Death of an artist


Dear Artist,

Yesterday, Jamillah Ausby of Brooklyn, New York wrote, “My husband, the abstract artist Ellsworth Ausby, passed on March 6th. I have a lot of his art which I would love to sell. He wanted exhibitions in Europe, Africa, and all around the world. His one request was to divide the money between his three daughters and son. I plan to clean out his studio, take photos, set up a web site and hopefully I’ll find a dealer or a gallery to sell his work. What do you suggest?”

Untitled, 1970 Acrylic on paper on board 16h x 36w x 8d inches by Ellsworth Ausby (1942-2011)

Untitled, 1970
Acrylic on paper on board
16h x 36w x 8d inches
by Ellsworth Ausby (1942-2011)

Thanks, Jamillah. Ellsworth’s work explored the relationship of man and the universe. He was also a popular art instructor with a BFA from Pratt. His paintings were exhibited at the Whitney Museum of American Art; the Boston Museum of Fine Art; the National Museum of Fine Arts, Lagos Nigeria; The Aldrich Museum of Contemporary Art in Connecticut and the State Museum of New Jersey. He is listed in Who’s Who in America, Who’s Who in American Art and Who’s Who Among Black Americans. Jamillah’s situation is similar to many artists’ beneficiaries when the main thrust of the life’s work was in academia. Their credentials may be great, but their prior interaction with the commercial gallery system may be limited. Often, it’s difficult to understand that dealers are not necessarily looking for depth or creativity. They’re looking for marketability. This often includes:

Ancestral Spirit, 1969 Acrylic on canvas 89 1/2h x 41 1/2w inches by Ellsworth Ausby

Ancestral Spirit, 1969
Acrylic on canvas
89 1/2h x 41 1/2w inches
by Ellsworth Ausby

— A large and consistent opus of the artist’s work. — A degree of exclusive access to the work for a period of time.

— The potential of higher and higher prices. This often means that your new dealer would like to take control of the work.

To this end he might try to buy or option it all. If the amounts of money are significant, I suggest you get a lawyer with knowledge of the shenanigans of the art world. A cautious art executor should read The Legacy of Mark Rothko by Lee Seldes. Further, your idea of putting up a memorial website — heavy on Ellsworth’s story and passion, light on commercial considerations — will keep his flame burning bright. The memorial website is the statue of the 21st Century. Take your time. Send out letters to prospective dealers and refer them to the website. Ask their advice and opinion. In the event that none show interest, archive the work in a clean, dry environment.

Further fame and acceptance may become the task of another generation.

Untitled, 1976 Steel 14h x 30w x 6d inches by Ellsworth Ausby

Untitled, 1976
14h x 30w x 6d inches
by Ellsworth Ausby

Best regards,


PS: “Full lasting is the song, though he, the singer, passes.” (George Meredith)

Esoterica: On hearing of Ellsworth’s death, Andrew Thornton, a former student of his wrote, “Professor Ausby was my first painting teacher at The School of Visual Arts. I spent many hours in the studio with him, learning about cast shadows, mixing paint, and ‘Ausby’s Black’ (a rich shade of black made with alizarin crimson and phthalo green). We kept in contact. He wrote countless recommendation letters for me. Finally he gave me a stack of twenty signed letters with the recipient line left blank. He said, ‘Thornton, don’t use ’em all up in a week.’”

Moving It, 1970 Acrylic on canvas 71h x 121w inches by Ellsworth Ausby

Moving It, 1970
Acrylic on canvas
71h x 121w inches
by Ellsworth Ausby

This letter was originally published as “Death of an artist” on April 12, 2011.

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  1. Dear Sara,

    This is a note on a different thread. A few years ago you published a quotation from your father that reads, “Simply Begin. You can start any process anywhere on a circle. There is no spot in the book where it says start. There is always now.” As a calligrapher I am always looking for profound words, and this one struck a chord. I lettered it out a few times and gave copies to friends and students.

    But right now I’m working on a BOOK of my work about the relationship between Word and Image, as it has evolved through the ages. As a calligrapher/painter/illustrator, I am presenting a lot of my own work, as well as a section on the history of the combination.

    I’d like to include this image, as it really sums up the whole daily process of getting to work and using my time.
    The book will be self-published, beginning in an edition of 1000 copies to begin.
    In 2004 I wrote a book with Lark Books, The Art & Craft of Hand Lettering, which is now in its 5th printing, totaling about 13,000 copies. It includes some work by many others, including manuscripts from the British Library.

    Can you let me know if it would be possible to reproduce this image in this upcoming book, and if so, what is the procedure for obtaining permission? I’d love to send you an original version of my work, but alas I’ll need a mailing address.

    Thanks in advance.

  2. Cynthia Baldini on

    Perhaps approach the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts? They are building an entre new afoamerican wing..

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