As far as art market success stories go, Nina Chanel Abney’s strong and steady ascent is a remarkable one; few artists can boast the kind of interest that Abney’s work inspired from the get-go.
Beloved by museums, curators, collectors, and fellow artists alike, Abney’s idiosyncratic and dynamic visual style, paired with her willingness and ability to deftly tackle difficult topics, has quickly made the Chicago-born artist a leading figure in contemporary art.
Ambitious in scale, her geometric, almost Cubist compositions and flat application of bold colors create intensely rhythmic works that explore the Black experience.“I think she’s very brave; some of the themes she touches on are quite tough but are very of the times and necessary,” said Marina Ruiz Colomer, a contemporary art specialist and head of day sales at Sotheby’s.
“To do so in such an original and unique way is what sets her apart and what makes collectors, auction houses, and everyone else in the art world so excited about her.”
Demand for Abney’s work was apparent starting with a groundbreaking painting at her MFA thesis show at Parsons.
Titled Class of 2007 (2007), the 15-foot-wide piece depicts Abney as a white prison guard and her white classmates as Black prison inmates, contrasting the institution’s lack of diversity (Abney was the only Black person in her class) with the disproportionate number of Black men incarcerated in the United States.
The work struck a chord with Susie Kravets and Marc Wehby, who soon after offered Abney her first gallery representation and in 2008 held a sold-out debut gallery show of her work at their Chelsea space, Kravets Wehby.
Later that year, Class of 2007 was acquired by the tastemaking Miami collectors Don and Mera Rubell and included in the Rubell Museum’s traveling exhibition “30 Americans.”
In addition to showcasing her work within one of the most prestigious private collections of contemporary art in the country, the exhibition also placed Abney’s painting in direct conversation with works by other African American artists, including Kara Walker, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Wangechi Mutu, and Mickalene Thomas.
“What’s wonderful about Nina’s work is that she tackles such contemporary and salient themes in a style that is very much her own and that appeals to large swaths of people,” said her gallerist, Jack Shainman.
Abney held her second solo show with Shainman late last year, focusing on scenes of Black leisure and joy.
She signed with the gallery in 2016; the following year, she received her first solo museum exhibition, a 10-year survey organized by the Nasher Museum of Art at North Carolina’s Duke University.