The Ultra-Contemporary Women Artists at the Forefront of the Art Market
In 2019, we were blessed with a name for the newest sector of the art market: ultra-contemporary. Coined by Artnet News editors in their spring 2019 Intelligence Report, the term refers to artists born any time between 1975 and the present, and was created in response to the growing number of young artists that are gaining serious secondary-market traction.
Since then, works by ultra-contemporary artists have become somewhat ubiquitous at auction houses. Works from the sector regularly take up top sale slots each auction season—16 of the first 20 lots in Artsy’s latest post-war and contemporary auction were works by ultra-contemporary artists—as well as merit entire sales in their own right.
María Berrío, He Loves Me, He Loves Me Not, 2015. Courtesy of Phillips.
Shara Hughes, Spins from Swiss, 2017. Christie’s Images Limited.
What’s driving this sector? The fervor for new, young artists at galleries has meant a limited supply of work on the primary market and long collector waitlists that are difficult to navigate. In short, this makes auctions the most accessible option for those collectors that have the means. And in turn, we’ve seen meteoric prices achieved at auction for ultra-contemporary artists’ works.
What does this have to do with women artists? Excitingly, in this sector, women artists’ works are often leading the pack. Indeed, our data shows that the younger the artists, the greater the gender parity of market share.
Here, we’ll offer a look at the growth of this youngest sector of the market and dive into the data around some of the key artists who are attracting significant attention from collectors.
Last year was a record year for women artists’ work in the ultra-contemporary category, which has grown by 4,071% since 2012, from $5.28 million to $220.24 million in auction sales. As our data shows, this sector was very small in 2012, which is unsurprising—at that time, the oldest artists in the segment would have been aged 37.
While we’re seeing plenty of artists much younger than 37 see their works go to auction at present, that was hardly the case a decade ago, and the excitement for works by younger artists has grown significantly in the past three years. Perhaps a better measure of the recent growth of the ultra-contemporary market for women artists’ work in its more mature state can be seen through the 349% rise that occurred between 2020 and 2022.
The first pie chart featured above shows the ultra-contemporary sector as a whole, with works by all artists born in or after 1975. The 56.1% vs. 43.6% split of the auction market between male and female artists is a far cry from the 88.24% vs. 9.39% we see when we look at the market for all artists.
Even more compelling is this second chart: When we narrow the scope to younger artists, born in or after 1985, women dominate by a significant margin of 63.8% to 36%. Clearly, the market interest in younger women artists’ work is undeniable.
Leading women artists of the ultra-contemporary market
So, who are the ultra-contemporary artists at the top of the market?
The list below of the most expensive works sold by this subset of the market gives a helpful overview of its major players.
Works by American artist Avery Singer—who was the youngest artist on the roster of Hauser & Wirth when it began representing her in 2019 (she was 32 at the time)—appear on this list a striking five times, including in its top slot. That record-breaking painting, Happening (2014), sold for a stunning $5.25 million at Sotheby’s “The Now” sale in May 2022. All of Singer’s top five auction records have been set since 2021, and all are above $3 million.
Notably, this sector of the market is more diverse, too, featuring works by several Black women artists who are at the forefront of contemporary painting, including Lynette Yiadom-Boakye and Jennifer Packer.
The second-most expensive work listed above is by Nigerian American artist Njideka Akunyili Crosby, who gained representation with Victoria Miro in 2015 and with David Zwirner in 2018. Particularly in comparison to her peers, Crosby’s rise in the auction market has been steady—her work first broke the million-dollar mark back in 2016 at Sotheby’s November contemporary evening sale, and she has consistently achieved seven-figure prices at auction since.
Avery Singer, The Great Muses, 2013. Courtesy of Christie’s Images Limited.
Njideka Akunyili Crosby, The Beautyful Ones, 2012. Courtesy of Christie’s Images Limited.
Close behind in third place is a work by Christina Quarles, who is also represented by Hauser & Wirth, in collaboration with Pilar Corrias Gallery, which has been showing the artist since 2018. Quarles’s work had a major year at auction in 2022, setting eight of her top 10 auction results.
And one can’t ignore Flora Yukhnovich, whose works also appear on this list five times. The British artist is also represented by Victoria Miro; that announcement was made in January 2021, after the artist had held two solo shows with the gallery in 2020.
When we compare the above list with the 20 ultra-contemporary women artists who garnered the most collector interest on Artsy in 2022, the artist who appears on both lists is Anna Weyant. The American painter’s meteoric rise was well-documented in 2022, particularly in May, when her works started to sell for seven-figure sums and she became the youngest artist to gain representation with Gagosian.
Lucy Bull, 8:50, 2020. Courtesy of Phillips.
Other ultra-contemporary women artists attracting the most attention from Artsy collectors include Ayako Rokkaku, Katherine Bernhardt, Hilary Pecis, Inès Longevial, Annie Morris, Claire Tabouret, Tania Marmolejo, Lauren Quin, and Nina Chanel Abney.
Rokkaku is also the most-followed artist on Artsy in this category (21,800 at the time of writing), and is at the top of the list when it comes to the number of lots that went to auction in 2022, with 74 works; followed by Shara Hughes, with 55 works; and Caroline Walker, with 32 works. Hughes leads the way when it comes to the total value of works sold at auction last year, with a total of $28.39 million; followed by Rokkaku, with $16.15 million; and Singer, whose 12 works that sold at auction amounted to $16.12 million. Yukhnovich and María Berrío are the next highest-ranking artists on that list.
When looking at the artists whose works sold at least five times at auction last year, Berrío also has the greatest median price realized, at $1.159 million. The next highest median prices belong to Quarles ($643,190), Jadé Fadojutimi ($554,496), Ewa Juszkiewicz ($506,908), and Lucy Bull ($478,800).
Key names to know
While the artists mentioned above are now firmly established on the secondary market, here we highlight three ultra-contemporary talents who have shown multiple signs of market momentum but have not yet had major moments at auction.
B. 1984, San Francisco. Lives and works in Easton, Connecticut.
Tammy Nguyen’s incisive, thoughtful practice is two-pronged: On the one hand, we see dazzling mixed-media paintings on paper stretched over panel, often featuring finely detailed ecosystems of flora and fauna, finished with glints of metal leaf. On the other is the artist’s robust imprint, Passenger Pigeon Press, as well as singular artist books that can be found in many of the U.S.’s most esteemed art libraries. Both take an original, research-driven look at past events and phenomena that resonate with politics and social issues of the present and future—from the historic Afro-Asian Bandung Conference during the Cold War; to the brightly colored red-shanked douc langur, an endangered monkey in Laos, Vietnam, and Cambodia.
From 2021 to 2022, the number of inquirers placing interest in Nguyen’s works on Artsy more than doubled; and during the same time period, her new followers grew by some 69%.
Over the past several years, Nguyen has been showing steadily at galleries and institutions across the United States, as well as in Ho Chi Minh City and Tokyo. A major milestone came in 2021, when the artist was featured in MoMA PS1’s Greater New York quinquennial.
Lehmann Maupin began representing Nguyen in spring 2022, and will open a trio of solo shows over the next three years: “A Comedy of Mortals” opens in Seoul on March 23rd, inspired by Dante’s Inferno; followed by shows in London in 2024 and New York in 2025.
In 2022, Nguyen had solo shows at the Brooklyn Public Library in New York, Nichido Contemporary Art in Tokyo, and François Ghebaly in Los Angeles, as well as a presentation with Tropical Futures Institute at SEA Focus in Singapore. She also took part in the Berlin Biennale, as well as 2022 group shows across New York at Jeffrey Deitch, Lyles and King, and the Thomas J. Watson Library of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, along with Galerie Marguo in Paris.
B. 1975, Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic. Lives and works in New York.
Tania Marmolejo’s striking paintings of large, wide-eyed faces seem to be cropping up everywhere recently, though the artist’s momentum has been building since the early 2000s. She started her career in illustration working for a fashion and lifestyle magazine, before creating characters and graphics for brands including MTV, Hyperion/Disney, and Scholastic Books. In 2005, she started focusing on her art practice, and began to show internationally, gaining renown at art fairs, and particularly in her home country, the Dominican Republic. Along the way, Marmolejo has designed textiles for major retailers and published a series of children’s books.
Galleries and auctions worldwide have taken notice. While the Dominican gallery Lyle O. Reitzel has been showing Marmolejo for a decade, in 2022 she had solo and group shows with Volery Gallery, Eligere Gallery, GR Gallery, Nicodim, Galerie Hussenot, and Cohle Gallery. This year, she is due to open solo exhibitions at Eligere Gallery in Seoul on March 23rd; Villazan in Madrid in May; and Loyal in Stockholm in June.
From 2021 to 2022, the growth in inquirers on Marmolejo’s works on Artsy increased by 127%, and the number of new followers over that time more than doubled. Nine paintings by the artist went to auction in 2022, all of which exceeded estimates, with the artist’s current auction set by the 2020 canvas I Always Come Back Here, which sold for HK$693,000 (US$88,285) at a Sotheby’s contemporary day sale in Hong Kong last October.
B. 1987, Lancaster, Pennsylvania. Lives and works in Philadelphia.
Born in Pennsylvania Dutch country, Anne Buckwalter infuses her crisp paintings with the traditional interiors and furniture she grew up around, yet these domestic scenes are often anchored by clever hints of voyeurism, whether it’s sex toys lined up on an table, porn streaming from a TV at the very edge of the canvas, or a nude body appearing in a mirror or out the window. Painted with fine detail and without any rules of perspective, Buckwalter’s work becomes about looking for clues and imagining narratives to fit these sweet yet sultry scenes.
The number of Artsy collectors placing inquiries on Buckwalter’s work more than doubled from 2021 to 2022; during the same time period, the artist’s new followers grew by 344%. In 2023 thus far, the artist is among the top 25 ultra-contemporary women artists whose works are attracting the most inquirers on Artsy.
Buckwalter is represented by a quartet of esteemed galleries across three U.S. cities: Rachel Uffner Gallery in New York; Micki Meng and Rebecca Camacho Presents in San Francisco; and Pentimenti Gallery in Philadelphia. While she’s had solo shows with all four galleries since 2021, many collectors became aware of Buckwalter last May during the New York art fairs, when her work appeared with Rachel Uffner at Frieze, and with Pentimenti Gallery at Future Fair.
Buckwalter’s works are currently featured in group shows at Office Baroque in Antwerp and the Institute of Contemporary Art at Maine College of Art & Design. She will also have a two-person show at Andrea Festa Fine Art in Rome in April, and solo shows at Rachel Uffner in New York this September and at Pentimenti Gallery in Philadelphia this November.
Key names to watch
Here, we feature three artists who are experiencing strong momentum and are currently featured among the top 75 of all ultra-contemporary artists garnering inquiries from collectors on Artsy in 2023 thus far. That list is led by prominent artists including Amoako Boafo, Louis Fratino, Nicolas Party, and Cristina BanBan.
Li Hei Di
B. 1997, Shenyang, China. Lives and works in London.
The young Chinese artist Li Hei Di is in the midst of a swift rise. In November, L.A.’s Kohn Gallery started representing the artist, and this past January, she joined the roster of London’s Pippy Houldsworth Gallery, too. Currently, her work is featured in a group show at Gagosian in Hong Kong, titled “Uncanny Valley,” curated by Yang Zi.
A 2022 grad from the MFA painting program at London’s Royal College of Art, Li Hei Di is working in a dazzling style that straddles abstraction and representation. The artist’s lush brushstrokes meld together renderings of plant life, the night sky, and at times, the body.
B. 1988, London. Lives and works in Sydney.
Mia Middleton’s tightly cropped, often square renderings of slices of the everyday—whether it’s a lone red balloon, or a swatch of a plush sofa—are drawing attention. Though the works recall peers like Issy Wood (particularly her portrayals of leather jackets), Middleton has focused on a small scale, which speaks to a wave of painters who are challenging the notion that large paintings are the be-all and end-all of their medium.
In addition to the aforementioned list, Middleton’s works have landed the artist among the top 25 ultra-contemporary women artists with the most inquirers on Artsy this year so far. This comes ahead of the artist’s forthcoming solo show at Roberts Projects, opening in L.A. on April 22nd.
Middleton recently held solo exhibitions at PM/AM in London, COMA Gallery in Sydney, and PPP in the U.K. She was also featured in two-person and group exhibitions in 2022 at Haydens Gallery in Melbourne, 107 Projects in Sydney, In Lieu Gallery in L.A., Marlborough Gallery in London, No Gallery in New York, Cob Gallery in London, PM/AM in London, and Like a Little Disaster in Italy.
B. 1996, Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. Lives and works in Riyadh.
Following solo shows with Kohn Gallery in Los Angeles last fall, and with Hafez Gallery in Jeddah in the spring, Alia Ahmad’s new followers on Artsy grew a whopping 2,338% from 2021 to 2022, and she is currently among the top 10 ultra-contemporary women artists with the most inquiries in 2023 to date.
Ahmad’s abstract paintings re-envision landscapes; her vigorous brushstrokes are inspired by her own memories, as well as those of her family and her community in Riyadh. After earning a BA in digital culture from King’s College in London, in 2019, the artist finished a master’s of research in fine arts from London’s Royal College of Art in 2020. Ahmad had her debut solo show in 2021 at Gallery BAWA in Kuwait City.
Correction: An earlier version of this article misstated the period during which auction sales of ultra-contemporary women artists’ work have grown. Sales have grown by $4,071% since 2012, not since 2022.