Rashid Johnson - 20th Century & Contemporary Art Day Sale, Afternoon Session New York Wednesday, May 15, 2019 | Phillips

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  • Provenance

    Hauser & Wirth
    Acquired from the above by the present owner

  • Catalogue Essay

    Executed in 2016, Rashid Johnson’s Color Men exudes a raw, visceral immediacy that implicates both the artist and viewer in its poignant interrogation of today’s America. Wild and agitated, Johnson’s scrawled faces emerge from a thick, black impasto employing a kind of drawing through erasure. A candid recording of the frenetic motions of the artist’s hand, the present lot developed out of a body of work titled Anxious Men, portraits made of black soap and wax on tile which were created for his 2015 solo exhibition at the Drawing Center in New York. Working during a time of violence, racial injustice and political instability, Johnson described the making of these portraits as a cathartic process by which he was able to explore his own fears and anxieties, the notion of collective black identities, and the ongoing dialogue between figuration and abstraction.

    In Color Men, a grid of crudely etched faces is rendered in black soap and wax applied to household tile. Johnson has employed black soap throughout his oeuvre, alluding to the idea of cleanliness and the notion that skin color cannot be washed away. The material usage of black soap in Johnson’s portraits mimics the palpable concerns of racial anxiety felt by the artist and the African American community at large. In Color Men, these anonymous faces with their violent, slashed mouths and crazed eyes confront the viewer with a frightening candidness. For Johnson, the repetition of faces becomes a literal depiction of crowds – a powerful visual rendering of collective memory and shared experience. The two-dimensional flatness of the composition further emphasizes the compressed nature of simplified narratives of black identity in America – constructed, portrayed and perceived by various sociopolitical perspectives.

    Johnson’s engagement with and treatment of materials is deeply engrained within the history of painting. Scratching and scraping, spreading and scoring, he creates a dense, variegated surface from which his Color Men emerge. Reminiscent of the “art brut” aesthetic popularized by Jean Dubuffet nearly a century prior, Johnson’s portraits are deliberately visceral and rudimentary in appearance. A champion of “anti-art”, Dubuffet believed his works were embodiments of emotion and instinct, as exemplified in his powerfully charged portraits brutishly carved from a mixture of oil, sand and rock. Like Dubuffet, Johnson’s portraits are primitive and filled with an undeniable urgency, necessitated by the rapidity with which the black soap dries. Of his materials, Johnson explains: “There’s something about those pieces that is very much about the anxiety of movement…You’re dealing with a material that has to be negotiated in a short period of time. The black soap and wax is melted down into a liquid, and after it’s poured you have between five and ten minutes to manipulate it” (Rashid Johnson, quoted in Dylan Kerr, “My Body of Art – Rashid Johnson on the hidden depths in Jackson Pollock’s Full Fathom Five”, Phaidon, 2015, online). The immediacy of Johnson’s process emulates his forbearer, as materiality dictates form and conventional notions of beauty are eschewed in favor of pure expression. The resulting wide-eyed subjects in Color Men indeed express the terrifying realities confronting contemporary America, demanding an audience for such difficult topics and reflecting the artist’s own anxieties at large.


Color Men

spray enamel, black soap and wax on ceramic tile
96 x 80 in. (243.8 x 203.2 cm.)
Executed in 2016.

$200,000 - 300,000 

Sold for $500,000

Contact Specialist
Rebekah Bowling
Head of Day Sale, Afternoon Session
New York
+ 1 212 940 1250

20th Century & Contemporary Art Day Sale, Afternoon Session

New York Auction 15 May | On View at 450 Park Avenue