A 2017 painting of Donald Trump by artist Dana Schutz has found a buyer two weeks before the presidential election. Offered in Phillips’s 20th Century & Contemporary Art Evening Sale in London today, “Trump Descending an Escalator” hammered at £550,000 (~$711,774), approaching the high end of its £380,000 to £580,000 estimate.
The massive canvas portrays the current president, characteristically red-faced and caught in a twisted grimace, descending from Trump Tower on the day he announced his presidential campaign. Schutz created the work the year he assumed office, and it was included in We need to talk…, a group exhibition at Petzel Gallery in New York organized in the wake of the 2016 election.
The lot opened at £300,000, and a swift but spirited bidding war ended with one of three phone bidders in the room. With fees included, the total price of the painting was £688,000 (~$890,364). Schutz’s current auction record is $2.4 million, set at Sotheby’s in New York last year by her 14-foot-long canvas “Civil Planning” (2004). The buyer’s identity has not been publicized.
Both the work’s title and composition are a nod to Marcel Duchamp’s “Nude Descending a Staircase” (1912), an iconic work in the history of modern art. Duchamp’s painting, rejected by the Cubists for its incorporation of Futurist elements, caused a stir when it was exhibited in the 1913 Armory Show in New York City.
Schutz is known for works that meld abstract and figurative strategies, sometimes incorporating people and moments from current events. Her painting “Open Casket” — based on a graphic photograph of the body of Emmett Till, a Black teenager lynched in 1955 — caused controversy when it was exhibited in the 2017 Whitney Biennial. Some protesters accused the artist of misappropriating subject matter that pertains to the ongoing history of racist violence in America.
In a 2017 interview for the New Yorker, Schutz said, “I don’t really make super-topical paintings.”
Commenting on “Trump Descending an Escalator,” she added, “I wanted to get that moment of suspense, when you know something is going to happen and there’s nothing you can do to stop it. In real life, he looks so dumpy, like a refrigerator. I’m happy with how the face turned out, kind of like a mask, with something guarded but threatening about it. He’s coming down, taking us to lower levels of everything.”
The auction house’s catalogue essay — which is lacking in specific political or social content given the subject of the work, and does not mention the upcoming presidential election — traces the work to the lineage of political portraiture, citing Andy Warhol’s portraits of Mao Zedong and Robert Rauschenberg’s silkscreened paintings of John F. Kennedy.
The canvas, the essay says, “encapsulated the zeitgeist of a moment” and “motions back to the decisive instant that presaged the politician’s meteoric rise to power in America and beyond.”