Rashid Johnson - 20th Century & Contemporary Art Evening Sale New York Wednesday, May 17, 2023 | Phillips

Create your first list.

Select an existing list or create a new list to share and manage lots you follow.

  • Rashid Johnson prefers the term “collision” over “collage” to describe the combinations of patterns, textures, and materials in his work.i In Untitled Escape Collage, 2016, diamonds of verdant, hyper-saturated palm trees press against a tight grid of white, orange, and green tiles. The diagonals of the diamonds clash against the squared grid. The work seems to alternate between two spaces—the hard grid of city reality (Johnson’s native Chicago, perhaps, or his current home, New York), against the fantasy of palm trees, which, to Johnson, represent success and escape from the cold of his Midwestern upbringing.ii These overlapping maps are interconnected by yellow oilstick marks and small, ovoid cut-outs in the diamonds, like eyes in a mask, which reveal glimpses of the underlying tile. On top of this collision/collage are four distinct areas of black soap, melted and dripping down the tile surface. The rich visual juxapositions of the Untitled Escape Collage series have landed the works in prestigious public and private collections, including those of the Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art, Kansas City, and the Dallas Museum of Art, among others.


    Johnson combines a core of conceptualism with a deep interest in materials. As an art student, he enjoyed viewing Abstract Expressionist works at the Art Institute of Chicago, finding inspiration in the ways in which Franz Kline, Jackson Pollock, and others manipulated paint in unexpected ways. The experimental quality of the Abstract Expressionists inspired his own integration of unusual materials into his work, particularly shea butter and black soap, as seen in Untitled Escape Collage. In a 2019 interview, he explained how his practice is about “taking cultural materials and then allowing them to perform in very contemporary ways…allowing them to become abstractions…or tools…while still having a really strong signifier relationship to its cultural underpinning and root.”iii


    Jackson Pollock, Convergence, 1952. Buffalo AKG Art Museum. Image: Buffalo AKG Art Museum / Art Resource, NY, Artwork: © 2023 Pollock-Krasner Foundation / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

    Indeed, Johnson’s large swaths of black soap in Untitled Escape Collage mimic Pollock’s drip paintings and Kline’s wide black gestures, while remaining grounded in the material’s cultural roots. Comparing the application of black soap in Untitled Escape Collage to the drip paintings of Pollock, or the wide black gestures of Kline, one can see how black soap achieves this visual abstraction, while staying connected to its cultural root. Black soap is a traditional West African soap, which Johnson described as “this kind of healing material,” found not only in West Africa, but “on the streets of Harlem, Brooklyn, and Chicago. It becomes this signifier,” he said, “a symbol for cleansing material. It’s for people with sensitive skin, so I’m [using it to talk] about a sensitive issue,” namely, race.iv This deep conceptual and cultural meaning behind black soap gives the work its conceptual heft. By pouring black soap in a thick wash down the front of Untitled Escape Collage, the material transforms, abstract and symbolic at once.

    “To Johnson, like black soap, Blackness is malleable and yet firm, sensitive and complex.”
    The theme of escape is crucial to Johnson across his oeuvre.v As a Black man whose mother was a history professor, Johnson draws long historical parallels to escape in the Black American experience—there’s the phenomenon of enslaved people escaping from the South to the North; the Great Migration of the early 20th century; Marcus Garvey, and “Back to Africa” Black Nationalist movements.vi Johnson’s work is at home within Afrofuturist aesthetics, which are guided by an ambitious, fantastical, self-determined sensibility, a belief that a radically different future is possible.vii

    Alteronce Gumby, Water, Stone, and Liquid Thoughts, 2022. Image/Artwork: © 2023 Alteronce Gumby / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York


    Beyond Black history and Afrofuturism, though, Johnson stresses the relatability of escape to all of our lives. “Escape is impossible, in some respect,” he says. “Escape is temporary, at best.”viii But despite the futility of escape, the idea of escape opens up questions—“How we escape, where we escape, what’s possible, where can we go?”—that cause us to think creatively. “It all loops back into the bits of self-exploration,” Johnson says, which is what making art is all about.ix



    Rashid Johnson, quoted in Spencer Bailey, “Rashid Johnson on Escapism and Upending the Notion of the ‘Monolithic Experience,’” Time Sensitive (podcast), Nov. 6, 2019.

    ii Johnson, quoted in “Rashid Johnson: Hail We Now Sing Joy,” Milwaukee Art Museum, 2017, online.

    iii Ibid.

    iv Johnson, quoted in Touré, “Artist Rashid Johnson Loves Being Black,” L’Officiel, Feb 15., 2018, online.

    Johnson, quoted in Bailey.

    vi Ibid.

    vii “Before Yesterday We Could Fly: An Afrofuturist Period Room,” exhibition text, The Metropolitan Museum, 2021, online.

    viii Johnson, quoted in Bailey.

    ix Ibid.

    • Provenance

      Hauser & Wirth, New York
      Acquired from the above by the present owner

Property of a Private Collector


Untitled Escape Collage

signed "Rashid Johnson" on the reverse of the left panel
ceramic tile, black soap, wax, vinyl and spray enamel, in 2 parts
95 3/4 x 142 1/2 in. (243.2 x 362 cm)
Executed in 2016.

Full Cataloguing

$800,000 - 1,200,000 

Sold for $990,600

Contact Specialist

Carolyn Mayer
Associate Specialist, Head of Evening Sale, New York
+1 212 940 1206

20th Century & Contemporary Art Evening Sale

New York Auction 17 May 2023