featured gallery for December 2009

That Soft Glow of Brutality: The Art of Hugh Steers

"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 Pollack, Franz Klein -- 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."Hugh Steers in conversation with Erich Conrad, QW Magazine, September 1992

Have you ever had a person in your life who, though on the farthest edges of your social universe, manages to unknowingly exert a tremendous pull on your imagination? The figurative painter, Hugh Steers, who died of AIDS in 1995, was one of those people for me.

Hugh and I were contemporaries, although we were orbiting the art world at very different speeds. When I first became aware of him in the mid-1980s, it wasn't for his prodigious talent -- though his star was certainly on the rise -- but for his physical beauty. I spotted him at a gym in SoHo and, although I didn't have any idea who he was, I was almost instantly smitten with him. He was pale and lithe, and he burned a little coolly; pretty much the opposite of my type. There was a patrician aura about him that was surprisingly intriguing to me and I invested him with traits that were as preposterous as they were unfounded. Too shy to approach him directly, I preferred to keep a furtive eye on him, something I continued to do sporadically over the next decade.

In April of 1988, I opened a copy of Interview Magazine and discovered that I was not the only one who was watching Hugh. In a profile by Colin Eisler, I discovered that Hugh Steers was a young artist, three years out of Yale's MFA program and already exhibiting at The Drawing Center and Midtown Galleries. Comparisons were made between his work and that of Suzanne Valadon, de Kooning, and Degas (admiringly) for the vitality of brushstroke and technical skill; Cadmus and Bonnard (rather disparagingly to all three artists) for the depiction of the human condition.

Valadon and Degas? Cadmus and Bonnard? These were influences on my work as well (despite the critic's maligning of the latter). My interest in Hugh was now heightened, although, admittedly, on a more professional level than it had been before. I wanted to see for myself what his work looked like. But my life was busy and the world encroached. Despite the fact that Hugh himself continued to make fleeting appearances in my life -- at an obscure restaurant, in the salon where we both got our hair cut -- it was a few years before I came face-to-face with one of his paintings.

Then, in the early 90s, I was volunteering at a benefit auction for GMHC and, fatefully, was stationed for an entire evening in front of a painting that Hugh had donated. I'm sure that the memory I carry of the content of that small painting is completely inaccurate, but the emotional impact that it had on me is factual. Hanging on the walls of my memory bank, the painting is deep in coloration and dramatic in lighting. The view is from overhead but with a sharp sense of perspective. We're in a dark room with haloed light coming from above. There's an oval rug in the foreground and a figure in the top portion of the painting, slouched on a couch of deep claret. The figure, cropped off at the neck, is wearing a short dress of taffeta or tulle (a tutu?) but the naked legs strongly suggest that the subject is male.

Intensely intimate, voyeuristic, sensuous, subversive, thought-provoking, and also quite funny, the painting was everything I needed from a work of art. For me, art requires a certain sense of trust, an assurance that the artist is not being disingenuous or trying to hustle me. In this instance, I felt that I was in collusion with a new friend who was entrusting me with a secret, allowing me to inhabit, for a short while, his personal vision of what it is to be human. Hugh was using artistic references to tell his story without being slavishly devoted to them. He'd managed to use the lexicon of hundreds of years of painting to say something very immediate, timely, and modern.

Looking back at Steers's work now -- made possible by The Frank Moore Archive Project's incredible collection of his images -- I feel validated that my memory of the frisson of seeing that small painting for the first time was accurate. I'm thrilled to provide a new audience with their own "first time" with this backward glance at his work.

Of course, the painting that I've described to you was one that was probably done in the late 80s before Steers took on what would be his defining subject matter: The AIDS crisis in America, specifically the dark, desperate earlier days of the epidemic.

So many of the paintings that I've collected here viscerally bring one back to those bleak and terrifying days with astonishing rapidity and ease. To wish to forget is a human trait, but Steers's work insists that we don't.

"Throat" depicts a young man checking himself for thrush, an oral infection that can be a portent of immune deficiency and was a terrifying signifier of a descent into AIDS. Here we're reminded of the fear that sent so many of us daily rushing to the mirror, checking for the physical omens -- white spots in the mouth, red spots on the skin -- that would finally be the annunciation of our body's betrayal. "Plastic Embrace" depicts the barriers placed between lovers by both the fear of infection and the necessity of latex. These barriers to intimacy still exist today and the work continues to resonate because of it. And then there is "The Sick Room," which could be described as the "soft glow of brutality" made manifest.

Part of what I marvel at when I look at these elegiac paintings of Steers's is that he was creating this work while gazing directly into the jaws of the beast. Rather than donning blinders and ignoring his fate, he chose to face mortality directly and use his limited time to mine the tragedy of the situation for his art. It reminds me, in some small way, of the Jewish writer Irène Némirovsky writing her WWII novel, "Suite Française," while on the run and in constant fear of being discovered by the Nazis. How does one have the courage, strength, and discipline to create art while in the midst of a life-threatening crisis?

Steers addresses this question of creative drive in an article edited by Holland Cotter in Art in America in 1994, a year before Hugh's death: "Illness is such a crucial subject. Everyone, especially in America, has a horror of it and an obsession with cleanliness and mortality, when only a hundred years ago people caught a cold and died. It is all part of my having to deal with having AIDS. How do I embrace this thing and make it OK or make myself able to live with it and produce and go on from there? How do I live every day with despair?"

And yet the paintings themselves are not completely despairing. Most of them possess a very wry and dark sense of humor. "Stripes and Plaid," (1994), for example, shows a male figure, naked but for a plaid shirt, splayed on a bed in a pose that suggests paralysis. Standing above him, on the edge of the bed and facing away, is another male figure, this one dressed in an open-backed, white hospital gown and white platform heels. The standing subject, simultaneously absurd and powerful, appears to be about to take flight. The tableau is disturbing and apocalyptic but it's also hilarious. The "flying" figure is reminiscent of Tony Kushner's prophet angel from Angels in America (1993). But Steers's version of the angel of death, although no less frightening, is bizarrely camp and funny ... and ultimately human.

Though Steers lists himself alongside Hopper, Pollock, and Kline, and although his work does have a very brutal aspect to it, he is ultimately much more of a humanist than any of those men. The world he created was a bit more hopeful, a bit more idealized. In the same 1994 Art in America article, Steers reveals, to my mind, why his work strikes a more promising chord. "It's like conjuring ... It's as if painting it will make it become real. That painting a man holding another man is conjuring that tenderness, that hope that someone will still care about you and will be there. It's like wishful thinking, a kind of touchstone for those who are traumatized by the same situations. They can see it and say: someone else has been there."

In the end, I think that the work of Hugh Steers is essentially about our shared human experience. When asked by Erich Conrad of QW Magazine if he classified himself as a gay artist, Hugh replied, "No, I don't know what gay art is. What I try and get into my painting is the humanity of a moment, and that moment could be between two men or a man and a woman or two women. Everybody should be able to identify with it. It's all about humanity."

Hugh and I did finally meet one another in 1993 through a chance encounter at his gallery, Richard Anderson Fine Art. I had just seen a piece of his at the Denver Art Museum and, after returning to New York, I decided to drop by the gallery to see if there was any new work to view. Hugh just happened to be there (the serendipity continued) and so I finally screwed up my courage and introduced myself. Incredibly shy and reserved, he still managed to be wonderfully gracious to me. But there was no way to tell him about the odd, Zelig-like role he'd played in my life and the impact that his work continued to have on me. Who knows; perhaps he was conscious of me throughout those years as well but was too shy to acknowledge or approach? It's not inconceivable, but somehow I doubt it. And it's irrelevant. I feel now that the circle has been closed between Hugh and me through this chance to give his work a well-deserved retrospective (museums, take note). Perhaps I've given back to him in a small way, and I thank Visual AIDS for giving me that opportunity.

AIDS is not over. Not by a long shot.