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Confidence, Care, and Calculation: Vaughn Spann

Cosmic Symbiote (Marked Man), 2020

Vaughn Spann

Vaughn Spann (b.1992) is a formally trained, cross-genre artist whose figurative, abstract and surrealistic work flows from his personal reflections on personal and collective experiences.

Spann is crafting a career in the art world like few have. He’s formed a studio practice that creates a wide range of aesthetically compelling, culturally relevant work while raising a beautiful young family of three. Spann’s keys to success are confidence, putting his family first and making smart moves.

“I ask myself a lot why artists create a signature style. We are all very diverse, critical people. I am trying to find a way to satisfy the things I grapple with day to day, where they converge or compete or allow for poetry.”

Image credit: Anthony Alvarez

Vaughn grew up in Orange, New Jersey, a township just west of Newark. He had many interests in his youth, including art and sports, and was always a great student. His passion for art was sparked by Japanese anime. He loved Pokémon, Digimon and Dragon Ball Z and would draw characters and discuss them with classmates. Spann was also a competitive athlete - a star of his high school track & field team and a member of the varsity basketball team.

Spann chose to attend Rutgers university in nearby Newark, enrolling with a declared major in biology. However, Spann’s path took a turn during his freshman year when he enrolled in an art class taught by Denyse Thomasos, a Yale MFA graduate and black woman of Trinidadian descent. Thomasos noted Spann’s talent and encouraged him to consider a career as an artist. Spann started working closely with her and he decided to shift his focus to art. Tragically, a year into their mentorship relationship, Thomasos passed away due to complications from a surgery. Her passing shocked Spann and made him question his path. But he pulled through and learned valuable lessons about his ability to shape his path. “The great thing I took from that situation was to live life in a positive manner, to be extremely ambitious, to feel confident in who you are.”

Spann went on to graduate as the top student in Rutgers’ art department. And he decided that he too would go to Yale. The announcement was first made publicly on his Facebook account, where Spann’s status for a time was “I’m going to Yale”. Spann’s path to Yale wasn’t smooth. His first try resulted in rejection after a poor interview. However, he tried again and was accepted. As he enrolled at Yale, Spann was also newly married and a new father of a little girl.

Yale is one of the top art schools in the country. As such, collectors and galleries often descend on the school looking to spot young talent. Fielding requests for studio visits with developing one’s artistic voice is a tough balance for many students. But Spann, a master of balance, navigated the tricky environment impeccably. He enlisted counsel from a select group of faculty advisors and artist mentors to avoid pitfalls that young artists often make. And he kept personal balance by prioritizing care for his family. His daughter and wife would often accompany him in the studio. In 2018, during Spann’s final year at Yale, he was discovered by Almine Rech, a French gallerist with 5 locations around the world. After a successful group show in London, Rech announced representation of Spann in July 2019 and hosted his first solo show in New York in January 2020. The show sold out, and Spann’s career has been on an upward climb ever since.

A House Built for a King, 2020

Golden Valley, 2020

Big Black Rainbow Smoky Eyes, 2019

Spann’s work is both figurative and abstract, and often has fantastical, surrealistic elements. The works are richly textured and use a variety of colors and materials. He often works in series, with one of his most well-known being the X series. It was inspired by an incident Vaughn had in undergrad where he was stopped and frisked by the police on the way home from a study group. As Spann stood with his hands and legs splayed, in an X shape, he felt compelled to explore the X theme further, looking at various meanings of the symbol. Spann is also well-known for his rainbow series, which is commentary on the complexities of color in the United States. His rainbows include the color black as a way of “bringing black back into the spectrum”. The first rainbow piece was done in the wake of the Trayvon Martin shooting in 2012, with symbolic reference to the pack of Skittles found on the teenager after he was tragically shot.

Equipped with a full range of formal techniques and skills, Spann doesn’t want to be known for a signature style or narrative. He needs creative freedom to freshly explore what he sees and feels through his art. While an element of social commentary weaves throughout his work, Spann doesn't moralize or explicitly push an agenda. He thrives on synthesizing complex feelings and concepts into an aesthetic that's compelling and powerful.

Since 2020, Spann's work has regularly sold at auction. His 2019 work Big Black Rainbow (Deep Dive) sold in December 2020 for a record $239,000. Spann will show new work in his upcoming fourth solo show with Almine Rech opening on October 15th in Paris.

Cosmic Symbiote (Marked Man), 2020

Cotton paper, hand beveled edges, embossed X

22 4/5 × 22 4/5 in Edition of 75


If you’d like to acquire this or other works by Vaughn Spann, email

Watch a visit to Vaughn's studio:


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