Inside Shara Hughes’s Soaring Market
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If you haven’t heard of Shara Hughes by now, you clearly haven’t been paying enough attention.
While it may be hard to believe for an artist whose name so notably exploded across the art world in the months after her breakout inclusion in the 2017 Whitney Biennial, the 40-year-old Hughes has, at this point, been showing steadily in galleries in both the U.S. and Europe for close to 15 years. That makes her a far cry from the seemingly overnight—and increasingly flash-in-the-pan—young market superstars who have come to dominate the first few lots at every major evening auction of late. It also makes an in-depth exploration of the factors influencing her market an intriguing case study as a prime example of a mid-career artist whose art historical significance and relevance are clearly poised to stand the tests of time.
Born in Atlanta, Georgia, Hughes earned a BFA from the Rhode Island School of Design in 2004, and only two years later had her work included in a group show at the now-defunct New York City gallery Rivington Arms. In 2007, the gallery presented her first solo show, “Everything, Always,” featuring a selection of large-scale paintings depicting the interiors of imaginary rooms filled with selections of symbolic objects infused with emotional and dreamlike significance. Yes, it’s a mouthful, but simply imagine a variety of colorful rooms whose disparate elements defy the laws of physics and logic.
And yet, even though she had a number of group and solo shows at various galleries in the ensuing years, it wasn’t until 2015 that Hughes’s career began to pick up significant steam. That’s when the artist moved back to New York after having left the city several years prior in the aftermath of the late 2000s financial crisis. Feeling restricted by the somewhat constraining interiors of her past work—and perhaps, like other artists before her, by the claustrophobic confines of New York City compared to her suburban upbringing—Hughes expanded her practice by moving on to painting the vivid landscapes for which she is now best known.
Undeniably more beautiful than their interior antecedents, Hughes’s lush landscapes have a tendency to pop off the canvas with their bright, vivid colors, while simultaneously belying the deep-rooted emotional undertones hidden beneath their surfaces. At times almost childlike in their aesthetic, Hughes’s landscapes combine historical styles with familiar associations, pushing the boundaries between what is real and what is imagined, and offering viewers the opportunity to step into the artist’s unique universes.
Howard Rachofsky, who, with his wife Cindy, has built up an astonishingly impressive collection of some 1,200 works of contemporary art, housed in their 10,000-square-foot, Richard Meier–designed home in Dallas—as well as in The Warehouse, the exhibition space they established in the city in 2012 to make their collection more readily available to the public—articulated the attraction of Hughes’s landscapes well. “Shara is taking a very traditional, staid subject matter—the classical landscape—and breathing new life into the genre by imbuing it with a sense of relevance in the 21st century,” the ARTnews “Top 200 Collector” explained when I called to ask what first drew him to Hughes’s work. Hardly just mere landscapes, her paintings are intimate portraits of the soul, using details such as flowers, mountains, and trees as metaphors that seek to reveal more about humanity than they do about the nature they’re ostensibly depicting.
Since 2016—soon after Hughes first began experimenting with landscapes—the artist has been represented by the savvy downtown gallerist Rachel Uffner, who commands a fervently devoted following among some of the most quietly thoughtful and committed collectors of contemporary art around. The dealer—who has a reputation for having an eye that can immediately identify raw talent—said during a recent interview that from the moment she walked into Hughes’s studio, Uffner knew that she wanted to work with her.
The Biennial explosion
Hughes’s inclusion in the 2017 Whitney Biennial supercharged an ascent that was already bubbling on the periphery of the art world for a number of years. Co-curators Christopher Y. Lew and Mia Locks’s decision to devote an entire gallery to her paintings—in an exhibition that has historically not always been the best platform for painting—was a major vote of confidence for a young artist. Her group of kaleidoscopic landscapes proved to be a hit with audiences and earned praise from New York Times critic Roberta Smith—who saw in them elements of Fauvism and Charles Burchfield—for their ability to “push natural forms toward feverish abstraction.”
Before the Biennial, her paintings had come up at auction 17 times, with six of those lots failing to sell at all. But in the series of contemporary day sales held at the three major auction houses in May of that year—just two months after the Biennial opened—three of her early interiors far outstripped their estimates (the highest of which was set at $12,000), with the largest selling for $68,750 against a presale estimate of $6,000 to $8,000.
On the heels of such success, and with the eyes of the art world now watching closely, Hughes secured European representation with the Switzerland-based, blue-chip Galerie Eva Presenhuber. A few years earlier, in 2016, Ugo Rondinone, another artist on the Swiss dealer’s heavy-hitting roster, suggested to Presenhuber that she check out a show of Hughes’s work at Marlborough Gallery. The intensity radiating from those canvases had left Presenhuber hooked, she explained by email: “I had never seen a more beautiful painting show by an artist of Shara’s generation.” Eventually, she invited Hughes to show five paintings in a group exhibition in Zürich in January 2018 before announcing representation that March. A few years later, in 2020, Hughes added the London-based Pilar Corrias to her glowing lineup of powerhouse female dealers.
Throughout this time, both the primary and secondary markets for Hughes’s work rose exponentially. In 2016, for instance, large-scale paintings by Hughes were said to be priced around $18,000 on the primary market. But with her paintings selling at auction for many multiples of that in the aftermath of the Whitney Biennial—by November 2019, a relatively small 2007 painting of Hughes’s, Georgia, sold for $337,500 at a Christie’s day sale—a gradual yet marked reset in pricing had to occur. Now, those same large-scale paintings are said to be selling for around $150,000 on the primary market, with her smaller, 14-by-11-inch paintings—which are often prominently featured at her shows hanging between the larger works—commanding prices between $30,000 and $50,000. And even her drawings—unique works unto themselves rather than early sketches of paintings as some artists create—have seen their value rise in tandem with the rest of Hughes’s market. They’re rumored to be going for $9,000 to $15,000 depending on their size, and a few have even been designated as promised gifts to the Morgan Library and Museum in New York.
That rise in pricing hasn’t deterred many of the art world’s top collectors from clamoring for Hughes’s work. In addition to the Rachofskys— who, beyond buying multiple paintings themselves after coming across Hughes’s work in Uffner’s booth at the Dallas Art Fair one year, also encouraged their hometown institution, the Dallas Museum of Art, where Cindy sits on the board of trustees, to acquire two paintings—the Miami-based mega-collector Jorge Pérez has bought works by Hughes for his collection. The Fondation Louis Vuitton in Paris has a painting, typically a good indicator that one of the world’s top collectors, Bernard Arnault, chairman of Louis Vuitton’s parent company, is a fan. And museums ranging from the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and the Denver Museum of Art to the M Woods Museum in Beijing all boast paintings by Hughes in their permanent collections. The Whitney Museum acquired the 2016 landscape In the Clear from the Biennial for its own permanent collection.
Demand goes global
Intriguingly, perhaps one of the most fascinating aspects of the market for Hughes’s work is her paintings’ far-reaching global appeal. Presenhuber pointed out that the works “have an emotional depth that can speak to everyone,” while Uffner highlighted the universality of the work when explaining that collectors of Hughes’s paintings typically can’t be painted with a single brushstroke (excuse the pun). “From trustees of the Met who collect mostly modern and historical work, to young collectors in Asia who focus on hyper-contemporary artists, Shara’s collecting base is broad and can’t be categorized into a single mold,” Uffner said.
As a matter of fact, while interest from across the U.S., South America, and Europe has remained strong, there’s no denying that demand from Asia has been a significant contributor to Hughes’s exploding market these past few years. The artist’s previous auction record was set by her 2016 painting High Waters at Christie’s “20th Century: Hong Kong to New York” sale last December, when it zoomed past its estimate of HK$800,000–HK$1.2 million (US$103,000–$155,000) and ultimately sold for HK$4.1 million (US$532,000) as the sale’s opening lot. However, that record was reset yet again just this week at a Christie’s day sale in Hong Kong, when one of Hughes’s interior scenes from 2010, I don’t Deserve These Flowers, more than quadrupled its high estimate of HK$1 million (nearly US$129,000), selling for HK$4.75 million (nearly US$612,000). Amid such a frothy market, even relatively minor works such as the small painting Broccoli Trees (2016) have soared past their estimates. As the opening lot of Christie’s online sale last December, the 14-by-11-inch painting sold for $37,500 against its estimate of $10,000 to $15,000, an eye-popping sum for a work that was likely acquired for less than $5,000 only five years before.
Meanwhile, based on Artsy data, it’s not only the art world’s top collectors and museums who have found themselves enthralled by Hughes’s painting. Though her work first appeared on Artsy in January 2015, it wasn’t until 2017, the year of the Whitney Biennial, that pieces started to be offered more regularly on the platform. That fall saw a spike in inquiries, and ever since, each time her work has been offered on the site, it’s been met with a flood of inquiries. The number of individual collectors inquiring about her work on Artsy more than tripled from 2017 to 2019, the latter of which was her biggest year on Artsy to date. However, based on the number of collectors inquiring about her work on Artsy thus far in 2021 (already 87 percent to the total for all of 2019), this year is poised to be her biggest yet on the platform.
A new day
Shara Hughes, Be Bold, 2021. © Shara Hughes. Photo by JSP Art Photography. Courtesy of the artist and Galerie Eva Presenhuber, Zurich / New York.
Indeed, 2021 is shaping up to be a banner year for Hughes all around. Earlier this month, her long-awaited solo exhibitions at Le Consortium in Dijon, France, and at the Garden Museum in London, both of which were delayed due to the pandemic, finally opened to the public.
Next comes a solo show at Galerie Eva Presenhuber opening in Zürich on May 29th. “Return of Light” will feature 18 new landscape paintings from late 2020 and early 2021 centering around the sun as the artist’s new motif and muse. Teeming with plant life and lush in color and intensity, the paintings’ fantastical elements continue to display a knack for drawing the viewer ever closer while serving almost like windows into Hughes’s imagined reality.
In a video from her Brooklyn studio made to mark the opening of the exhibition, Hughes said that the sun “felt like an obvious theme” to explore next in her oeuvre due to the feeling of reopening coursing through much of the world as we begin to emerge from the lockdowns of the pandemic.
And with more museum shows planned for the fall—at the Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis in September, where more than 30 of her paintings, drawings, and prints from the last seven years will go on display in her first major solo museum exhibition in the United States, and another show at the Yuz Museum in Shanghai in November—the future continues to look bright for Hughes, as well as the far-flung admirers of her work. After 15 months during which most people could only experience the artist’s tantalizing landscapes via the soul-crushing screens of their phones and computers, audiences around the world will now finally be getting the opportunity to climb through the portals of her flourishing landscapes and be welcomed into the delightfully ingenious mind of Shara Hughes in person.
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