2 More
Unquestioning Love: An Auction to Benefit the New York City AIDS Memorial


signed and dated 'Dana Schutz 2021' (on the reverse)
oil on canvas
72 x 48 in. (182.9 x 121.9 cm.)
Painted in 2021.
Courtesy of the artist and David Zwirner, New York
Further details
This lot is being sold by a charitable organization with proceeds intended to benefit New York City AIDS Memorial and a US taxpayer may be able to claim a deduction for any amount of the purchase price paid in excess of the mid-estimate.

Brought to you by

Ana Maria Celis
Ana Maria Celis Head of Department

Lot Essay

Noted for her dynamically introspective oeuvre, Dana Schutz has become one of the preeminent painters working in figurative abstraction today. Smokers is a feverish example of the artist’s ability to combine representational subjects with a supple application of thick, energetic brushstrokes. Figures and creatures intertwine in a mass of dripping lines and impasto color. Though known for the psychological content of her canvases from the beginning, the artist’s recent works have become even more emotionally charged as the real world has filtered into the space of the picture plane. Focusing on issues of social justice, climate change, and equality, her dynamic paintings often integrate art historical references with contemporary issues. Her more recent paintings are a testament to this newfound awareness and are illustrative of “the heightened, frenzied self-awareness [...] that distinguishes much of Schutz’s work…” (T. Denman, “The Self-Awareness That Haunts Artist Dana Schutz’s New Paintings,” ArtReview, Nov. 16, 2020). Paintings like Smokers point toward this new direction and mix canonical references to composition and lighting with the artist’s signature unique style.

Rendered in a flurry of emotive brushstrokes and a combination of fleshy tones and acid color, Smokers, in simple terms, depicts two figures. Expanding outward, we note the confluence of the two bodies with each other as well as they begin merging with the overall scene. Set amidst a blue-green backdrop with a vibrant dot of a moon in the upper left, the two subjects light and smoke cigarettes while dogs writhe about their bare, sinuous legs. The ground is nearly inscrutable but seems to contain other animals and objects that wiggle and squirm in a volatile mass. The two people have large heads and downcast eyes with clearly defined noses and lips that emerge from the paint in profile. Their hair and clothes mix with the smoke from the cigarettes they are lighting, and the small flame between them casts a warm hue on the center of the composition.

“I don’t write out stories, in the way a writer would; the situations are very loose,” notes Schutz about her subject matter, “I never want the viewer to have to know the whole story to ‘get’ the painting. What you see is what you get. If it’s a painting of a person eating their hands, they’re eating their hands. Often I will invent hypothetical situations that can act as surrogate situations for conditions that I am thinking about and that I always feel are logical.” (D. Schutz, quoted in M. Chin, “Dana Schutz,” BOMB Magazine, Spring 2006). That said, the present example does not stem entirely from Schutz’s imagination. Instead, the image of two figures huddled around a flickering flame has origins in the masterpieces of the Spanish Renaissance painter known as El Greco. Particularly, the circa 1580 oil on canvas work Fable shows two men and a mischievous monkey encircling a glowing ember. The central figure blows on the ash to keep the fire lit while the other two look on. In Schutz’s composition, the dogs stand-in for the monkey while the two men crowd around the light in this historical allusion to classical works and Mannerist lighting effects.

“I don’t write out stories, in the way a writer would; the situations are very loose. I never want the viewer to have to know the whole story to ‘get’ the painting.”Dana Schutz

Visual and psychological tension are an essential part of Schutz’s oeuvre. Figures blur into the background and compositional elements leap with frantic energy. Not just beholden to dynamic subjects, the artist works with the dynamic juxtaposition of illusionistic space and the very structure upon which she paints. “I am always aware of the framing edge,” she noted in an interview. “I think of it as a real thing that the subject can push off against, that it has a real tension. These become even more structured within their format. I think about the painting by asking, ‘How does this thing exist in the space?’ There is the deep space of the painting and there is also the actual space of the rectangle that it’s on. I constantly go back and forth between the two” (D. Schutz, in conversation with R. Enright, Border Crossings, NO. 134, May 2015). By leveraging the picture plane and its inherent flatness, Schutz is able to set up a visual foil that her subjects can react to and press into. Almost every part of the composition in Untitled is at the immediate foreground. The ground plane tilts forward as it threatens to spill figures, animals, and painted detritus into the viewer’s physical space. Embracing this sense of unease in her subjects and style, Schutz evokes a real emotional response that entices the viewer while simultaneously putting them on edge.

More from 21st Century Evening Sale

View All
View All