Hugh Steers - New Now London Thursday, July 13, 2023 | Phillips
  •  “I see my work at its best proffering no answers but posing a flood of questions. The results are frequently quite disturbing but in much the same way I experience life. Giving form to these questions may not further my understanding, but it does make them less threatening.”
    —Hugh Steers


    Made just two years after the artist’s HIV diagnosis at the age of twenty-five, Hugh Steers’ Clipboard and Heels balances more complex compositional elements with a highly charged palette, energising this ambiguous scene with a heightened sense of drama. A man stands pressed towards the wall to the left, his arm raised across his shirtless chest in a defensive gesture as his exposed legs, heeled shoes and tightly fitted skirt all reinforcing a sense of vulnerability as he cowers in front of the second, suited figure who seems to be recording their exchange on a clipboard.


    Allegorical and highly ambiguous, Steers’ paintings incite more questions than answers, encouraging viewers to sensitively tap into the lived experiences the artist portrays. In the case of Clipboard and Heels, and, as in most of his work, we are guided towards the underbelly of the fragmenting queer scene of 1980s New York. The isolation and vulnerability of the partially-clothed man presents a rich visual metaphor for the fear and AIDS epidemic and the plight of its victims, a point further emphasised by the leaden black book, inviting themes of mortality, apprehension, and despair into the tense interior space.


    El Greco, The Holy Trinity, oil on canvas, 1577-79, Prado Museum, Madrid,

    Embracing representation at a time when it was unfashionable, Steers combined different practices from the Western canon to ‘draw the viewer in through the lure of a comfortingly recognisable style and then confront him with subject matter of a challenging nature.’i The maroon curtain, which adds an element of the theatrical to Clipboard and Heels, ties the painting to the Baroque period, a quality which is enhanced by the limited palette and ochre tones which echo the work of Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio. The left-hand figure’s asymmetrical pose and elongated arms mirror those of El Greco’s Christ figure in The Holy Trinity, whilst the intimate composition and imbalanced tiled flooring reference the flat planes of perspective witnessed in the work of Édouard Vuillard. But as these stylistic qualities attract us, so do they deceive us. The pose of Steers’ figure communicates discomfort rather than the classical grace seen in El Greco’s Jesus, and the crooked flooring only escalates the composition’s more vertiginous qualities. In this way, Steers manipulates the painting tradition to his effect as he applies it to the experience of his own time. His delicately direct works are heartrending yet vague in their specificity. Like so they capture what Steers called the ‘soft glow of brutality’ - life during the AIDS epidemic.ii


    In the short seven years between his diagnosis and death – he passed away from AIDS-related complications at the age of thirty-two – Steers managed to create a highly sophisticated and mature body of work which interpreted the emotional and physical experience of the AIDS epidemic to a society which largely misunderstood the disease. Highly affecting in the poignant union between symbolism and a classical handling of paint, works such as Clipboard and Heel leave us ‘wondering what he would have done next.’iii But the artist’s message lives on; his paintings have featured in recent AIDS-themed exhibitions such as Every Moment Counts—AIDS and its Feelings at Henie Onstad Kunstsenter, Norway, in 2022, and his presence can be felt in a younger generation of artists, the likes of Doron Langberg, who are also returning to figuration to explore the queer identity and experience.


    i Hugh Steers quoted in, Hugh Steers, Paul Floss, Hugh Steers: the flaws of hospitality, New York, 1990, p. 8

    ii Alex Fialho, ‘Hugh Steers: Alexander Gray Associates’, Artforum, April 2015, available online.

    iii Alex Fialho, ‘Hugh Steers: Alexander Gray Associates’, Artforum, April 2015, available online.

    • Provenance

      Midtown Payson Galleries, New York
      Peter Ahnberg and Ann Kristin Johannesdottir Collection (acquired from the above in the early 1990s)
      Acquired from the above by the present owner in 2002

    • Literature

      Barbara Schröder and Karen Kelly, eds., Hugh Steers: The Complete Paintings, 1983-1994, New York, 2015, no. CR262, p. 208 (illustrated)


Clipboard and Heels

signed, titled and dated '"Clipboard & Heels" Hugh Steers '89' on the reverse
oil on canvas
177.5 x 156.2 cm (69 7/8 x 61 1/2 in.)
Painted in 1989.

Full Cataloguing

£30,000 - 50,000 

Sold for £21,590

Contact Specialist

Charlotte Gibbs
Associate Specialist, Head of New Now
+44 20 7901 7993

New Now

London Auction 13 July 2023