Sukanya Rajaratnam On Curating for Younger Collectors and More

"Everything from the choice of the objects to the spacing between them, and the dialog they create between each other is important to the way that a work is perceived."

It’s fair to say that White Cube has landed in New York with a splash. The London-based mega-gallery boasts locations in Paris, Hong Kong, West Palm Beach and Seoul, and it opened its doors here last month with a group exhibition of buzzy artists that the New York Times called “a show of force.”

A woman in a black and white checked cape stands in front of a colorful painting
White Cube’s Sukanya Rajaratnam. Photo by Weston Wells / courtesy White Cube

In the past two weeks, the gallery has announced that they now represent Richard Hunt and the Lynne Drexler archive. Observer recently caught up with Sukanya Rajaratnam, who joined the White Cube team in New York as global director of strategic market initiatives, to hear about what these moves mean for the gallery and the art market at large.

We often think of galleries as dealing flashy, up-and-coming artists, but these new additions to the White Cube roster signal a strong market for older work, too. Speaking generally, what kind of collector goes for the kind of work that’s already in the art history textbooks?

It used to be the case that art matched up with the age demographic, but I find increasingly younger collectors looking at older art as something that has been tested by time and has a place in art history. These collectors tend to be thoughtful about what they acquire and how the object speaks to their beliefs, its longer-term value and viability, rather than just as a decorative piece in their home.

Richard Hunt has always been well supported by institutions, with a solo show at MoMA in 1971 when he was only 35. Has his market always been strong too?

Not only did Richard have his first show at MoMA in 1971 at the age of 35, but the museum acquired a significant sculpture, Arachne (1956), when he was just 21. Over his lifetime, he has had over 150 solo exhibitions, and his work is well-represented in the permanent collections of several major museums across the country. And yet, his market is underdeveloped, and his gallery representation has been scarce. I have said that Richard is a giant hiding in plain sight because his work deserves to be celebrated in the company of his peer David Smith, and his predecessors, Alberto Giacometti and Julio González, both of whom were early influences. This is sadly another case of systemic prejudice in the art world that is now being corrected.

What can you tell us about his first show with the gallery, opening in New York in the spring of 2024?

The show will take its cue from the MoMA show in 1971 but will be centered around Hero’s Head (1956), which was not included in that exhibition. This is the piece that galvanizes everything, at least from my perspective, because it is an homage to Emmett Till. Richard was nineteen when he attended Till’s open-casket funeral in Chicago and one can only imagine what this did to the psyche of a young Black man. Even though the form is semi-Cubist, one can see a bashed-in eye and a bloated face, and it is clearly about the horror of that moment. The beauty of Richard’s work is that it ties seamlessly into the history of twentieth-century sculpture, but carries with it a narrative of pain, both personal and collective, and the concurrent desire for freedom. Years of Pilgrimage (1999), the work we are featuring at Art Basel Miami Beach, is formally a “drawing in space,” but it is an abstracted sharecropper’s plow, which refers to his family’s origins as cotton pickers in rural Georgia and to their migration north.

Lynne Drexler is often described as overlooked, but the same can be said of many female Abstract Expressionists. Why do you think that’s been the case?

It’s another example of the bias that has pervaded the art world for a long time. Most women were relegated to the role of girlfriend or wife. Look at Lee Krasner—a fantastic painter who remained in Jackson Pollock’s shadow long after his death and whose market has only recently entered the realm of multiple millions. Her auction record is under $12m—a fraction of what her male contemporaries would sell for. Lynne Drexler has a similar story although her auction prices have now far exceeded that of her husband, John Hultberg. She met and married him in 1961, the year of her first solo show in New York, and was thereafter relegated to the role of being his wife while he drank and philandered. She famously said, “I am a handmaiden to a genius.” It is a wonder to me that she continued to make the ferociously beautiful paintings that she did.

What periods of her work are the most sought-after?

It is a market that is less than two years old, and thus far, people have gravitated towards her breakout work from 1959-62. This is not unusual, and we have seen this with Joan Mitchell, whose dates coincide with Lynne’s, and whose later work has only now caught up in value to the earlier work. In the last round of New York auctions, a Sunflower painting from 1990-91 sold for $28M while an early painting from 1959 sold for $29M. In Lynne’s case, there are four decades of material to contextualize in exhibitions, and each period is brilliant.

Are the gallery’s moves responsive to an uncertain art market? Do people want tried and true material in this economy?

The gallery has existed for thirty years and has overcome many economic cycles. It is true to Jay Jopling’s vision, which has always been about the artists. Upholding that integrity is important. The money always follows.

You came to White Cube from Mnuchin, which is known for its dynamic shows of people like Frank Stella and Sam Gilliam. What can a gallery do to keep vintage artwork feeling fresh?

Curation is vital, especially when it comes to vintage works. Everything from the choice of the objects to the spacing between them, and the dialog they create between each other is important to the way that a work is perceived. David Hammons once told me that an installation should feel like a poem—the length of the line, the placement of the punctuation, the rhythm of the reading—all of it contributes to how it lands.

Sukanya Rajaratnam On Curating for Younger Collectors and More