ART HUNT: EGGLESTON'S MISSISSIPPI

EGGLESTON'S MISSISSIPPI:  RED CEILING

I left New York and set forth to unload the biggest monkey off my back—my father’s furniture company.  It was time to make the life and business decision to sell the Mississippi-based enterprise and move forward.  It was an emotional time as my fondest memories correlated with daddy at his desk.  I watched him leave the house every morning with a high level of commitment, innate joy, and determination. He loved his company and “worked himself to the bone,” as my mother described.  I don’t remember him taking vacations or buying nice things for himself.  I remember him mostly in his store, hustling the floor, devising paperwork, and counting money.  I remember marveling that there seemed to be such freedom in owning and running your own gig. (My mother often quipped that Daddy sang me lullabies about entrepreneurship and independence in my crib.)  

Small town lawyers are often dynamic with their clients, often serving as advisors, surrogate parents, and North Stars.  Attorney Lee Graves was that for me, particular after my father died.  Mr. Graves is dapper, masculine, and strong—a pure bread southern gentleman.  He is wonderfully bright and intensely committed, as well as gracious.  Legend has it that he once represented a local farmer in exchange for a bag of apples, respecting that the man was too proud for have anyone assist him for free.  

Spring in Mississippi is often locked in as a part of memory.  Gardens bloom, and people come back to life; the rivers and lakes are more fished, and the rains are heavy and pure.  Fields ablaze killing back crop residue.  That one spring day in Lee Grave’s office was a turning point for me.  I had made the decision to remain in Mississippi or to sell our family company and move on with my life. 

In part, I felt saddened that I might defy my father, deny his request to carry on the company, and on many levels, forget him.  But most of me knew in the depths of my soul that I was unloading liability, geography, and commitment to an enterprise that wasn’t exciting.  Certainly, the sale of the company was a a ghost with which I would wrangle for many years; and in some odd way, that ghost would bring me incredible energy and drive to continue growing my own enterprise, the Rebekah Jacob Gallery.    

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That life decision and action opened up space and time—I found my way to Southside Gallery in Oxford, Mississippi as an associate while simultaneously earning a Masters in Art History at Ole Miss.  Southside Gallery was a progressive, white-walled shell in the heart of the Oxford Town Square, filled with works in various mediums by emerging and established artists from the American South and the Caribbean Isles. The roster included southern greats like Eggleston, who was scheduled to visit late one spring afternoon.  

That morning after an early art history class, I darted home as quickly as possible to work in a quick run—a prayerful, meditative action that is also still a stress reliever for me. (I had not studied yoga at this point.) I then dressed in the gallery garb that is still a template of my professionalism today: a black turtleneck, leather pants, red stilettos, and red Chanel lipstick, with my hair pulled back in a low ponytail. Then I headed to the gallery.  The stress and rush of the preparations felt like those of a wedding.   I scrambled to tidy the space, patching any holes, vacuuming, and arranging fresh flowers from a client’s yard. The client, Miss Polly, was an avid gardener with lots of southern charm. An avid art collector, she arrived at the gallery with two baskets filled with fresh flowers, greenery, and bourbon. “Here y’all are,” she said graciously as she set the baskets on the counter. “Let me know if you can think of anything else. I must go…”  “Why the rush?” I asked.  “Because all this cash and jewelry in my bag is hurting my shoulder,” she laughed.

It was the kind of nostalgic spring day in Oxford when girls skip class and exercise in packs, noting their tribes with Greek letters; when writers flood Square Book’s balcony; and the locals take longer-than-usual, unorthodox lunch sessions. Mr. Eggleston arrived true to his reputation. A southern aristocrat, he was dapper, wearing a high-end sports coat, buttoned shirt, and slacks. He was polite yet mercurial. He walked in with a small stack of photographs and placed them on a positioned table. He seemed to be magnetized by the piano, another mastered medium and passion. His innovative arrangement of classical music, played by memory with no score, echoed throughout the space so that few words could be heard, but our eyes were in sensory overload.

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There it was: “Red Ceiling.” Eggleston rarely titles his work, so “Red Ceiling” is more of a derivation than a formal notation. The photograph, which I had only seen in books before that day, was taken at the home of his dear friend T.C., a dentist by profession and drug lover by recreation. The house was located on the outskirts of Greenwood, down an unmarked Delta highway. In one version of the photograph, T.C. is naked, his walls covered in graffiti. Another version—and the masterpiece for which I hunted—depicted the ceiling only. Eggleston snapped the picture while lying in bed with T.C. and his wife. Eggleston noted once that “‘Red Ceiling’ is so powerful, that in fact I’ve never seen it reproduced to my satisfaction. When you look at the dye it is like red blood that is wet on the wall.” Subsequently, in ensuing years, its dweller was brutally murdered, and the house burned to the ground. A sinister connotation? Perhaps.  

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This photograph carries so much. Beyond the technical masterful approach, there was something gothic and dark about it. Similar to Toulouse Lautrec’s underground subjects, this photograph depicts a part of Mississippi that few ever know: a synthesis of whiskey, drugs, women, and guns. It’s a far cry from the nostalgically depicted aristocratic Delta life of antebellum homes, black servants, and debutante parties. The photograph is radical, pornographic, apprehensive, and almost disconcerting. It radiates with dark forces and presents uneasiness and emptiness. 

“Red Ceiling” by William Eggleston is arguably the artist’s most famous image. The color is key—the ceiling and walls a deep, blood red. Eggleston uses the corner—the intersection of two walls and the ceiling in the low center of the shot—to create a sense of space. Just above the corner, slightly left of center in the image, is a light fixture with a bare bulb and an on/off chain. Three white extension cords plugged into the fixture and stapled to the ceiling lead out to the walls and sizzle against the ceiling color. Eggleston remembers shooting the image while lying in bed with friends, talking (that they also had been doing other things is implied), and the bottom edge of a poster depicting the positions of the Kama sutra in the photograph amplifies the sexual atmosphere. “I think red is a very difficult color to work with,” he said in an interview with the BBC. “I don’t know why. It’s as if red is at war with all the other colors.”

 “Red Ceiling” would become my most sought-after trophy as an art dealer.” Though a small format, at 12 x 19 inches, it would carry an intense, voodoo-like spell over me. When I began my career in the art business in 1999 at Southside Gallery, I (naïvely) vowed that my professional pinnacle would be to access and broker the “Red Ceiling.” It was a promise and obsession that would take me to pockets of the world to seek and view certain prints; it dominated my dreams, perpetuated and dictated extensive travel, caused sleepless nights, and ultimately set the course for a professional journey of twenty years or more that I could have never predicted.  

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The task would become increasingly arduous, risky, and sometimes defeating over time, as this photograph would prove to be the one of the rarest and most sought-after images on the worldwide platform. As I advanced in my career, I began to understand the significance of Eggleston, not only as a southern photographer, but also as a global photographic force. I learned that for any serious art educator, rare photography lover, or collector of photography, in order to build a significant collection, it’s an imperative to acquire works by Eggleston—if one has the means. Very few “Red Ceilings” were ever printed, and at least two are locked up in the Metropolitan and Getty Museums, so few have ever been available for sale. It would be a rare window of opportunity for top-bidding collectors if I could actually find the photograph.  

My first attempt to broker the photograph was 2013.  A dealer from Washington, DC messaged:  “I have the photograph ‘Red Ceiling.’ Edition 4 of 12. Do you have a buyer?”  Within twenty-four hours, I boarded a flight for the US capital, binders and Apple gadgets filled with research of market comps, articles, and all-things “Red Ceiling.” After viewing the photograph and lengthy conversations, I agreed that I would consign the photograph for my 2013 photography exhibit “Somewhere in the South,” which blended southern masters with southern contemporaries, all working southeast of the Mississippi and south of the Mason-Dixon line. 

Laymen would be appalled at the works we ship via FedEx. In the early spring of 2013, “Red Ceiling” arrived in Charleston, and we securely installed it on the wall, “locking” it for security purposes. The press buzzed with excitement and plugged accolades. Viewers gawked. I was elated. My team and I strategized about how to sell the photograph. We devised mailing lists, pitched stories to the press, ran advertisements in strategic publications and on web platforms. I rubbed rosary beads as frequently and with as much prayerful thought as a Franciscan monk.  I eventually returned the photograph to the owner, unsold.  

During this time-frame, I traveled to New York City to view “At War with the Obvious: Photographs by William Eggleston,” installed at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Gotham City’s skies were crisp and blue, rectangular shapes cutting the horizon like a puzzle. As I wove through the maze of rooms, I was touched to see the commonplace subjects of my southern/Mississippi roots exhibited inside one of the highest levels of art exhibition in the world. Also, when viewing “Red Ceiling,” I noted Eggleston’s referral to the photograph’s red color and its parallelism to classical music: “It was like a Bach exercise for me because I was intensely and now impatiently waiting on the crescendo and finale.”  

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So, it’s the goal I have not accomplished—yet. I have not sold a “Red Ceiling.” But the hunt continues with the same level of aspiration and focus to find the photograph and be lucky enough to have a buyer. Stars must align, as we often preach and know well in this cynical business. I continue to sift through upcoming auction inventory, keep in close contact with dealers I suspect will come across a “Red Ceiling,” and travel globally to view the photograph when it comes to market. In time, I will earn that trophy with a full heart...and much relief.  Despite setbacks and disappointments, the obsession to broker "Red Ceiling" does not wane; instead, it's kicked into full gear.  

Onward, with passport in hand.  

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