Dana Schutz: her journey to auction fame

When Dana Schutz presented her first solo show in 2002 at LFL gallery, she had little idea that her paintings would reach sky-high prices at auction a decade later. And yet, at that time, her works already had the same evocative power that has attracted museums, collectors and investors alike in the last few years. So, how did Schutz go from a confidential Brooklyn-based figurative painter to the new star of contemporary art evening auctions?

Dana Schutz was born in a Detroit suburb in 1976. An only child, she started painting like her mother, who was an amateur artist, before attending art classes at the prestigious Columbia University in New York. After graduating in 2002, she launched her career with her first solo show called « Frank from observation », which was soon met with critical acclaim.

One of Dana Schutz's paintings from her first show, "Frank from Observation"

The works exhibited during this show already illustrated the artist’s exceptionally mature style, which stands halfway between synthetic cubism and German expressionism, as well as her taste for ‘metanarratives’, a word she uses to describe the underlying stories that bind her paintings together. Indeed, this exhibition was based on the observation of a fictional man called Frank in a parallel universe where he is the only survivor alongside the painter herself.


Dana Schutz told the story of this man in his post-apocalyptic world through a series of bucolic portraits and paintings of ‘hallucinatory arrangements of objects, mirages and visions of transitory events’, according to her own words. After the show, The painter kept creating surrealistic scenes where objects melt into each other while strange characters stand in the middle of the mess.


The artist’s much talked-about first exhibition led her to participate in Francesco Bonami’s clandestine section during the 2003 edition of Venice Biennale. A year later some of her works were exhibited in prestigious galleries such as Saatchi and Perrotin, and the painter ended up presenting new paintings during Greater New York, a quinquennial show organized by MoMa PS1, in 2005.


A black protestor standing in front of Dana Schutz's Open Casket painting

Despite her traditional influences, Schutz remains a contemporary artist deeply rooted in her time, sometimes to her disadvantage. Indeed, her 2016 painting “Open casket” which represents the disfigured face of Emmett Till, a 14-year-old black boy who was lynched and killed by two white men in the 1950’s, caused considerable controversy during the 2017 Whitney Museum Biennial. Although the painter had created this work as a support to the social movement against gun violence in the US, especially towards African American people, it was really badly received by black activists, who accused her of cultural appropriation and even called for the destruction of the work.


"Reformers" was acquired for $605,000 at Phillips New York in 2014

This incident had a great impact on Dana Schutz. However, it was not enough to hinder the continuous growth of her market, which had already begun a decade earlier. Indeed, the artist crossed the $100,000 mark at auction for the first time in 2007, where one of her paintings sold for $288,000 at Christie’s New York. The record was broken a second time in 2012, after 2 successful shows at Miami and Denver Art Museums, with a $482,500 canvas acquired at Phillips, following 5 years of relative stagnation.


Her market took off again from 2012 to 2017, as her prices soon reached $500,000, and even more in 2014, with the sale of a $605,000 canvas. But her prices only reached sky-high figures in 2019, following her critically acclaimed exhibitions at Cleveland Museum of Art in 2018 and Petzel Gallery in early 2019, where her new paintings have earned her a series of glowing articles in the press.

"Civil Planning" triggered a bidding war at Sotheby's New York last May. It was eventually sold for a whopping $2,42 million.

The painter’s three auctions records were broken this year, the first of which was made with the much talked-about sale of her 2004 monumental painting « Civil Planning » for a whopping $2.42 million at Sotheby’s New York last May. On the same day, another canvas was acquired at Phillips for $980,000.


"Moonwalker" sold for $855,730 at Phillips London last June

On June 27th, a 2019 painting called ‘Moonwalker’ confirmed these prices by selling for a respectable $855,730 at Phillips London.


Dana Schutz undoubtedly has a bright future ahead, as the artist has become one of the most prominent figures of the new figurative art scene which has emerged recently, and ranks among the most successful female artists of her generation. Throughout her almost 2-decade-long career, the artist has created her own recognizable style halfway between tradition and innovation, which has opened the doors for her to some of the most prestigious museums and private collections around the world, such as the MoMa, the Guggenheim or the Whitney Museum.

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