In season 2 of “The Cosby Show,” Clair Huxtable finds out about a Sotheby’s auction that features a painting by her Great-Uncle Ellis that her grandmother once owned.
As noted by Dr. Kamasi C. Hill, the episode highlights a conversation between Cliff Huxtable and an African-American art bidder, who notices Cliff’s interest in the Ellis Wilson painting and decides to feel him out.
In the exchange, the two state the painting is a “very important work from a very important artist.”
Further, the artist says the aesthetic depth of the work demonstrates Wilson’s “mastery of light, form and simplicity of composition,” and then claims because of this the initial bid of $7,000, it’s a “steal.”
Clair ends up with the winning bid and takes the painting home and proudly hangs it over the fireplace.
“That actually happened in real life,” Bill Cosby said in a new interview with The Washington Informer for Black History Month.
“[Cosby’s wife] Camille was actually bidding against me and I didn’t know it,” he said.
For Cosby, the fact that his groundbreaking show was vital in the renaissance of the African-American artist and Black art was organic, as his love of the genre began early.
“I was born in 1937 and, as we go through the 1940s as a boy in the Richard Allen Projects in North Philadelphia, there was art in the homes that were either done by the people who lived in the house such as maybe the children who had drawings from school that they were proud of, or maybe they were from an artist,” Cosby said. “But mostly things purchased were like Jesus on some form of cloth with the heart bleeding. That was the art.”
In the projects and in many African-American homes, art was Scotch-taped to the walls and included pictures out of Ebony and other magazines, the comedian recalled.
Now 80, Cosby reminisced about the time he was 23 and went on vacation in Los Angeles.
“I had to get a job to earn money to go back to Philadelphia for my sophomore year,” he said. “I was a canvasser for a furniture store and I would knock on the doors of people who were considered lower-income.
“You only have to put down 10 percent and you could get a sofa and two arm chairs and if you signed, you would get this clock that had a cat in the middle and you could rub your hands over it and chalk would come off,” Cosby said, noting that the clock had eyeballs that moved to the tick.
The superstar of such big-screen hits as “Let’s Do it Again” and “Uptown Saturday Night” also recalled his love of art while filming the iconic series “I Spy,” in the 1960s.
“When I did ‘I Spy,’ my wife and I lived in at least three different homes and we went around in Southern California where they had these art fairs,” he said. “You’d go up and down and look at things and you’d come home with something. But, these two brothers … when I got my TV show [and portrayed Chet Kincaid], I made sure that I went to these brothers and looked at their work and made sure that I bought some and then, later, I put them on the set of ‘The Cosby Show.’ It was all over the walls because I wanted people to see these brothers.”
The “brothers” Cosby referred to are Alonzo and Dale Davis, owners of the Brockman Gallery in Los Angeles’ Leimert Park.
In 1967, two years after the Watts uprising in Los Angeles, the brothers founded the gallery at a time many considered as the Black Arts Movement.
Though numerous galleries opened in Los Angeles and across the country in the 1960s and 1970s with the aim of advancing the notion of a black art form, KCET noted that the Brockman Gallery — a commercial gallery in the midst of community focused ventures — was unique for the time period.
The brothers provided early exposure to a number of artists who today are widely acclaimed, including Betye Saar, David Hammons and John Outterbridge.
“None of the art from the Brockman Gallery was [expensive],” Cosby said. “The price had nothing to do with the quality and Camille and I started to buy and, what I noticed in those days was that going through the late 1950s and 1960s to the 1970s, that there’s this fight for racial equality.
“It was about the system and the people being treated badly and the anger and the violence that goes on, and I said to my wife, ‘You know, I really don’t want to come home and see what I’ve been seeing out here on where I’m working whether it’s a script or whether looking at some union that were working … all of this racism that we’re looking at,’” he said. “I don’t want to see that on my walls when I get home. You had the angry Black male in the dashiki and the woman and the child or the young Black man in the street with his fist or the picture with the water hose.”
The Brockman Gallery featured work from artists who painted with colors and various figures, Cosby said.
The Cosbys would commission various pieces of art that he said represented his own thoughts, particularly those that highlighted the beauty and strength of Camille.
“There are some pieces that Elizabeth Catlett really enjoyed doing and I’d call her and say it’s going to be an anniversary and I’d like to do this or that,” Cosby said, joking that the reason he and his wife have so many homes is because they keep running out of wall space for art.
When artists such as Larry “Poncho” Brown and Charles Bibbs credit “The Cosby Show” with the renaissance of Black art, Cosby said that wasn’t a mistake.
“That’s why we put it up there,” he said. “Look, you go into the home of a sitcom and there you are and maybe you didn’t pay attention to Chet Kincaid and maybe they didn’t know. But, then those Black figures showed up; that’s what did it, that funeral procession over the fireplace,” he said of the famous piece from “The Cosby Show.”
Cosby then waxed poetic about the evolution of Black art:
“[Black artists] were saying, ‘This is what we do; we bathe you and there’s a tin tub; this is what we do; we do your hair and sometimes it hurts to comb it; this is what we do.’ Sometimes we’re sitting there having fun and then you look at Varnette Honeywood and she’s nailing things that had to do with the sweet part of life, the sweet part of our dreams and memories and she was on it and I said, that’s what I want on the walls and when you look at ‘A Different World,’ they also had no problem putting stuff on the walls.”
The Cosbys have been linked to some of the more precious collections in the world, theirs being featured prominently at Smithsonian and other museums.
“The beauty of this is that you can talk about music, but they don’t even know it or didn’t know it, but you take Blue Note Records or Columbia Records and when [recording artists] put out their album covers, that was art,” Cosby said. “When I was in high school, I used to take my LP and I would put it up on my wall because those people were cool. You could just pull out the LP and put it on the wall with scotch tape and you’ve got yourself a picture, art of icons like Miles Davis smoking a cigarette and Ella Fitzgerald singing. They went up on the wall. That was also a form of art.”