Anatomy of a Success Story: How One Artist Broke Through

Each year in the art world, lesser-known artists percolate into public consciousness — most obviously at auctions like those that recently concluded in New York, which saw prices exceeding estimates for up-and-comers like Jadé Fadojutimi, Lucy Bull and Michaela Yearwood-Dan.

These breakout examples always raise the question: How does an artist go from unknown and struggling to celebrated and successful? How much of it is luck and timing? How much training and talent?

Hugo McCloud, 44, offers a recent case study of one path from obscurity to recognition. In just over a decade, he had gone from fabricating metal fountains in Northern California to this month opening his fifth show at the prestigious Sean Kelly Gallery in New York — where his large pieces have sold for as much as $325,000 — and seeing his work join the collections of major institutions like the Detroit Institute of Arts, the Brooklyn Museum and the Nasher Museum of Art at Duke University.

Here is a look at some of his stops along the way.

McCloud uses nontraditional materials — roofing tar, plastic bags, metal sheets, solder — drawing inspiration from everyday items as well as his travels to places like India, South Africa, Morocco, Thailand and Tulum, Mexico, where in 2020 he constructed his dream concrete home and studio.

His paintings range from the abstract to the figurative — flowers, laborers, bicycles, pushcarts. Although not overtly political, McCloud’s work has dovetailed with growing concerns about climate change, in particular, the deployment of disposable plastic bags in his paintings.

“I was taken with the physicality of Hugo’s approach,” said Rodney Lubeznik, one of McCloud’s earliest and most enduring collectors. “It was something we could feel as well as see.”

With braided hair and tattoos lining his chiseled arms (he has trained and competed in triathlons), the artist is a gentle presence who speaks in low tones about his experiences.

Born in Palo Alto, Calif., in 1980, McCloud was raised by artistic parents. His mother, Irene Forster, a landscape designer, sold fountains in her interior design store. His father, James McCloud, a sculptor, was largely absent, McCloud said, but managed to make a living as an artist without becoming famous.

McCloud dropped out of Tuskegee University and started working at his mother’s business, later establishing his own fabrication shop, designing and manufacturing furniture. During those years, he trained himself — studying design books and magazines at Barnes & Noble in the evenings and developing knowledge of wood, metal, bronze and stone. While many emerging artists are aided by the connections and prestige that come with earning an arts degree, McCloud has no formal training.

In 2009, McCloud moved to an illegal sublet in Bushwick, Brooklyn where he shared a bathroom with several others on his floor — including the artist Angel Otero — and took on small design projects to fund his painting.

Word got out. “There was this buzz about this guy making this art in Bushwick,” recalled Larry Ossei-Mensah, a critic and curator. “I saw someone who was hungry, who had a determination, who felt unique at the time and had something to say.”

In 2012 Ossei-Mensah featured McCloud’s work at the “Young Curators/New Ideas” show at the now defunct Meulensteen Gallery.

That year a gallery executive McCloud had met through Otero sent two art advisers from Italy to McCloud’s studio, where they bought several paintings — his first significant sale. “I think I got $16,000 for four or five paintings,” he recalled.

The following year McCloud was eating dinner with a friend at Choice Market, a restaurant in Clinton Hill, Brooklyn, when Lauren Kelly, on her way to becoming a partner at her father Sean Kelly’s gallery, noticed McCloud’s paint-splattered pants and asked if he was an artist.

Their conversation led to a studio visit, where Kelly was taken with his work.

“It was incredible what he was doing with metals,” Kelly recalled. “I could tell there was talent there, but it hadn’t had the gallery or academic structure to explore what it could be.”

Kelly brought two gallery partners back a few months later. McCloud recalled one telling him, “We like what you’re doing, but we watch for a long time and see how you develop.” He said it left him feeling “sobered and grounded,” but inspired him to keep working.

In 2014, he had his first solo show at Luce Gallery in Turin, Italy. That same year, Sean Kelly put him in a group show in New York and eventually decided to represent him. Signing with a prominent gallery is a game changer — giving artists the imprimatur of time-tested tastemakers, providing collectors with the comfort of knowing that dealers of experience and expertise have put their weight behind emerging talent.

“It’s really to no small extent about a marriage between the work and the dealer and the confidence that a market has in a dealer introducing an artist like Hugo,” said Sean Kelly, who added that the gallery “committed very deeply to his work.”

What artists and galleries want most is to see works acquired by museums. There is the prestige of entering an institution’s collection, but it also allows artists’ work to be viewed by a broad public, rather than remaining out of sight in private homes.

In 2022, McCloud had his first solo museum exhibition, “from where i stand,” at the Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum in Ridgefield, Conn. Richard Klein, who organized the show, said he was drawn to the way McCloud had forged his own path, and refused to be constrained by a single style. “The art world demands a product,” he said, “and Hugo doesn’t make products.”

Susan and Rodney Lubeznik were among the earliest buyers of McCloud’s work. “We were very drawn to the texture before we knew anything about him — the materiality, the work in the work,” Susan Lubeznik recalled.

The collectors Carole Server and Pamela J. Joyner brought McCloud to the attention of Susanne Vielmetter, whose Los Angeles gallery began representing him on the West Coast in 2018. She said that his last solo exhibition, “Tiempo,” in 2022 “sold out on opening day.”

Joyner said that McCloud’s gradual evolution has worked in his favor. “The ones who become household names 30 seconds after they come out of graduate school are not necessarily healthiest,” she said. “If the prices get too hot, then there is nowhere to go. And if you get too much exposure too early, maybe you cease to experiment.”

Being bought by established collectors can create a market for an artist, as collectors tend to take their cues from each other and young buyers often follow the lead of veterans. Susan and Michael Hort, for example, every year host an open house in Manhattan to give the public a look at their collection, which includes work by McCloud.

“When we hang an artist we want to help the artist,” Susan Hort said. “We’ve had artists who’ve gotten galleries after the galleries saw the work up at our house.”

Artists and galleries tend to dislike auctions because they don’t directly profit from the sales. And the estimates set are not always helpful: high prices can push galleries to raise prices to unsustainable levels, while low prices can hurt an artist’s reputation.

Several of McCloud’s paintings have come to auction, selling for a high of about $75,000 in 2021 — below his current gallery prices.

McCloud said it could be distracting to see other artists bringing headline-grabbing prices at auction. “While it’s happening you’re like, dang, I want my stuff to blow up like that,” McCloud said. “But the mature side of me understands to play the long game.”

Sean Kelly said he was unconcerned with McCloud’s auction prices. “Artists who have the greatest longevity are the ones who build slowly,” he said, “and do not flare and flame out in five years.”

In 2022, an armed robbery just outside McCloud’s house in Tulum resulted in the killing of his close friend Kien Grant, the Afropunk performer who went by Netic Rebel. McCloud escaped with his mother, who was visiting at the time.

Despite this trauma — which prompted him to relocate to Los Angeles — McCloud pushed to produce work for Art Basel Miami last December, and then managed to paint 31 pieces in three months for the Sean Kelly show that opened last month and has had brisk sales.

“I have goals of where I’m trying to go with my career — I want to keep growing, I’m ambitious still,” he said. “So I just had to sit with myself and figure out how to execute the show.”

McCloud said he is conscious of having to strike a balance between what he wants to make and what the market demands — which may not always be aligned. “I’m not just coming into this with the idea, ‘I’m going to make whatever I want to make and you’re just going to have to live with it,’ ” he said. “You have to be intelligent and understand what’s happening around you.”

At the same time, McCloud continues to experiment with new forms, sometimes to the frustration of his gallerists. “Every time he would pivot to a new series. I would say please just make me this for another year,” Lauren Kelly said, “and he’d say, ‘Nope.’”

While he is enjoying his success, McCloud said he is keenly aware of the mercurial nature of the art market, where stars can rise and fall, and that he tries to focus on his work. “You’re saying, I need to spend time figuring out how to melt this plastic together,” he said. “That’s the beautiful thing about artists — whether they’re successful or not, they’re willing to spend the time doing something and put it out there for the world to judge. Whether it’s good or bad, they’re still putting it out there.”

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