On The Square

A Technicolor Titan: The Collections of Jonathan Demme and Ford Wheeler

By Jessica Helen Weinberg

Mar 02,2017 | 15:00 EST

WARNING: The artworks in this sale are going to make you jealous. Hipsters eat your hearts out. This catalog is filled with so much originality, I dont quite know how to fully prepare you for it. I didnt expect to turn over stones and keep finding pockets of intrigue as cool as the two adorning Bruce Springsteens worn out Levis on the "Born in the U.S.A" album cover. But, I did.

On March 19th, Material Culture will auction an epic merger of collections in their formally titled, Heart of the Collection | American Self-Taught, Haitian, Jamaican and African Art From the Collections of Jonathan Demme and Ford Wheeler. This sale is a union of many kinds; friendship, culture, artistic vision, design, travel and an compelling amount of intellectual girth. It is not only exciting because of the quality of works being offered but also because of where and from whom they come. Lets start peeling back the onion, shall we?

Lot 221, Denis Vergin (Haitian, 20th c.) "Ascension", 1948, Oil painting on cardboard, signed; Estimate $10,000 - $15,000; Jonathan Demme Collection

Who is Jonathan Demme?

Ill give you a hint: "A census taker once tried to test me. I ate his liver with some fava beans and a nice Chianti," or how about, "Well, Clarice - have the lambs stopped screaming?"

Yes, Jonathan Demme brilliantly introduced Americans to their most beloved serial killer, Dr. Hannibal Lecter, under his direction of the Oscar winning film, The Silence of the Lambs (1991). Other well known movies directed by Demme include Philadelphia (1993), The Manchurian Candidate (2004) and Rachel Getting Married (2008).

Left to Right: Lot 23, Javier Mayoral (American, 20th c.) "I am a Dog...", Painting on plywood; Estimate $80 - $125; The Jonathan Demme CollectionLot 28, Javier Mayoral (American, 20th c.) "Toughest, Longest-Wearing Tire", Painting on plywood; Estimate $80 - $125; The Jonathan Demme Collection

Lot 200,Victor Joseph Gatto (American) "The Pearl Divers," Oil painting on canvas, Estimate $15,000 - $20,000; Jonathan Demme Collection 

If youve seen at least one of Demmes tantalizing, cerebral films you could start to understand his allure toward this genre of art. Uninhibited, lawless compositions with a style that kicks reality to the curb are reminiscent of the implants and switches that controlled the politicians in The Manchurian Candidate (2004). A deep appreciation for intense imagination and bold sensory expression must have engaged Demme when he handpicked the artworks now being offered from his not-so-ordinary collection. Many times, deciphering "naïve" artwork is met with an allegorical dynamic; what the artist left and what the viewer is given to ponder. Lets just say, there are a lot of Why? questions that occur in the narratives. Considering the intimate layer of personal interpretation adds an important element when considering what lead Demme to purchase these artworks in the first place. 

Left to Right: Lot 255 Robert St. Brice (Haitian/Pétionville) Woman with Raised Arms, 1957, Painting on board; Estimate $1,000 - $3,000; The Jonathan Demme CollectionLot 190, Daniel Pressley (American/South Carolina) Cockfight, c. 1960, Painting on canvas; Estimate $6,000 - $8,000; The Jonathan Demme Collection

Lot 426, David Olson (American, 20th c.) "Radio Super Man", Double-sided crayon drawing on paper; Estimate $100 - $300; The Jonathan Demme Collection

Take for instance, lot 200, Victor Joseph Gatto (American) "The Pearl Divers," Oil painting on canvas an infinite field of thin, seaweed stalks sway in a body of olive green water as a parked, metal/patch-worked, submarine shoots yellow and red lights from either side into the alien abyss. A single shark descends from the top right. Turbulence. Divers, in vintage gear, amass pearls from large clams, but not without a fight. One voyager stabs an attacking shark while the other is moments away from interacting with a mysterious, fully naked, man who appears to be either fleeing or observing the conflict. The consistent marks of white paint found in the coral, pearls, scuba goggles, shark bellies and soldering on the craft, weave the complex composition together. The rest is up to you. 

Lot 220, Hector Hyppolite (Haitian/St. Marc) "Bosou Toi Conne", Oil painting on board; Estimate $30,000 - $50,000, The Jonathan Demme Collection

At the core of Jonathan Demmes collection resides rare and important Haitian Paintings by celebrated painters such as Hector Hyppolite and Georges Liautaud who are expecting to lead auction results. Demmes fascination with Haitian culture started as a child when his mother, an amateur artist, brought him into a store called the Haitian Corner in Manhattan, "If collecting or gathering things is contagious," he says, "she is the one that gave me the bug." Later in life, he would travel to Haiti and film two documentaries, Haiti Dreams of Democracy (1988) and The Agronomist (2002) following the life of Jean Dominique, a prominent Haitian journalist.

Demmes tendency to be transformed by eclectic stores, would alter his life twofold. Craft Caravan, a now closed, New York City shop in Soho, specializing in African and Asian art and other oddities was frequented by one of Demmes production designers as a source for interesting movie props. After nagging Demme to visit the shop for himself, he would finally go to meet the owner of Craft Caravan, a man by the name of..get ready..Ford Wheeler. 

Lot 44, African Hand-painted Coiffeur Sign: 3 Men With Red Faces, Painting on wood panel; Estimate $400 - $600, The Ford Wheeler Collection

Who is Ford Wheeler?

Perhaps, the better question is, where is Ford Wheeler? Having lived in no less than 17 different homes (so far) Ford Wheeler is an eccentric, a highly respected production designer and as previously mentioned, the ex-shop owner of Craft Caravan. To call Ford Wheeler an "art collector" is a massive understatement, it would imply that he basically enjoys art, so he buys it. Try to think of Wheelers "collecting" like a natural impulse as casual as scratching an itch or brushing ones teeth. To him, collecting is a "drug," that he cant seem to moderate. 

Left to Right: A Place for Everything, T Magazine, The New York Times; Ford Wheelers New York City loft; Lot 436, Folk Art Cross "Yesterday Has Gone Tomorrow Hasnt Come Today is Here Make the Most of it", Incised and painted wood; Estimate $400 - $600, The Ford Wheeler Collection

The first of many artistic collaborations started when Wheeler experimented as a set dresser for Demmes film Philadelphia (1993) starring Denzel Washington. With a desire to lessen his travels to Africa to replenish Craft Caravan and an obvious "eye," for visual display, Wheeler give the production world a whirl. It clicked. The pair has been joining forces ever since, bringing movie sets to life, traveling abroad, collecting and from where Im sitting, forming a friendship that any art lover would envy. Demme humbly disclosed in Material Cultures auction catalog on Wheelers talent, " Usually, I just follow Ford around and claim the rejects that he finds, considers but doesnt grab." (I think we all would)

Lot 398, 6 Works by Lot 398, Various Artists (American, 20th c.) Each mixed-media on paper. Unframed. Acquired in 1973 at Brooklyn Senior Art Center; Estimate $300 - $500; The Ford Wheeler Collection

Left to Right: A Place for Everything, T Magazine, The New York Times; Ford Wheelers New York City loft; Lot 412, W.L. Elliot (American, 20th c.) "Saved", 1965, Oil painting on stretched canvas; Estimate $400 - $600; The Ford Wheeler Collection

Lot 265, Edger Jean-Baptiste (Haitian/Bainet) Nixon Family, 1973, Oil painting on masonite; Estimate $3,000 - $5,000; The Jonathan Demme Collection

Folk, Jamaican "Intuitive", American Self-Taught, African, Haitian and all other cultural marvels that fall out of the minds of untrained artists serve as a reminder to those operating within the art world, artist or spectator, that it pays off to color outside the lines. It is equal parts potent, unapologetic, chaotic, historical, ambiguous, hilarious and clairvoyant.

Simply put, this is the technicolor dream coat of auction catalogs. Artistic mediums are stretched beyond the cost of their materials; crayons, cardboard, metals, beads and oil paints are all exceptionally channeled into emotional outlets. The rare opportunity to bid on artworks sourced from all over the world, having been adored and housed by the likes of Jonathan Demme and Ford Wheeler is nothing short of amazing. Luckily, the price ranges are inclusive, from as low as, $80 to as high as $50,000. Dont be intimidated to tune in. 

Browse the full catalog here, Material Culture, Heart of the Collection | American Self-Taught, Haitian, Jamaican and African Art From the Collections of Jonathan Demme and Ford Wheeler sale on March 19th.