Modern + Contemporary
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Circle Auction presents Contemporary + Modern, consisting of exciting 20th and 21st century art and design gathered from across the Midwest.
The Bill & Ellen Morgan collection of early Nicolas Africano works offers a rare and far-reaching view of one of contemporary American art’s deeply unique voices, a document of Africano’s process and journey. As a Illinois State University professor emeritus and member of the arts community of Normal, IL, Bill Morgan had the opportunity to collect dozens of Nicolas Africano works, from his time as an undergraduate through his career as an internationally recognized artist.
Among the other auction highlights is a collection of contemporary French street art, including works by Brusk, Kan, Fenx, Victor Ash, and Zest. Selections of mid-century modern furniture are headlined by an exceptional group of Charles and Ray Eames designs for Herman Miller. Also on offer are works by Helen Frankenthaler, Imi Knoebel, Rufino Tamayo, Jonathan Green, Jim Dine, Jenny Pohlman and Sabrina Knowles.
Nicolas Africano Collection
Circle Auction is very pleased to present the Bill and Ellen Morgan collection of 22 early Nicolas Africano works (1970-1988), a rare and exciting snapshot of the journey and process of one of contemporary American art’s deeply unique voices.
His works are included in the collections of the Museum of Modern Art in New York, the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York, the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago, and the Milwaukee Museum of Art.
Bill Morgan began a long and distinguished career in the English Department faculty at Illinois State University in 1969. That same year Nicolas Africano, an undergraduate with a distinctive poetic vision, enrolled in Bill’s “The Novel in English,” an upper level class that particularly focused on the work of Thomas Hardy. Though their personal styles differed, Morgan and Africano very quickly grew a mutual respect and friendship. Africano’s written work was informed by the immediacy of modern novelists including Hemingway and James Joyce: lean, vivid, and severely human. As curator Lisa Lyons explained for his Lannan Foundation solo exhibition, Africano “began to supplant verbal images with small illustrations within the text…Eventually, he determined that he could express himself more directly as a visual artist, and he enrolled in the university’s painting program in 1973.”
In 1971, Nicolas and his wife Cynthia rented the second floor of Bill Morgan’s home, a drafty 1871 house whose leaky basement would become an early art studio for Nicolas. During this early period funds were tight, but a resourceful and boundlessly inventive Africano made use of whatever non-traditional supplies would fit his creative purpose: old draperies and carpets, mortar, upholstery scraps, and the like. Indeed, Morgan would sometimes accept original artwork in lieu of Africano’s $120 monthly rent. Untethered from the bounds of convention, the first half of the 1970s represented a period of explosive creativity and exploration for the artist, centered around an archetypal pictorial language used to express intensely personal experiences and emotions. (Further commentary on Africano’s early work may be referenced in an essay by Virginia Bonito, Ph.D, later in this catalog.)
Bill Morgan explains the turning point for Africano’s professional career: “Starting early in 1976, things began to change rapidly for Nicolas. In early March of that year, he had set up an appointment with Marsha Tucker, so Nicholas and Cynthia drove to New York, double-parked outside the Whitney Museum and hauled his large paintings inside to Marsha’s office, where they rolled them out on the floor. Marsha asked Nicolas about prices; he said $150 apiece; she chose one, wrote him a check, and said, ‘Now, let me tell you how badly you need an agent.’ She introduced Nicolas to Holly and Horace Solomon, and Nicolas’s career was launched.”
Representation by legendary New York art dealer Holly Solomon would help ignite the rocket of Nicolas Africano’s notoriety. From 1976 to present, Africano has featured in over 50 solo exhibitions across the United States and Europe. His artwork has taken a breathtaking range of forms, from willfully clumsy painting to refined cast glass sculpture, but what remains constant are the figures seemingly caught mid-thought, in the midst of private moments and suggested narratives. These artworks may whisper of pain or laugh to break the tension, their reluctant inhabitants may speak of innocence or indecision, and only a minimal image with a few accompanying words may unravel in the viewer’s consciousness a host of memories and associations. “Africano plumbs the emotional intensity of crucial moments and banal rituals,” said critic Joanna Frueh in a 1979 review, a sentiment echoed in Christopher Knight’s review from the same year: “The general and the specific is what succeeds in making these paintings so arresting.” Today, Nicolas Africano’s work is held in dozens of notable permanent collections, including the Whitney Museum of American Art, the Museum of Modern Art, the Art Institute of Chicago, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
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