessed identity as her muses, to ‘feel present with fierceness and boldness […] to claim their rightful spaces in the world.’iv


    Reframing the concept of the muse away from the heterosexual, white, male gaze Thomas approaches her subjects as ‘an embodied source of and force for inspiration’, reimaging Black female form and drawing attention to the ways in which narratives of gender, race, and class have limited the agency and identity of the model in art historical terms.v The artist’s first muse was her mother, Sandra Bush, and through her she has gone on to seek out ‘powerful and heroic women who command the spaces they enter and inhabit.’ Belonging to a series of works featuring transgender women and transvestites, Keri On is especially evocative of this aspect of Thomas’ artistic project. While the artist conceives of her multimedia and multidisciplinary portraits more broadly as ‘love letters to queer communities […] where visibility may not necessarily bring acceptance, but its opposite’, here she extends this into a reflection on questions around ‘trans-visibility’ put forward by trans activist Micha Cárenas, where it is the vision of a future self that conditions self-representation.  


    Mickalene Thomas, Don’t Foget About Me (Keri), 2009, Whitney Museum of American Art, New York. Image: Whitney Museum of American Art / Licensed by Scala, Artwork: © ARS, NY and DACS, London 2024

    Staged in a wood-panelled corner of her studio, all of Thomas’ paintings start with a photograph in a process that the artist conceives of as deeply collaborative. Occupying a central role in her practice and recently awarded special attention in an exhibition with New York’s Aperture Foundation, Thomas started her career photographing herself and her mother, a circle of intimates that gradually expanded to include friends and partners. As the artist explains ‘collaboration isn’t just about two people or a group of people making a single object […] It’s also about the spaces and conversations you have. Can you bring that to the forefront?’vi Working with a makeup artist and hairstylist, Thomas gives her sitters wigs to wear, emphasising the performative and transformative elements of the photoshoot, before sharing her thoughts with her models and allowing them to respond to her in their own way. Using a range of digital tools, Thomas then collages the photographs into new, striking compositions, some of which are then reworked into her large-scale, rhinestone encrusted paintings.  As in Keri On, this collaborative approach allows Thomas to position Black women centrally, posing questions around their representation at the heart of her practice; as Roxanne Gay has eloquently described, in the contexts of American and European art history ‘it is a rare thing for Black women to be the subject of an artist’s gaze in a non-exploitative way, to consistently be the centre of gravity in an artist’s body of work.’vii


    Mickalene Thomas discusses her approach to collage as she installs her mural at the Norton Museum, Palm Beach in 2013. 


    Collector’s Digest


    • Mickalene Thomas has been the subject of considerable attention in recent years. The subject of a recent monograph, the artist has also had major exhibitions with The Brooklyn Museum, the Institute of Contemporary Arts, Boston, and a four-location show staged across Lévy Gorvy’s galleries in New York, London, Paris, and Hong Kong, amongst others.


    • Her work is represented in several major institutional collections, including The Museum of Modern Art in New York, The Museum of Modern Art in Los Angeles, and the Hara Museum of Contemporary Art in Tokyo, amongst others. 


    • The sitter of the present work – Keri – has appeared in several of Thomas’ portraits, one of which now hangs in The Museum of Modern Art in New York, while a related photo collage is held in the collection of the Whitney Museum of American Art.   


    Mickalene Thomas, quoted in Sean Landers, ‘Mickalene Thomas: Interview’, Bomb Magazine, 1 July 2011, online

    ii Kellie Jones, ‘Sensorium’, in Mickalene Thomas, New York, 2021, p.106. 

    iii Mickalene Thomas, quoted in Mickalene Thoams: Origin of the Universe, exh. cat., Santa Monica Museum of Art, 2012, p. 33. 

    iv Mickalene Thomas, quoted in ‘Artist Feature: Mickalene Thomas’, Nailed Magazine, 6 June 2016, online

    v Kellie Jones, ‘Sensorium’, in Mickalene Thomas, New York, 2021,  p.118.

    vi Mickalene Thomas, quoted in John Gendall, ‘Kindred spirits: Mickalene Thomas’ collaborative photography at Aperture’, Wallpaper, 22 August, 2022, online.  

    vii Roxanne Gay, ‘Wild and Somewhat Disruptive’, in Mickalene Thomas, New York, 2021, p. 7. 

    • Provenance

      Lehmann Maupin, New York
      Acquired from the above by the present owner

    • Exhibited

      Murcia, La Conservera, Mickalene Thomas: Something You Can Feel, 12 September-22 November 2009, no. 21., n.p. (illustrated)

    • Literature

      Roxane Gay and Kellie Jones, Mickalene Thomas, London, 2021, pp. 51, 267 (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


Keri On

signed, titled and dated ‘Keri On, 2009 M. Thomas’ on the reverse
rhinestones, acrylic and enamel on panel
213.4 x 182.9 cm (84 x 72 in.)
Executed in 2009.

Full Cataloguing

£200,000 - 300,000 

Sold for £203,200

Contact Specialist

Rosanna Widén
Senior Specialist, Head of Evening Sale
+44 20 7318 4060

Olivia Thornton
Head of 20th Century & Contemporary Art, Europe
+44 20 7318 4099


20th Century & Contemporary Art Evening Sale

London Auction 7 March 2024