Works by rising art market stars will go up for auction alongside pieces by well-established contemporary names such as Banksy, Kerry James Marshall and Damien Hirst in Sotheby’s evening sale of art made in the last 20 years, dubbed “The Now” on 19 May. What makes this edition of the sale particularly notable is that more than half the works on offer are by women.
This sale—which comes on the heels of the opening of the 2022 Venice Biennale, in whose central exhibition women artists significantly outnumbered men—includes nearly 60% of works created by women, marking the greatest percentage of female artists to ever appear in an evening sale at Sotheby’s.
The night’s first 10 lots, typically the most anticipated of the evening, all happen to be works by women. According to Lucius Elliott, head of The Now evening auction, “traditionally, sales open with a sequence of works expected to perform particularly well. As we began to determine the order of works in the auction while following this criteria, it naturally turned out that the first nine were works by women artists. So, in an effort to emphasize this fact, we added another artist to make it an even 10.”
Among those 10 are Jennifer Packer’s The Fire Next Time (2012, est $600,000-$800,000), titled after a James Baldwin book of essays that focuses on the central role of race in US history. At 13ft wide, it is the largest piece from her celebrated 2021-22 exhibition The Eye Is Not Satisfied With Seeing, which traveled from London's Serpentine Gallery to New York’s Whitney Museum.
Also of note is Emergent Algorithm (Manara Circle, Palestine) (2012, est $3m-$4m), a mix of architectural renderings and gestural mark making by Julie Mehretu, who recently had her mid-career survey at the Whitney and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.
Perhaps the most-anticipated lots of the evening are works by Anna Weyant, Simone Leigh and Avery Singer. Weyant, who recently became the youngest artist to join Gagosian gallery’s roster, kicks off the sale with Falling Woman (2020, est $150,000-$200,000), a prurient innuendo skillfully rendered through the lens of girlhood whimsy.
The sale’s third lot is a sculpture by Leigh, who recently won the Golden Lion at the Venice Biennale, where she is the first Black woman to represent the US. Her work, Birmingham (2012, est $150,000-$200,000), speaks to delicate reverence via the india-ink-stained terracotta bust of a young Black woman. Adorning the figure is a four-point crown of hand-sculpted yellow porcelain roses, representing the four Black girls killed in the Birmingham Church Bombing of 1963.
Also in the sale’s opening salvo is Singer’s 10ft wide Happening (2014, est $2.5m-$3.5m). The artist uses a multipronged process that includes 3D modeling software, airbrush and projection to create gray-scale geometric figures reminiscent of early internet-era design.
Though works by women may outnumber works by men in the sale, issues of price disparity between male and female artists have not been fully resolved; works by women represent less than 30% of the sale’s estimated total. Last year, Sotheby’s Mei Moses Index indicated the market is on the upswing for women, finding that over the previous five years, prices for female artists had grown by 32%, outpacing growth for works by male artists by 29%.
Eliott sees this dynamic in the context of a “growing focus on women artists as the culture continues to shift in the right direction”. He adds, “I hope we’ll continue to be able to remedy the historic price differential at auction.”