Rashid Johnson - Modern & Contemporary Art Evening Sale New York Tuesday, May 14, 2024 | Phillips

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  •  “Anxiety is part of my life… It’s part of my being and how I relate to the world, and being honest with that struggle has been rewarding for me. It has led to the kind of self-exploration that produces fertile ground for my output as an artist.”
    —Rashid Johnson

    Executed in 2020, Rashid Johnson's Anxious Red Painting September 24th emanates a raw, visceral intensity that offers a poignant reflection of our uncertain era. Distressed and agitated, the artist’s scrawled faces emerge from a thick web of brilliant red impasto. The present work is from a discrete body of work that served as Johnson’s visual exploration of communal apprehension, reflecting the shared experiences of individuals amidst the upheaval of 2020. While these deeply personal images originate from the artist’s experience during the turmoil of the year, the array of faces give tangible form to the collective sentiments that are felt concurrently among humanity. The profound resonance of Anxious Red Painting September 24th is underscored by the inclusion of a similar work in the permanent collection of the Art Institute of Chicago, speaking to this series’ significance within Johnson’s oeuvre. Working in the midst of great social instability, Johnson has imbued this painting with a negotiation of the complex interplays between subjectivity and universality, figuration and abstraction.


    Jean Dubuffet, Dhôtel shaded with apricot (Dhôtel nuancé d'abricot), July-August, 1947. Musée National d'Art Moderne, Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris. Image: © CNAC/MNAM, Dist. RMN-Grand Palais / Art Resource, NY, Artwork: © 2024 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / ADAGP, Paris

    A strikingly poignant relic from a period of global disquiet, Anxious Red Painting September 24th encapsulates the isolation, fear, and frustration the world collectively experienced during the COVID-19 lockdowns in 2020. Employing one of Johnson’s most enduring pictorial tropes—wincing, nervous faces—the present work represents a progression from Johnson’s acclaimed Anxious Men series (2015–2017) intensified by a new medium: a singular shade of red paint (aptly titled “Anxious Red”). This bespoke hue, custom-produced to match the emotional distress caused by a global pandemic, replaced his previous black and white palette with a visceral crimson. “These new works are pared down, and I like the spartan quality of them…,” Johnson recalled. I associate [the vivid red] with urgency, blood, and alarm. I spent time quickly conjuring images that had a relationship to earlier works but are fresh and new because of the circumstances in which they were made. I needed a cathartic release, a way to describe my emotional state… This was something that I felt needed to happen quickly.”This body of work captured the tumultuous emotions of a world in turmoil, executed with an amplified urgency reflecting the severity of contemporary events.

    “This is an incredibly difficult time. It feels simultaneously unsettling, urgent, and radical.”
    —Rashid Johnson

    Arranged in a gridded structure, twenty-eight abstracted visages meet the eyes of the viewer. Rendered with dynamic red gestures against a white background, Johnson's ensemble of characters coalesces the cartoon-esque whimsy of Keith Haring with the expressive fervor of Cy Twombly’s approach. Each blocked head is comprised of a pair of protruding eyes and a series of energetic lines forming clenched teeth or tightly pressed lips, depending on the application of the strokes. Enclosed within squares, the heads appear agitated, as though striving to escape their boundaries and enter physical reality. “The frazzled faces are stacked like pictures in a yearbook, or perhaps men in a cellblock,” the critic Roberta Smith remarked of Johnson’s Anxious Men series. “They bring to mind the work of Basquiat, Dubuffet and Gary Simmons, but mainly they surround us with an arena filled with angry or fearful spectators.”ii Despite the sinuous smoothness of the strokes, they adhere to a consistent thickness, furthering the claustrophobic nature of the composition.


    Cy Twombly, Untitled, 2005. Private Collection. Sold for $41,640,000 USD through Phillips, New York, November 2022. Artwork: © Cy Twombly Foundation.

    Resisting a singular interpretation, Anxious Red Painting September 24th embodies the collective tumultuous energy that was catalyzed by the pandemic's profound disruption to our daily existence. Reflecting on this body of work, Johnson said, “I think that they’ve always had so much opportunity to explore themes that were related to the times which they were made.” Viewing his work as a point of reference for the current moment, the artist perceives the whole of society in these contorted faces. “[T]he characters have more or less graduated into really being deconstructed in a way where they’re just losing their minds, more or less. I think with what we’ve been facing around quarantine, in particular, the absurdity of being removed from our society and the complexity of that has definitely evolved how the characters are able to speak.”iii


    i Rashid Johnson, “Anxiety is a part of my life…,” CNN, May 8, 2020, online.

    ii Roberta Smith, “In ‘Fly Away,’ Rashid Johnson Keeps the Focus on Race,” The New York Times, September 15, 2016, online.

    iii Rashid Johnson, quoted in Mark Rappolt, “Rashid Johnson on Anxiety, Agency and Digital Exhibitions,” Art Review, December 4, 2020, online.

    • Provenance

      Hauser & Wirth
      Acquired from the above by the present owner in 2020

Property from an Important Collection


Anxious Red Painting September 24th

signed, partially titled and dated "Rashid Johnson SEPT 24TH 2020" on the reverse
oil on linen
72 1/4 x 96 1/4 in. (183.5 x 244.5 cm)
Painted in 2020.

Full Cataloguing

$1,000,000 - 1,500,000 

Sold for $1,391,000

Contact Specialist

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

Modern & Contemporary Art Evening Sale

New York Auction 14 May 2024