SIMONE LEIGH (B. 1967)
SIMONE LEIGH (B. 1967)
SIMONE LEIGH (B. 1967)
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SIMONE LEIGH (B. 1967)
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SIMONE LEIGH (B. 1967)

Stick

Details
SIMONE LEIGH (B. 1967)
Stick
bronze
85 x 63 x 63 in. (215.9 x 160 x 160 cm.)
Executed in 2019. This work is number two from an edition of three, plus an artist's proof.
Provenance
Luhring Augustine Gallery, New York
Acquired from the above by the present owner
Exhibited
New York, Whitney Museum of American Art, Whitney Biennial 2019, May-October 2019 (another example exhibited).
Further details
Another example from the edition is a promised gift to the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York.

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Isabella Lauria
Isabella Lauria Vice President, Senior Specialist, Head of 21st Century Evening Sale

Lot Essay

“Leigh’s work is not for those in search of uncomplicated beauty. But in its complexities is a sublime more rich and full than beauty alone. It seduces in whispers, and engulfs with meaning.” - Murray Whyte

The first Black woman to be awarded the Golden Lion for Best Participant at the Venice Biennale, Simone Leigh has irrevocably changed the face of contemporary sculpture, and in doing so has built an unparalleled career spanning multiple media. Stick is undoubtedly one of her most important and timeless works; executed in a small edition of just three plus one artist’s proof, another example was shown at the 2019 Whitney Biennial and is now a promised gift to the museum’s permanent collection. Stick, with its prominent Afro, symbolizes the empowered women of the Civil Rights movement, like Angela Davis. Drawing on Leigh’s Jamaican heritage, it also stands as a monument to the storied history of Black women as leaders, protectors, and healers, and honors their unceasing contributions to art and culture.

Born out of immense skill and ambition, Stick builds on centuries of sculptural tradition, from the Benin Bronzes to Edgar Degas’s cast ballerinas, and Louise Bourgeois’s Spider (1996-1997). Stick intensifies the emotional resonance of bronze, and Leigh tenderly amplifies its simultaneous potential for strength and delicacy. Moreover, the present embodies the optimism of Black writer and scholar Toni Morrison, who gave us a perennial call to action, “If there’s a book that you want to read, but it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it” (T. Morrison, quoted in R.L. Brewer, “7 Toni Morrison Quotes for Writers and About Writing,” Writer’s Digest, August 6, 2019, https://www.writersdigest.com/be-inspired/toni-morrison-quotes-for-writers-and-about-writing). With Stick, Leigh made the heretofore unimagined sculpture that she wanted to see in the world.

The present work is an emotional powerhouse. Critic Alex Greenberger summarizes this incredible sculpture, “This work, with its elegant allusions to a variety of sources, from West African adobe structures to ancient Egyptian art, is a characteristic one for Leigh. It features a nude woman whose form is merged with a dress that seems to emit spikes; the artist has said her target audience for it is Black women” (A. Greenberger, “See Works Recently Acquired by the Whitney Museum, from Biennial Standouts to a 3D Video,” ARTnews, December 6, 2019, https://www.artnews.com/art-news/news/whitney-museum-2019-acquisitions-simone-leigh-john-edmonds-1202670935/).

The eponymous stick forms, stacked in rows, pierce the figure’s bell-shaped base, which also functions as a skirt, and they generate a desire to touch and behold. They add further tactility to the sculpture, whose variegated exterior is also textured by the marks of the artist’s hand in the clay form that precedes the final bronze sculpture. This skirt, which is over five feet wide, is capacious enough to hold entire worlds, entire histories. The woman’s lithe body, which emerges gracefully from the luminescent base, has the same luxurious curves of Constantin Brancusi’s La jeune fille sophistiquée (Portrait de Nancy Cunard) (1928/1932). It also evokes the exacting busts of Selma Burke, a Black woman artist and pioneering sculptor of the Harlem Renaissance who created the bas relief portrait of Franklin D. Roosevelt that is used on the dime.

Even without defined eyes, the countenance of Leigh’s protagonist is inquisitive and engaged, her head turning slightly as if she is listening to us. As essayist Sharifa Rhodes-Pitts observes, “Perhaps through their unseeing eyes we might comprehend the riddle of private and public and publics winding across Leigh’s multiple arenas of engagement” (S. Rhodes-Pitts, quoted in A. Greenberger, “How Simone Leigh’s Sculptures Centering Black Women Brought Her to the Venice Biennale,” ARTnews, October 19, 2020, https://www.artnews.com/feature/simone-leigh-who-is-she-why-is-she-famous-1234574361/). The beautiful woman in Stick therefore speaks to us, the public, even as she shields herself from full legibility. Her Afro rests above her head like the tangible halos of the Renaissance, which give form to that which is too holy for representation. Finally, the sculpture can be installed both in- and outdoors and, depending on the prevailing light, conveys a range of dark blue tonalities. Indoors, under more subdued lighting, it exudes a deep indigo. When exposed to bright, natural light outdoors the tone favors a rich cobalt.

Despite Leigh’s indisputable proficiency in using bronze, it is a relatively new medium for her. She initially charmed the art world with her use of clay, alongside projects in video, performance, and activism. Clay remains central to her process, however. It is one of the oldest artistic media, and an intimate material that is coaxed and guided by the hands of the artist. This handmade process provides the basis for Leigh’s bronze sculptures, rather than the conventional use of scans. The revered Stratton Sculpture Studio in Philadelphia has been her home base, where she works on the top floor of the century-old building. She begins by sculpting her signature figures in French clay, and the resulting figure is cast in bronze with the help of a series of ceramic molds. The clay can be re-formed and reused—a cycle that honors Leigh’s chosen materials and the timeless histories to which she references.

Another important bronze work from her oeuvre is Leigh’s Brick House, also from 2019, which mirrors the signature style and monumentality of Stick. Commissioned by the High Line in New York, the 16-foot bronze bust of a Black woman presided over 10th Avenue like a protective goddess or a new kind of skyscraper. Both Brick House and the present work also speak to her interest in the vernacular architecture of West Africa. Here, mud and clay bricks are commonplace, as are the ‘sticks’ which are inserted into the surfaces of buildings. In addition to helping to ‘wick’ moisture away from the clay, they also allow the local population to access all parts of the building to complete repairs. This idea that architecture functions to foster community, is an aspect that particularly appeals to the artist.

Leigh therefore emulates functional buildings and forms, reminding us of the architectural qualities of works like Stick and Brick House. As Leigh explains, “architecture is a text that we can read to understand the ontological, philosophical, and psychological expressions of a culture” (S. Leigh, quoted in R.J. Parker, “‘What We Carry in the Flesh’: The Majestic Bodies of Simone Leigh,” Frieze, June 4, 2019, https://www.frieze.com/article/what-we-carry-flesh-majestic-bodies-simone-leigh). If fact, when Leigh first moved to New York, she landed a job in an architectural ceramics firm, where she worked on tiles for the city’s legendary subway stations.

Indeed, history is as important a medium to Leigh as bronze itself. Over the course of her career, “Leigh merged the human body with domestic vessels or architectural elements that evoke unacknowledged acts of female labor and care. These works summon the ancient archetype of the nude statue and inflect it with folk traditions from across the African diaspora as well as with historical references ranging from the Benin bronzes to the portraiture of seventeenth-century Spanish painter Diego Velázquez” (“The Hugo Boss Prize 2018: Simone Leigh, Loophole of Retreat,” Guggenheim Museum, 2019, https://www.guggenheim.org/exhibition/hugo-boss-prize-2018).

This combination of Western and non-Western source material allows for a reconsideration of art history altogether and asks us to see the interconnectedness and mutual influence of cultures. In Stick, we can see the graceful movement of Degas’s Little Dancer Aged Fourteen (1880–1, cast c.1922) who stands fearlessly and self-assuredly, or Aristide Maillol’s curvy, stately nude bronzes. At the same time, we might also be reminded of Augusta Savage’s pensive Realization (1938).

“The tendency when people hear Black women’s stories is to focus on what happened to them, not the intellectual labor and creativity they brought to the situation… My work is about what they did from those compromised positions — the labor, the care, the love, the ideas.” - Simone Leigh

Leigh’s career is at full force. As she tells writer Calvin Tomkins, “I feel like I’m in my prime, so far as work is concerned. I’ve had thirty years to make a ton of mistakes. Now I feel ready, and for some reason I’m not intimidated” (S. Leigh, quoted in C. Tomkins, “The Monumental Success of Simone Leigh,” The New Yorker, March 21, 2022, https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2022/03/28/the-monumental-success-of-simone-leigh).

In 2018, Leigh won the prestigious Hugo Boss Prize and mounted an accompanying solo exhibition at the Guggenheim Museum, New York. Leigh’s work from the U.S. Pavilion at the Venice Biennale will be the basis of her first-ever museum survey, which recently opened to acclaim at the Institute of Contemporary Art Boston, and will travel to the Hirshhorn Museum, Washington, D.C., (Fall 2023), and conclude with a joint presentation by the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and the California African American Museum, Los Angeles (Spring 2024).

Collaboration has also been central to Leigh’s activism, which she sees as indistinguishable from her artworks. In 2014, Leigh worked with Creative Time to mount the Free People’s Medical Clinic at the Stuyvesant Mansion in New York, a series of workshops and conferences that honored the tradition of Black medicine and grassroots healthcare. She also worked with actress, singer, and activist Zendaya for a historic editorial published in Garage magazine in 2019.

In a recent review of her current retrospective at the ICA Boston, The Boston Globe suggests, “Leigh’s work is not for those in search of uncomplicated beauty. But in its complexities is a sublime more rich and full than beauty alone. It seduces in whispers, and engulfs with meaning” (M. Whyte, “At the ICA, a Breathtaking ‘Simone Leigh,’” The Boston Globe, April 6, 2023, https://www.bostonglobe.com/2023/04/06/arts/ica-breathtaking-simone-leigh/). The same could be said of Stick, whose aesthetically replete and sensual forms are so moving and sublime. Since the early 2000s, Leigh has brought her history, knowledge, and deep skill to contemporary sculpture, thereby invigorating it with her unmistakable style and inimitable source material. She is a historian, a guide, and a teacher, and her sculpture, never smug or uninviting, ask us to journey alongside her. Her work will only continue to surprise and delight the senses. Sculptures like Stick turn viewers into researchers as much as beholders, archivists as much as admirers.

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