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Hugh Steers

Curated by Russell Tovey, Hugh Steers: Blue Towel, Red Tank is on view at the gallery's location in Paris from December 4, 2021 through January 29, 2022. The exhibition, which is presented in collaboration with Alexander Gray Associates, is the first show dedicated to the artist’s work in Europe.

Favoring an ardent figurative style considered démodé in his lifetime, the painter Hugh Steers (1962–1995) produced canvases that carried the lineage of American painting into the AIDS era. Steers himself was diagnosed HIV-positive in 1987 at the age of twenty-five, and he went on to create work that illustrated the physical and psychic spaces of sickness as well as the compassion shared among his circle.

Courtesy the Estate of Hugh Steers and Alexander Gray Associates, New York

Hugh Steers in his studio, New York, n.d.

Hugh Steers in his studio, New York, n.d.

“In a Hugh Steers painting we witness a sliver of daily existence with such authenticity and truth it vibrates.”

—Russell Tovey, 2021. Click here
 to read the full curatorial statement.

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Hugh Steers

Blue Towel, Red Tank, 1988
Oil on canvas
65 7/8 x 71 7/8 inches (167.6 x 182.7 cm)
Framed: 68 1/4 x 74 1/4 inches (173.5 x 188.5 cm)

Steers was born in 1962 in Washington, DC, into an American political dynasty that included his uncle Gore Vidal and the Kennedys. He developed an interest in drawing from an early age and, while still in boarding school in Connecticut, began to explore outside the boundaries of his cloistered life, taking weekend trips to New York City to dance at Studio 54 and experimenting with drag.

A detail from a photograph of Hugh with Rachel Resnick at their Yale graduation, dated May 1985. Photo courtesy Rachel Resnick

Hugh Steers with Rachel Resnick at their Yale graduation, May 1985 (detail). Photo courtesy Rachel Resnick

Hugh Steers with Rachel Resnick at their Yale graduation, May 1985 (detail). Photo courtesy Rachel Resnick

Steers studied art at Yale University, graduating cum laude in 1985. He moved to New York City the following day, and became a devotee of the queer nightlife scene, including Area and drag shows at the Pyramid Club. Following his diagnosis in 1987, Steers began imbuing his compositions with related symbols and motifs, putting hoods and paper bags over the heads of his figures or placing them in patient gowns.

A painting by Hugh Steers, titled Mouse and Bowl, dated 1988.

Hugh Steers

Mouse and Bowl, 1988
Oil on canvas
54 1/4 x 46 1/4 inches (137.7 x 117.5 cm)
Framed: 56 1/4 x 48 1/4 inches (143 x 122.5 cm)
A painting by Hugh Steers, titled Blue Drape, dated 1987.

Hugh Steers

Blue Drape, 1987
Oil on gessoed paper
15 x 11 1/4 inches (38.1 x 28.5 cm)
Framed: 20 3/4 x 16 3/4 inches (52.8 x 42.7 cm)
A painting by Hugh Steers, titled Orange Bathmat, dated 1987.

Hugh Steers

Orange Bathmat, 1987
Oil on gessoed paper
15 x 11 1/8 inches (38.1 x 28.2 cm)
Framed: 20 3/4 x 16 3/4 inches (52.8 x 42.7 cm)

“I think I’m in the tradition of a certain kind of American artist—artists whose work embodies a certain gorgeous bleakness. Edward Hopper, Jackson Pollock, Franz Kline—they all had this austere beauty to them. They found beauty in the most brutal forms. I think that’s what characterizes America, the atmosphere, its culture, its cities and landscape.”

—Hugh Steers, 1992

An installation view of an exhibition titled, High Steers: Blue Towel, Red Tank, at David Zwirner, Paris, in 2021.

Installation view, Hugh Steers: Blue Towel, Red Tank, David Zwirner, Paris, 2021

Installation view, Hugh Steers: Blue Towel, Red Tank, David Zwirner, Paris, 2021

An installation view of an exhibition titled, High Steers: Blue Towel, Red Tank, at David Zwirner, Paris, in 2021.

Installation view, Hugh Steers: Blue Towel, Red Tank, David Zwirner, Paris, 2021

Installation view, Hugh Steers: Blue Towel, Red Tank, David Zwirner, Paris, 2021

An installation view of an exhibition titled, High Steers: Blue Towel, Red Tank, at David Zwirner, Paris, in 2021.

Installation view, Hugh Steers: Blue Towel, Red Tank, David Zwirner, Paris, 2021

Installation view, Hugh Steers: Blue Towel, Red Tank, David Zwirner, Paris, 2021

Inspired also by French masters such as Édouard Vuillard and Pierre Bonnard, Steers imbued his classical compositions with the emotional intimacy that characterized his freewheeling queer community.

“[I aim] to draw the viewer in through the lure of a comfortingly recognizable style and then confront him with a subject matter of a challenging nature.”

—Hugh Steers, 1992

A painting by Hugh Steers, titled Yellow Pillow, dated 1988.

Hugh Steers

Yellow Pillow, 1988
Oil on canvas
55 1/2 x 71 7/8 inches (140.9 x 182.8 cm)
Framed: 57 3/4 x 74 1/8 inches (146.6 x 188.2 cm)

Steers’s first solo exhibition was organized by Osuna Gallery, in Washington, DC, in 1989. After seeing several sketches by the artist in a Drawing Center group show in 1987, Priscilla Greene invited Steers to show at Midtown Galleries, where he had his first New York solo exhibition in 1990.

A painting by Hugh Steers, titled Long Black Skirt, dated 1992.

Hugh Steers

Long Black Skirt, 1992
Oil on canvas
71 7/8 x 58 1/8 inches (182.8 x 147.6 cm)
Framed: 74 3/8 x 60 3/8 inches (189 x 153.4 cm)
A painting by Hugh Steers, titled Red Face Cloth, dated 1989.

Hugh Steers

Red Face Cloth, 1989
Oil on canvas
45 5/8 x 66 1/2 inches (115.8 x 168.9 cm)
Framed: 48 1/8 x 68 1/2 inches (122.3 x 174 cm)

“Steers’s work showcases how intimacy, in particular the intimacy performed in domestic spaces, can be transformed into an activist gesture. When queer life is threatened, not only does sex become radical, but so does a quiet embrace while making your morning coffee.”

Emily Colucci, 2018

Steers outside his apartment in Alphabet City, New York, n.d. Photo courtesy Erin. N Marcus

Hugh Steers outside his apartment in Alphabet City, New York, n.d. Photos courtesy Erin. N Marcus

Hugh Steers outside his apartment in Alphabet City, New York, n.d. Photos courtesy Erin. N Marcus

“New York City’s cramped tenement apartments were the standard setting.… Within these intimate environs, Steers most often depicted male figures—alone or in pairs—in various states of solemn embrace and ailing woe.… The queer identity and intimacy that was burgeoning amid the devastating impact of AIDS informed the radiant yet melancholic aura of Steers’s impressive body of work.”

—Alex Fialho, Artforum, 2015

A detail from a painting by Hugh Steers titled Two Chairs, dated 1993

Hugh Steers, Two Chairs, 1993 (detail)

Hugh Steers, Two Chairs, 1993 (detail)

“Steers’s painting … is carried by operatic flair and cinematic strategies—scenes viewed from high overhead or up from below—that create a sense of inescapable enclosure. Even the plainest of these little rooms is adorned with baroque swags of rich fabric, appropriate to an art that was staging the sovereign emotions—fear, defiance, love and regret—of a desperate time.”

—Holland Cotter, The New York Times , 2013

 
A painting by Hugh Steers, titled Handshake, dated 1989.

Hugh Steers

Handshake, 1989
Oil on gessoed paper
15 x 11 1/4 inches (38.1 x 28.5 cm)
Framed: 20 3/4 x 16 3/4 inches (52.8 x 42.7 cm)
Installation view of the exhibition titled I, YOU, WE at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York, dated 2013. Photo by Sheldan C. Collins

Installation view, I, YOU, WE, Whitney Museum of American Art, New York,  2013. Photo by Sheldan C. Collins

Installation view, I, YOU, WE, Whitney Museum of American Art, New York,  2013. Photo by Sheldan C. Collins

“I … try to stay clear of any notions that art is uncovering some sort of truth or that it’s revealing your consciousness. I think instead that a truth and a consciousness are being created with each painting.”

—Hugh Steers, 1992

A painting by Hugh Steers, titled Fallen Armoire, dated 1990.

Hugh Steers

Fallen Armoire, 1990
Oil on paper
14 7/8 x 11 1/4 inches (37.7 x 28.6 cm)
Framed: 20 3/4 x 16 3/4 inches (52.8 x 42.7 cm)
An installation view of an exhibition titled, High Steers: Blue Towel, Red Tank, at David Zwirner, Paris, in 2021.

Installation view, Hugh Steers: Blue Towel, Red Tank, David Zwirner, Paris, 2021

Installation view, Hugh Steers: Blue Towel, Red Tank, David Zwirner, Paris, 2021

An installation view of an exhibition titled, High Steers: Blue Towel, Red Tank, at David Zwirner, Paris, in 2021.

Installation view, Hugh Steers: Blue Towel, Red Tank, David Zwirner, Paris, 2021

Installation view, Hugh Steers: Blue Towel, Red Tank, David Zwirner, Paris, 2021

An installation view of an exhibition titled, High Steers: Blue Towel, Red Tank, at David Zwirner, Paris, in 2021.

Installation view, Hugh Steers: Blue Towel, Red Tank, David Zwirner, Paris, 2021

Installation view, Hugh Steers: Blue Towel, Red Tank, David Zwirner, Paris, 2021

A painting by Hugh Steers, titled Two Chairs, dated 1993.

Hugh Steers

Two Chairs, 1993
Oil on canvas
71 7/8 x 63 1/4 inches (182.6 x 160.5 cm)
Framed: 74 3/8 x 65 1/2 inches (189 x 166.4 cm)

“It’s like conjuring.… It’s as if painting it will make it become real. That painting a man holding another man is conjuring that tenderness, that hope that someone will still care about you and will be there. It’s like wishful thinking, a kind of touchstone for those who are traumatized by the same situations. They can see it and say: someone else has been there.”

—Hugh Steers, 1992

Hugh Steers, 1982. Photo by Nicola Goode.

Hugh Steers, 1982 (detail). Photo by Nicola Goode

Hugh Steers, 1982 (detail). Photo by Nicola Goode

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