Hugh Steers

Hugh Steers (1962–1995) was born in Washington, DC, and trained in painting at Yale University and Parsons School of Art and Design. He was celebrated for his allegorical paintings that captured the emotional and political tenor of New York in the late 1980s and early 1990s, particularly the impact of Queer identity and the AIDS crisis. He maintained a commitment to figuration throughout his career, cut dramatically short by AIDS at the age of 32. Influenced by historical figures of American art, including Thomas Eakins, Edward Hopper, and Paul Cadmus, he embraced representational painting and figuration at a time when such approaches were especially unfashionable.

Steers described his artistic perspective in an interview in September 1992: “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. They all have that soft glow of brutality.”

Steers rendered intimate scenes that embraced the polemics of identity politics, mortality issues, erotism, and frailty. His compositions are distinguished by a dramatic and colorful palette, skewed use of perspective, and a masterful depiction of light. His painting took a departure from the more didactic work of his peers. During the last five years of his artistic practice he introduced a fictive alter ego, a slender figure wearing a hospital gown, as he focused his compositions on AIDS as a subject matter. His scenes draw on community experience and his own imagination to create dreamlike allegory intermixed with figurative realism. The resulting images amplify issues of mortality and isolation, defiance, and compassion.

His work has been exhibited at Whitney Museum of American Art, New York (2013); New Museum of Contemporary Art (1994); Richard Anderson, New York (1992); Midtown Galleries, New York (1992); Denver Art Museum, CO (1991); Albright-Knox Gallery, Buffalo, NY (1988); and the Drawing Center, New York (1987); among others. Steers’ work is in private and public art collections such as the Whitney Museum of American Art, the Walker Art Center, and the Denver Art Museum. In 1989, Steers received a Pollock-Krasner Foundation Fellowship. His work will be featured in the exhibition Art AIDS America curated by Jonathan Katz and Rock Hushka at the Tacoma Art Museum, WA in September 2015. A forthcoming comprehensive monographic catalogue of Steers’ work will be published by Visual AIDS in 2015.

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