Esteemed by museums, curators, collectors, and fellow artists alike,
’s art is now the subject of a booming market, making him one of the most sought-after contemporary artists. Just last month, Christie’s sold Figure in the Urban Landscape 31 (2019)—a double portrait conceived in a
style, with a father and daughter intersected by perpendicular roads on which model cars are mounted—for $250,000 at its “Post-War to Present” sale in New York, tripling the artist’s previous auction record. It was the first of his large-scale paintings on panel to appear at auction, but the result, more than double its low estimate, suggests there will be more.
Demand for the series was strong prior to the result at Christie’s, with works from this series on offer in Tilton Gallery’s booth at Art Basel in Miami Beach in 2017 and 2018 finding buyers. They were also the focus of a solo show that opened at the gallery’s Manhattan space in November 2017.
“Institutional focus and recognition propelled his primary market forward, and now that we have achieved a major record at auction, I firmly believe the secondary market will continue to strengthen as demand increases,” said Isabella Lauria, a Christie’s specialist, associate vice president, and head of the firm’s “Post-War to Present” sales.
Born in Baltimore in 1970, Adams earned his BFA from Pratt Institute and his MFA from Columbia University. He is known for his portraits depicting scenes of daily life through an aesthetic mixing bold colors with geometrically composed faces and bodies inspired by traditional West African masks and statues. Through a multidisciplinary practice spanning painting, collage, sculpture, video, sound installations, and performance, the Brooklyn-based artist examines how mass media impacts the construction of identity, while celebrating Black culture and self-determination. According to Nicole Schloss, Sotheby’s vice president and co-head of contemporary art day sales in New York, he belongs to a group of artists such as
—with whom he studied at Pratt—and
, who are bringing the Black experience to the forefront of their work, as well as the broader artistic canon.
“Derrick has approached figuration and portraiture with purity. While formal, his work has gained popularity because in many ways, these are the paintings people have been wanting to see…even if they didn’t realize it beforehand,” said Dexter Wimberly, an independent curator and the senior critic of the New York Academy of Art, who has known Adams for longer than a decade. “The recent auction price only shows that there’s a growing understanding of his significance as an artist. Many insiders have already known that, but the market is beginning to catch up.”
Adams started gaining more attention from galleries and collectors when he shifted focus from sculpture, performance, and installation art to two-dimensional painting, prints, and collage. “Live and in Color,” his 2014 exhibition at New York’s Tilton Gallery, was enthusiastically received. It showcased his large-scale, mixed-media collages composed of vibrant blocks of color and patterned textiles mimicking vintage television sets displaying Black figures seen in old TV sitcoms, movies, game shows, music videos, and news. In doing so, he encouraged viewers to question popular characterizations of Black subjects on television and shift perceptions against stereotypes.
“Interior Life,” his breakout gallery show at New York’s Luxembourg & Dayan in 2019—which was curated by Francesco Bonami and featured portraits from the artist’s “Deconstruction Worker” series on custom wallpaper portraying domestic environments—sold out and further increased his global visibility. That same year, he had one of the final solo exhibitions at Mary Boone Gallery before it closed, showcasing new large-scale paintings of emoji. Last year, he created a standout installation for Salon 94’s booth at Frieze Los Angeles, where his works were priced between $35,000 and $120,000.
What makes Adams’s approach unique, according to Lauria, is “the modernist influence and his interest in collage and layering. He is ‘hybridizing’ his sensory experiences,” as she put it. “
immediately come to mind from a process and technique standpoint. Additionally, the narrative around Black life and culture, highlighting his interest in leisure and its importance also makes me think of some of
Kerry James Marshall
’s work. Demand for his work is driven by interest in artists working through identity politics and issues of systemic racism, while Derrick’s use of bright, happy motifs and palettes adds to the aesthetic appeal and desirability.”
Debuting in 2016, Adams’s “Floater” series of works on paper—now among his most recognizable and best-selling works—portrayed Black subjects lounging in pools on inflatable swans, flamingos, and unicorns, images commonly omitted from popular visual culture. His aim has always been to occupy a different space from other artists tackling issues of identity and oppression, crafting alternative narratives through his scenes of everyday joy, relaxation, and play. He saw the value in creating images where Black viewers participating in ordinary activities could see themselves reflected in the world they inhabit. Rather than concentrating on grief and persecution, he wanted them to consider leisure as a progressive act.
“Derrick’s practice connects with a wide audience who understand his unique visual language as conveying Black normalcy—portraying Black people as fully dimensional,” said his gallerist, Jeanne Greenberg Rohatyn, founder of Salon 94. “He creates vivid and multifaceted depictions of Black life at a time when it would be too easy, not to mention dangerous, to reduce the Black American experience to one of only pain or trauma.”
Bringing Adams international acclaim, “Floater” is the body of his work that has most frequently come to auction since his secondary-market debut in 2018 with Floater 48 (Unicorn) (2017). Achieving $81,250—over four times its low estimate—at a Sotheby’s sale, it signaled strong potential for secondary-market growth. This was followed by another notable result: $65,000 for Floater 20 (2016) sold at Phillips in New York in 2020. The broad, democratic appeal of his art may be seen in how his prints perform at auction. For example, Shark Float (2017), a work from an edition of 12 offered in a 2019 Phillips online sale with Artsy, reached $18,750 against a $4,000 to $6,000 estimate.
Adams’s collector base is extremely broad, according to Lauria, ranging from established, older American collectors to younger European, Asian, and American clients just getting started. “This market isn’t driven by speculation,” she added. “Beyond institutional support, there is a strong international following.”
Further proof of his rising market strength and worldwide appeal came last month at a Phillips day sale in London, when Interior Life (Figure 13)(2019), a work on paper with an estimate of £6,000 to £8,000 ($8,300–$11,000), sparked competitive online bidding from collectors in the U.S., Europe, Taiwan, China, and Korea, ultimately selling for £25,200 (over $34,700). The hot streak seems likely to continue on May 14th, when They All Want Cake (2014) from his “Live and in Color” series will be offered at Christie’s post-war and contemporary art day sale in New York with an estimate of $30,000 to $50,000.
“Derrick Adams is among the most in-demand artists of the moment,” said Patrizia Koenig, Phillips’s head of “New Now” sales in New York. “What makes Adams’s work so interesting is how it at once resonates universally—they depict moments of joy, leisure, pride, or tenderness that we can all relate to—and is inherently radical in its celebration of Black culture. It’s perhaps no surprise that while we do have a strong collector base in the United States, we’ve also seen an international group of collectors bidding at all levels for his work.” For further evidence of his popularity, consider that one of pop culture’s biggest power couples are fans: A “Style Variation” canvas hangs in Jay-Z’s Roc Nation office in Los Angeles, and one of his paintings appeared in Beyoncé’s musical film and visual album Black is King.
“Derrick’s collectors are global, of all ages, of all backgrounds,” Greenberg Rohatyn said. “He is part of a generation of artists who are expanding both the artistic language and public understanding of what ‘Black art’ is and does. His voice is joyful and profound, and the demand for his work reflects its timeliness.”
In addition to his success in the art world’s commercial spaces, Adams has long had strong institutional backing. His work resides in the permanent collections of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Whitney Museum of American Art, Studio Museum in Harlem, Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, and Birmingham Museum of Art, and he has had solo exhibitions at the Museum of Arts and Design in New York and the Museum of Contemporary Art, Denver. Right before the COVID-19 pandemic, Adams opened a critically acclaimed exhibition at the Hudson River Museum dedicated to the “Floaters” and “We Came to Party and Plan” series, and had a very personal show in his hometown at The Gallery in Baltimore City Hall.
Currently, “Sanctuary,” the 2018 Museum of Arts and Design show Wimberly curated, is on view through June 6th at The Momentary, the contemporary arm of Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Arkansas. Referencing The Negro Motorist Green Book, a guide created by postal worker Victor Hugo Green beginning in 1936 to help Black travelers identify safe amenities, “it foretold the current moment in American society when the rights and civil liberties of Black Americans would be thrust to the forefront of politics and media,” said Wimberly.
Adams’s latest solo show, “Style Variations,” helped inaugurate Salon 94’s vast new headquarters on Manhattan’s Upper East Side in March. It presented 10 new monumental portraits (priced at $220,000 each) of mannequin heads styled with bold, exuberant wigs. The works transported viewers to the beauty shops he passes daily in Bed-Stuy—the Brooklyn neighborhood where he has lived and worked for over 15 years—in which apprentice hairdressers practice their technique on wigs. The exhibition highlighted the significance of hairstyling and wig-wearing at a moment when hairstyles have become increasingly politicized.
Building on the momentum of these recent shows and market milestones, Adams has a busy lineup of exhibitions opening in the last quarter of 2021 and in 2022 at the Henry Art Gallery in Seattle, Shanghai’s Longlati Foundation, and the Cleveland Art Museum. He’ll also launch an invitation-only retreat comprising studio spaces, a pool, greenhouse, and screening room next year in Baltimore. Dubbed “The Last Resort,” the residency will welcome Black artists, writers, musicians, chefs, and entrepreneurs, who will stay for up to four weeks at a time. For an artist whose work is so much about scenes of leisure, it seems only appropriate Adams would want to bring those moments to life.