For the Greater Good, 2019
Reggie Burrows Hodges
Reggie Burrows Hodges (b. 1965) was relatively unknown in the art world five years ago. That changed when, in October 2021, Hodges’ painting For the Greater Good (pictured above) sold for $600K at a Philips auction sale. Today, he is one of the most in demand contemporary painters in the world. In this post, I explore the question: What explains Hodges’ meteoric rise in the art market?
I. FINDING HIS VOICE
Hodges’ path to art world stardom is unconventional. He studied film and theater in college, played competitive tennis, and co-founded and toured with a reggae dub band for 15 years. In fact, he didn’t start painting professionally until 2018, well into his 50s. Born in Compton, Hodges grew up between the urban metropolises of Los Angeles, New York City and Washington, DC. His first taste of small-town was in college when he attended the University of Kansas. After college, he moved to New York City where he worked in the TV & film before pivoting to music. Hodges co-owned a recording studio and then co-founded the reggae dub band Trumystic in 1995, where he was a lead writer, vocalist and bass guitar player. In 2000, Hodges moved back to small-town, relocating to Vermont, before settling in Maine in 2008.
Hodges painted and drew throughout his adult life, but settling in Maine unlocked a deeper love for the art form. He must have taken it as an omen when he discovered, well into adulthood, that one of the enduring images from his childhood home in Los Angeles was a piece artwork by Winslow Homer, the famous American painter, who lived the final three decades of his life in Maine. Perhaps the reflection induced by the quiet, natural beauty, and the rich artistic legacy of the place led to a desire to create art that recorded scenes from his memory, from his imagination, for posterity.
In 2018, Hodges felt comfortable enough to show his work in public at Gallery at 46 Lisbon in Lewiston, Maine. He craved more training and inspiration in order to refine his style. Hodges pursued artist residencies, programs designed to give artists space to create new work by providing studio space and housing for a period of time. In 2019, he took part in three residency programs in Maine: Monson Arts Residency, Pace House Residency and the Ellis Beauregard Foundation Residency. It was during these residencies that Hodges developed his distinct visual language. The language consists of subtle, pastel colors on top of black backgrounds with black, featureless figures. “My use of this concept is to enroll the Black figure as a stand-in for humanity – that specific way of describing it is part of a thought presented by the scholar Fred Moten, but I pull it from the incredibly poetic way that Arthur Jafa speaks about the idea of the Black figure standing in for humanity.” The scenes are familiar, often nostalgic: seated figures listening to music, players and spectators at sporting events, children playing. And the works, with hazy, loosely defined features, have a mystical quality that spark both memories and questions.
By the end of 2019, Hodges had found his voice.
Public Safety: Tethered, 2019
Reggie Burrows Hodges
Acrylic and pastel on canvas
80 x 96 in
Playing Reggae Records at the Pace House #2, 2019
Reggie Burrows Hodges
Acrylic and pastel on paper
19 x 27 in
Intersection of Color: Loge, 2019
Reggie Burrows Hodges
Acrylic on canvas
48 x 60 in
II. FINDING HIS AUDIENCE
Hodges’ production exploded over a two-year period. He created at least 44 works between 2019 and 2020, many of which were large scale. His work caught the attention of curators and art critics, first locally in Maine. Following his residency at the Ellis Beauregard Foundation, he was awarded their Fellowship in the Visual Arts. Next, he caught the eyes of curators and art critics nationally. In 2020, Hodges was awarded the Joan Mitchell Foundation Grant, a prestigious national award awarded to 15 artists each year. Hodges’ critical acclaim caught the attention of Karma, a New York-based gallery that also publishes art books. Karma featured Hodges in a group exhibition in 2020 before giving him a solo exhibition in January 2021. The exhibition was accompanied by a book featuring an essay by Pulitzer-Prize winning writer and art critic, Hilton Als. The show was a success and was followed by group exhibitions at the FLAG Art Foundation, a leading non-profit exhibition space, and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art for its Black American Portraits exhibition. The LACMA show was Hodges’ first exhibition at a major art institution. It is important to note that these exhibitions, all of which took place in 2021, coincided with a wave of attempted cultural restitution in the wake of racial justice protests that created a renewed appetite for art created by African Americans and people of color.
Hodges’ case was the flawless execution of a strategy to, first, contextualize his work within the art historical canon: with his work framed amongst Pablo Picasso, Helen Frankenthaler, Kerry James Marshall, Winslow Homer, and Alex Katz among others. And, second, to demonstrate his relevance to current cultural events: through Hodges openly discussing how his experience as an African American informs his work and through his inclusion in the Black American Portraits exhibition.
The result? An undisclosed person paid $600K for his first painting at auction. And this was no one off event. Since then, four other Hodges paintings have sold for over $500K, with a record set at $730K in May 2022 at a Phillips auction in New York.
Hodges’ meteoric rise was the result of the artist finding his voice artistically and then quickly finding a large, diverse audience through a well-executed strategy that contextualized his work relative to well-established artists and showed its relevance to current cultural events. The book, Reggie Burrows Hodges, published alongside his first New York solo exhibition, was a key tool for establishing Hodges scholarly, critical standing in the art world and it likely contributed to his subsequent market success.
MORE ON REGGIE BURROWS HODGES
Watch Hodges analyze Watching the Breakers by Winslow Homer:
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Reggie Burrows Hodges, Karma Books, 2021