Dana Schutz - 20th Century & Contemporary Art Evening Sale London Tuesday, October 20, 2020 | Phillips

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  • Overview

    Replete with pictorial intricacies and conceptual paradoxes, Dana Schutz’s paintings are a snapshot of contemporary life. They are at once evident and enigmatic – containing all the power of painterly evocation, whilst at the same time engaging with real life events. Devised in larger-than-life dimensions and immersed in a kaleidoscopic array of colour, Trump Descending an Escalator embodies such stylistic ingenuity. On the one hand, the eponymous protagonist is bestowed with instantly recognisable traits; on the other, the background against which he is set recedes into lush abstraction, emanating flurries of blue, purple and green strokes, dotted with round patches of white paint. Painted in 2017, the same year Donald Trump assumed office as President of the United States, the composition motions back to the decisive instant that presaged the politician’s meteoric rise to power in America and beyond. As elucidated by the work’s title, the scene specifically portrays Trump’s descent from his titular Tower on the day he first announced his presidential campaign. Though at the time this moment seemed to carry only moderate importance, the event subsequently became anchored in history, pinpointing the exact moment when Trump – a then famous actor, reality TV presentor and realtor – stepped into the world of politics.

    'To make a painting with people and things is not just ‘subjective whatever-ness.’ It’s who we are and where we come from and can parallel the world, not just in a fictional or allegorical way, but also structurally. And paintings and images can feel so real! They can act as agents in the world.' —Dana SchutzFollowing from Schutz’s idiosyncratic tendency to address historical and, at times, provocative subject matters, Trump Descending an Escalator forms part of an extensive art-historical tradition of political portraiture that includes Andy Warhol, Robert Rauschenberg and Kehinde Wiley’s instantly iconic representations of Chairman Mao, John F. Kennedy and Barack Obama. With its distinct subject matter, Trump Descending an Escalator moreover heralds a symbol that marries the solemnity of American politics with the gloss and energy of the country’s cultural arena, epitomising Schutz’s fascination with the ambivalent phenomenon of fame, which she had previously explored in painterly renditions of Michael Jackson and George W. Bush. Testament to her cornerstone status within the canon of contemporary art, Schutz is currently having her first-ever solo exhibition in London at Thomas Dane Gallery, which will run from 16 September to 19 December 2020.

  • Political Portraiture in Contemporary Art

  • Schutz’s ‘Very True’ Paintings


    Though the first presentation of Schutz’s work occurred whilst she was studying at Columbia University, and the curator Klaus Biesenbach included one of her painted portraits in a group show at MoMA PS1 in 2001, the artist’s creative sensibility can be traced back to her adolescence, when, at the age of seventeen, her mother gave her access to the basement of their home, and taught her how to stretch a canvas. ‘It was like turning a switch’, Schutz’s mother recalled. ‘She would be down in the basement for hours and hours, sometimes through the night’.i  As she grew into her craft, Schutz’s foremost inspirations became artists such as Cecily Brown, Laura Owens, John Currin, and Nicole Eisenman — ‘painterly painters, who were in short supply at the time’.ii Incorporating stylistic allusions to their work within her compositions, Schutz nonetheless transcended referential imagery as she began forging a unique, grandiloquent, and at times grotesque aesthetic that distinguished itself as distinctly her own. Her paintings were ‘different from anything I had seen recently’, Biesenbach said; ‘not exactly beautiful, but very true. I said at the time, here is an artist who bridges the cartoonist and the social realist, but she does it in a very American way that really captures the human condition’.iii 


    Donald Trump in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction


    In Trump Descending an Escalator, Schutz channeled a facetious spirit that she had already employed in previous painterly formulations, exploring a subject matter’s innate and immediate iconic quality, denoted largely by its ambivalence, incongruity and imperiousness. This new, daring body of work emerged as a response to 9/11, Schutz explained, when the artist began viewing her earlier subject matter as trivial, and felt a need to deepen the nature of her figurative content. By employing bold, declarative colours – most vividly exemplified by the gleaming yellow escalator emulating the gold escalator down which Trump descended – Schutz propels Trump Descending an Escalator within a quasi-fantastical realm that eludes spatio- temporal specificity. In doing so, the artist reconciles real world contradictions with creative, literary, and painterly concerns, crystallising a real-life moment and subliming its most memorable components. One such detail she fleshes out from the scene is the ubiquitous presence of flash that dominated Trump’s announcement of his presidential run. In Trump Descending an Escalator, Schutz transforms the myriad lights surrounding him into painterly spots of white paint, and associates the cascading blues, greens and purples with the lavish movement of the waterfalls affixed to his Tower’s grand walls. Together, these pictorial elements heighten the visual frenzy that a viewer may have subconsciously associated to the event, and transcend the scene’s true contours.


    Image from The Simpsons, 2000, FOX.
    Image from The Simpsons, 2000, FOX.

    In this sense, Schutz capitalises on the multiple lives of an image – typically induced by its perpetual rehashing in print media and online – and creates a narrative that exists both within the confines of the frame and beyond. Within the present work, she takes inspiration from the truth and twists it slightly, imbuing the scene with enhanced chromatic dynamism, exacting geometry and physical grandeur. In its blend of iconographic familiarity and artistic agency, Trump Descending an Escalator most compellingly echoes Warhol’s proliferating portraits of Mao and Rauschenberg’s multi-layered rendition of John F. Kennedy – the three compositions uniting in their common production of a striking and deeply memorable image, taking an iconic, world-famous subject matter, and subsequently endowing it with idiosyncratic artistic techniques (in Schutz’s case, a markedly expressive thrust). Caught within the spirit of its time, Trump Descending an Escalator depicts the connection between the meandering developments of mankind and the commercial portrayal of historical events. Notably, the composition summons further pop culture associations in the distinct environment it delineates both compositionally and in its title – most remarkably, the politician’s entrance via an escalator incurred a resurgence of footage from an old episode of The Simpsons, which seemingly presaged the scene as early as 2000. Initially a way of navigating Schutz’s own feelings of a Trump administration at the time of the results, Trump Descending an Escalator subsequently became the iconic epithet of a moment that changed the American political and cultural landscape.


    Trumping Art History


    Despite referencing an undeniably contemporary event in a no-less contemporary aesthetic, Trump Descending an Escalator exists within a lineage of painterly predecessors who were associated with such movements as expressionism, postwar German painting, and – in the composition’s angular instances – synthethic cubism. The work’s titular reference to Marcel Duchamp’s seminal Nude Descending a Staircase (No. 2), 1912, further cements Trump Descending an Escalator within an academic and comparative realm. On the one hand, the two compositions boast a similar use jagged lines to emulate a sense of activity and movement; on the other, they channel a conceptual flair that allows them to transcend the subject matters they represent, propelled to an extrinsic socio-political sphere. While Duchamp’s Nude Descending a Staircase (No. 2) had spured furore when it was first exhibited in New York in 1913, partly because no one had previously thought of a nude doing something as prosaic as coming down the stairs, Schutz’s composition similarly received significant, exuberant coverage when it was displayed at Petzel Gallery’s memorable We Need to Talk show, in 2017, alongside other works meditating on America’s transformed political climate. In the same way Nude Descending a Staircase (No. 2) associated shifting perspectives of a traditional subject with social and emotional change, Trump Descending an Escalator encapsulated the zeitgeist of a moment, when the world’s political arenas underwent a significant shift.'You see the subject in such a way that you mirror the space in front of the painting. Potentially, you feel this is a real person or a real thing, so I never think I’m being nice or mean, only that I’m engaging with this thing.' —Dana Schutz

    Art historically, Duchamp’s Nude Descending a Staircase furthermore summons a number of compositions that subsequently focused on the subject of the descending figure — namely Gerhard Richter, whose Ema (Nude on a Staircase), 1992, served as an homage to the artist’s seminal artwork, zooming in on his first wife coming down the stairs unclothed. Moving beyond Duchamp’s cubo-futurist composition, Ema (Nude on a Staircase) nonetheless remains drenched in Richter’s signature haziness — one that is comparable to Schutz’s own, as both of the portrayed protagonists’ backgrounds recede into quasi-abstraction. The analogy between these three works’ subject matter and their varying visual results furthermore attests to Schutz’s humorous and contrarian spirit, frequently inclined to place her depicted subjects in vulnerable positions. ‘One of the great qualities of Dana’s work is the caustic wit’, writes John Zeppetelli, director and former chief curator of the MAC, Montreal. ‘It’s this perfect sort of collision between hilarity and the grotesque, psychopathology and disfiguration, comedy and dread, all these kinds of things coming together. It’s really vital language’.iv

  • A Recurring Symbol in Art History

  • Dana Schutz’s mother, quoted in Calvin Tomkins, ‘Why Dana Schutz Painted Emett Till’, The New Yorker, 3 April 2017, online.
    ii Calvin Tomkins, ‘Why Dana Schutz Painted Emett Till’, The New Yorker, 3 April 2017, online.
    iii Klaus Biesenbach, quoted in Calvin Tomkins, ‘Why Dana Schutz Painted Emett Till’, The New Yorker, 3 April 2017, online.
    iv John Zeppetelli, quoted in Julia Felsenthal, ‘Artsplainer: Dana Schutz’s Paintings in New York and Montreal’, Vogue, 19 October 2015, online.

    • Provenance

      Petzel Gallery, New York
      Acquired from the above by the present owner in 2017

    • Exhibited

      New York, Petzel Gallery, We need to talk...Artists and the public respond to the present conditions in America, 7 January – 11 February 2017

    • Literature

      Calvin Tomkins, 'Why Dana Schutz Painted Emmet Till', The New Yorker, 3 April 2017, online
      Candice Hopkins, 'The Appropriation Debates', Mousse Magazine, no. 60, October - November 2017, p. 156 (illustrated)

Property from an Esteemed East Coast Collection


Trump Descending an Escalator

signed and dated ‘Dana Schutz 2017’ on the reverse
oil on canvas
223.5 x 190.5 cm (88 x 75 in.)
Painted in 2017.

Full Cataloguing

£380,000 - 580,000 

Sold for £688,000

Contact Specialist

Kate Bryan
Specialist, Head of Evening Sale
+44 20 7318 4026

20th Century & Contemporary Art Evening Sale

London Auction 20 October 2020