Hugh Steers (1962–1995) was born in Washington, D.C., and trained in painting at Yale University, New Haven, CT and Parsons School of Art and Design, New York, NY. Before his death at 32 from AIDS-related complications, Steers created allegorical images of everyday life that captured the emotional and political tenor of New York in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Embracing representational painting and figuration at a time when such approaches were deemed unfashionable, his intimate compositions are poignant symbols of life under the specter of AIDS.
Deeply influenced by art history, Steers mined the Western canon for inspiration to create intimate, surreal, and compelling paintings filled with elements that paid homage to disparate artists, including El Greco, Édouard Vuillard, Edward Hopper, and Paul Cadmus. In an interview shortly before his death, the artist expanded on his approach, musing: “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.”
Dedicated to capturing the “soft glow of brutality,” Steers’s compositions communicate joy even in the face of despair. At the same time, by painting mundane moments imbued with a disconcerting charge, his paintings invite ambiguous narratives of mortality, defiance, and compassion. For Steers, such narratives reflected his own desires. As he explained, “I would like to be able to act or have someone care about me the way some of the people in my paintings act or care about each other. It’s as if painting it will make it become real.”
Transforming prosaic scenes and spaces into tableaux suffused with longing, loneliness, fear, and eroticism, Steers’s work inhabits a melancholy architecture of intense emotion. His images—sensuous and unsettling—gain new resonance in a contemporary art landscape informed by a return to figuration and a critical reappraisal of art from the 1980s and early 1990s.
Hugh Steers’s paintings were featured in AIDS at Home: Art and Everyday Activism at the Museum of the City of New York, NY (2017) and Art AIDS America, curated by Jonathan Katz and Rock Hushka, at the Tacoma Art Museum, WA (2015); West Hollywood Library and One Archives Gallery and Museum, Los Angeles, CA (2015); Zuckerman Museum of Art, Kennesaw, GA (2016); Bronx Museum of the Arts, NY (2016); and Alphawood Foundation, Chicago, IL (2016). His work has also been exhibited at the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD) Museum, Providence (2021); Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, NY (2013); New Museum of Contemporary Art, New York, NY (1994); Richard Anderson, New York, NY (1992); Midtown Galleries, New York, NY (1992); Denver Art Museum, CO (1991); Albright-Knox Gallery, Buffalo, NY (1988); and the Drawing Center, New York, NY (1987), among others. Steers’s work is in private and public art collections, including the Denver Art Museum, CO; The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, NY; Minneapolis Institute of Art, MN; Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, NY; Walker Art Center, Minnesota, MN; and Yale University Art Gallery, New Haven, CT; among others. In 1989, Steers received a Pollock-Krasner Foundation Fellowship. A comprehensive monographic catalogue of Steers’s work was published by Visual AIDS in 2015.