5 Emerging Artists Who Set New Auction Records in 2020

Nazia Safi
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2020 was not an ordinary year in any sense, from the COVID-19 pandemic to the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement. This year was all about adapting to the new global situation, and the auction industry was no exception. The digital auction format took over the brick-and-mortar format, ushering in large live-streamed auctions. In the process, both established and emerging artists shattered several personal records. 

Auction Daily takes a look at five emerging artists who set new auction records this year.

Matthew Wong (1984-2019)

Matthew Wong’s River at Dusk (2018) sold for $4,869,964. Image from Phillips.
Matthew Wong’s River at Dusk (2018) sold for $4,869,964. Image from Phillips.

This year saw a massive increase in demand for the works of Chinese-Canadian artist Matthew Wong. Two of his paintings set new auction records this year. Born in Toronto, the late self-taught artist did not pursue art seriously until 2013. His first solo gallery show at Karma in 2018 received rave reviews. Roberta Smith, an art critic for The New York Times, described it as an “unforgettable debut.” Tragically, Wong took his life in 2019 after a lifelong battle with Tourette’s syndrome and depression. Wong left behind a suite of colorful, Post-Impressionist landscape paintings, many of which feature solitary, melancholy figures.

Phillips and Poly Auction’s collaborative Hong Kong event set a milestone for him. Wong’s River at Dusk went under the hammer for USD 4,869,964, nearly four times its high estimate of $1,280,000. Executed in 2018, the painting depicts a romantic scene of a river lined with lush foliage. His previous auction record was set in October when Shangri-La (2017) sold for $4,470,000 in a Christie’s sale.

Amy Sherald (b. 1973)

Amy Sherald’s The Bathers (2015) sold for $4,265,000. Image from Phillips.
Amy Sherald’s The Bathers (2015) sold for $4,265,000. Image from Phillips.

Another emerging artist with new auction records this year is Baltimore-based contemporary portrait artist Amy Sherald. She is known for her nearly life-size figurative paintings with bold, vibrant backdrops. The artist’s vibrantly dressed subjects are rendered in her signature grayscale skin tones. Sherald’s subjects are primarily Black Americans she encounters on the streets, including men, women, and children.

Coming from the Virginia collection of William and Pam Royall, Amy Sherald’s double-portrait titled The Bathers was among the top ten lots at Phillips’ contemporary art evening sale in early December. Executed in 2015, the painting depicts two young bathers wearing brightly colored swimsuits who gaze directly at the viewer. It sold for a staggering $4,265,000, shattering Sherald’s previous auction record of $350,000 at Christie’s in 2019.

Amaoko Boafo (b. 1984)

Amaoko Boafo’s Baba Diop (2019) sold for $1,100,000. Image from Christie’s.
Amaoko Boafo’s Baba Diop (2019) sold for $1,100,000. Image from Christie’s.

Accra-born, Vienna-based artist Amoako Boafo has seen a meteoric rise in the auction world over the past year. Winner of the Walter Koschatzky Art Award in 2017 and the STRABAG Art Award International in 2019, Boafo’s oil-on-paper and oil-on-canvas paintings capture Black subjects in bold, gestural strokes. Through his distinct finger painting techniques, Boafo’s large-scale portraits explore and celebrate Black identity.

In December, Boafo’s figurative painting titled Baba Diop set a new auction record for the artist when it reached $1,100,000 at Christie’s. The monumental portrait by Boafo shows a young Black man reclining on a brown and ochre seat. The result surpasses the artist’s previous high of $880,000 for The Lemon Bathing Suit, sold at Phillips earlier this year.

Dana Schutz (b. 1976)

Dana Schutz’s Elevator (2019) sold for $6,500,000. Image from Christie’s.
Dana Schutz’s Elevator (2019) sold for $6,500,000. Image from Christie’s.

New auction records were also set for contemporary American artist Dana Schutz. Pulling ideas from art history, pop culture, mythic figures, and current events, Shultz uses abstract and figurative images to narrate mysterious stories. “My paintings are loosely based on metanarratives,” she has said. “The pictures float in and out of pictorial genres. Still lifes become personified, portraits become events and landscapes become constructions.”

Dana Schutz’s Elevator (2017), an oil-on-canvas that was shown at the 2017 Whitney Biennial, fetched a record $6,500,000 at Christie’s after ten minutes of cross-continent bidding. Conceived in a kaleidoscopic array of colors, Elevator shows several fragmented figures crammed into an elevator compartment. The price nearly tripled the artist’s previous record of $2,400,000, set at Sotheby’s in New York last year.

Mickalene Thomas (b. 1971)

Mickalene Thomas’ I’ve Been Good To Me (2013) sold for $901,000. Image from Phillips.
Mickalene Thomas’ I’ve Been Good To Me (2013) sold for $901,000. Image from Phillips.

Yet another emerging artist who set a record this year is Mickalene Thomas. The American artist’s texturally rich paintings are influenced by her childhood in the 1970s. Her portraits of Black women examine the characterization of Black sexuality and identity. Thomas often captures historical figures, iconic celebrities, and her mother.

Previously part of the Royall family collection, Mickalene Thomas’ I’ve Been Good To Me (2013) was sold at Phillips’ New York Modern and Contemporary Art Evening Sale in December. Hammered for $901,000, the mixed media collage tripled its high estimate of $300,000. I’ve Been Good To Me shows a seated woman in an extravagant dress surrounded by patterned cushions and tapestries. The price surpasses her previous record of $567,000, set in 2019.