African American Conceptual Artist
New York, NY
ArtMatch Value Score*: Strong
Sanford Biggers (b. 1970) is a multi-disciplinary, conceptual artist best known for his remixed quilts and sculptures that blend African and European aesthetics. His work is often infused with multiple interpretations, humor and references to history, politics and culture.
Biggers is the product of a multi-cultural environment with influences spanning across the many places he’s lived and been shaped by: Los Angeles, Atlanta, Japan, Chicago, New York, Italy among others. However, his work is rooted in his experience as an African American man with a complex relationship to history, politics and culture. He tackles this complexity with subtlety, humor, irony and always a keen sense of history. Across a multi-decade career, Biggers has assembled a distinctive body of work that connects dots, calls out contradiction, and makes you think.
"What I want to do is code-switch. To have there be layers of history and politics but also this heady, artsy stuff – inside jokes, black humor – that you might have to take a while to research if you want to really get it."
Credit: Meghan Marin
Sanford was born and grew up in Los Angeles, California in a family that loved art and discussion. His father, a neurosurgeon, and his mother, a teacher, collected art and entertained regularly. Family dinner often involved deep discussions about a range of topics: history, science, politics, art and culture. Through these discussions, Sanford, the youngest of three, developed an intensely curious mind. He loved all art forms especially comedy and music. Sanford’s older brother Sam recounts, “He had what the musicians call big ears. He had ears for all kinds of music.” And his cousin, John Biggers, was a renowned muralist and chairman of the art department at Texas Southern University in Houston, TX. It was quite natural that Biggers gravitated to the art department when he left Los Angeles for Atlanta to attend Morehouse College.
As Biggers began to study art in an academic setting, he found his intense curiosity leading him beyond the textbooks and prepared lesson plans to independent study on historical periods that shaped the artists and artworks they made. This contemplation of history and cultural context has always underpinned his work. After graduating from Morehouse in 1992, Biggers moved to Japan where he taught English for three years. In Japan, he also started practicing Zen Buddhism.
Upon returning to the United States, Biggers continued his training in visual art by studying at the Art Institute of Chicago. He graduated with a MFA in 1999 and promptly moved to New York, where he has been based ever since. In 2000, Biggers earned a residency at the World Views Artists in Residence program then housed in the Twin Towers at the World Trade Center. Here, he created his first major art installation called Mandala of the B-Bodhisattva II. The installation featured a dance floor designed as a mandala, a tool for spiritual guidance used in many Eastern religions. The floor was installed in different spaces, including the Bronx Museum, and breakdancers were invited to dance on it to the music of James Brown. The piece blended Sanford’s artistic training with his love of music and dance, his spirituality and sense of humor. Biggers left the residency in spring 2001 after the success of Mandala of the B-Bodhisattva II, just months before the tragic attack on the Twin Towers.
In those early years in New York, Biggers had another important formative experience. An exhibition of quilts made by women in Gee’s Bend Alabama came to the Whitney Museum. From an isolated, peninsula community in rural Southern Alabama came a uniquely American craft form which, through intricate designs and a rich story, crossed over to become fine art. Seeing these works in one of America’s leading museums, contextualized and given respect on par with other masters deeply inspired Biggers. “There was color, modulation, rhythm, and all these compositional things. But seeing these beautiful textile works made by a woman’s hands, it was touching on sculpture, touching on the body, touching on politics.” Biggers began collecting antique quilts, mostly pre-1900, and made modifications to or remixed them in a number of ways. He would add paint or tar, add filler to give the quilts dimensionality, affix quilts to the surfaces of geometric shapes. His selection of treatment depended on the composition and energy emanated from material, in a process that was largely meditative and intuitive. Of his quilts, Biggers says “They’re portals in a sense. I consider them between painting, drawing and sculpture, and a repository of memory – memory of the body.”
Antique quilt, birch plywood, gold leaf
70 x 97 x 24 in
Biggers’ work, which is often subtle, cerebral and comes in many different forms, took time to find its audience commercially. But this path suited Biggers. He taught for many years to supplement his income and eagerly applied for grants and fellowships that fed his insatiable curiosity and desire to grow as an artist. One of these fellowships was the American Academy in Rome, a prestigious yearlong independent study and research program, which Biggers was part of in 2017. In Rome, a place where ancient ruins commonly sit next modern buildings, the impact of history became even more apparent to him. And Biggers discovered a new medium, marble, that he has since increasingly incorporated into his practice. Conceptually, he became interested in the merging of European and African sculptural traditions, a concept explored by Picasso and many European artists at the turn of the 20th century along with Nigerian artist, Ben Enwonwu in the 1950s. Biggers worked with artisans in Italy to create hybrid works combining elements from African sculpture, like surreal masks, with life-like figurative elements from the Greco-Roman tradition, all in marble. The result has been a striking set of work, rich in symbolism that fuses two styles and histories that are inextricably linked. Two of Biggers’ new marble works were recently unveiled at the entrance to the Newark Museum of Art.
Credit: Steve Hockstein
Biggers’ most recognizable works are his remixed quilts and his Afro-European marble sculptures. But his practice includes much more. Across his textiles, sculpture, painting, photography, installation and other media, Biggers weaves a number of motifs: pianos, trees, Cheshire Cat smiles, lotus flowers, the clenched fist. These symbols have been added to his visual vocabulary and are deployed at the artist’s discretion. “I’m riffing on them like a jazz musician would riff on a song standard.”
Sanford Biggers installation at Frieze London 2023
Credit: Anthony Roberts
Biggers’ creative process varies depending on the work. The process for quilt works is largely improvisational and meditative. “I don’t have a vision of what I want to put on the quilt and then hammer it in. I sit with these quilts for months or years before I can make a single mark. And then it’s led by what the material is going to give back.” For his marble sculptural work, Biggers supplies the concept and partners with artisans in Italy to produce the work. For his BAM series, Biggers dipped wooden sculptural figurines acquired through antique markets in tar and then had them shot while filming the scene with a HD, slow motion camera. For Biggers, the concept is the key starting point and the marriage of concept with seductive aesthetics is where the magic happens.
Credit: Paul Laster
Biggers is represented by Marianne Boesky in New York, Melanie Meloche in Chicago, and Massimo di Carlo in Italy. His most recent solo exhibition, Meet Me on the Equinox, ran in New York from September 7 – October 14, 2023. His work is in the collections of the Museum of Modern Art, the Whitney Museum of Art and the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago (among others).
Watch an interview with Sanford where he talks about his practice:
*The ArtMatch Value Score is our assessment of the likelihood of the artist's work to hold or appreciate in value. Numerical scores are calculated based on a combination of variables, including but not limited to type of gallery representation, number of solo shows, quality of collector base, number of pieces sold at auction. Scores are summarized to one of three ranking categories: emerging, promising, and strong. Note this does not constitute official investment advice and is given purely as an input to help assess artists from a value perspective.