The Anxiety and Ecstasy of Rashid Johnson

He moved to New York in 2005, on the heels of the successful Studio Museum show, and rented a tiny one-bedroom apartment on the Lower East Side. Soon he embraced painting, sculpture, and assemblage as his primary modes of art making, and began to investigate his own identity through portraits of himself and others cosplaying as Black icons, from the abolitionist Frederick Douglass to the Supreme Court justice Thurgood Marshall. He made text paintings with direct warnings like Run (2008) and a digital print that announces in a lurid pink substance: “I Talk White.” He created pyramid-like shrines in installations such as 2010’s A Place for Black Moses, presenting a chantry with various offerings: plants, books, black soap, vinyl records, and a gold-leaf-covered space rock.

In 2007, Johnson began making his Cosmic Slops series, using an amalgam of black soap and microcrystalline wax reliefs, and would continue to use black soap in his work for years: in his altar Triple Consciousness (2009), the mirror The Moment of Creation (2011), and Untitled Microphone Sculpture (2018), which together established him as a kind of virtuoso of Black beauty products. (Shea butter is also commonly found in his work.) The soap’s aroma is a way to evoke Black collective memory; take it in and you can almost see Harlem’s 125th Street, its various vendors selling wares of the African diaspora from card tables as a kind of race pride.

In 2011, Johnson reached a new level of stature when he signed with the mega–gallery Hauser & Wirth, making him one of the few Black artists with major gallery support.
(I work as a director at Gagosian, a role in which I have sought Johnson’s advice and received his unsolicited pitches for artists he thinks might work for the gallery’s program.) “We had been following his work for some time,” Iwan Wirth, one of the owners, told me. “We immediately recognized an incredibly erudite practice and a highly original thinker. Rashid is a perpetual innovator—the work is constantly evolving.”

In 2016, Johnson and I walked through Hauser & Wirth’s old Manhattan location, in Chelsea, where he presented the monumental Antoine’s Organ (2016), a 20-foot-tall gridded installation overflowing with lush flora, books, shea butter sculptures, small televisions looping the artist’s older video works, and handcrafted pottery from which succulents and palms bloomed. At the core of the social sculpture was an upright piano played sporadically by the pianist Antoine Baldwin. It was a remarkable synthesizing of the personal and art historical with wider cultural references encompassing voices from literature, music, and critical theory.

Johnson uses black soap in his works to evoke certain standards of Black beauty.

One of his Anxious Men paintings, hanging in his Brooklyn studio.

More recently Johnson has become a chronicler of the angst that accompanies being a Black man in America. In the fall of 2015, at the Drawing Center, in Manhattan, he debuted his Anxious Men paintings, works of abstract, distressed faces that grew out of the anxiety he felt that summer as he watched CNN’s coverage of the Black Lives Matter movement. More recently, at the Metropolitan Opera, in 2021, Johnson presented The Chorus, an exhibition of two giant mosaics made of broken tile, mirrors, and oyster shells, each featuring nine haunted figures that were inspired, he said, by Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. And if you travel through Delta’s new terminal at the renovated LaGuardia Airport, the artist’s 45-foot-tall wall of 60 ceramic faces, The Travelers, is there to greet you. These are works of angst and joy, alienation and unity; they remind us, as we pass through these iconic public spaces, that we are at least alone together.

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