Rashid Johnson - 20th Century & Contemporary Art Day Sale, Afternoon Session New York Wednesday, November 15, 2023 | Phillips

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  • In Rashid Johnson’s wall-based sculptures the world is laid out on a two-dimensional plane but also collapses in on itself in a psychedelic rift on reality. In Untitled Escape Collage, 2018, Johnson constructs a fictional habitat comprised of African masks, hyper saturated palm trees, patterned animal skins and colored ceramic tiles. Johnson’s assemblage is familiar and otherworldly alike, an abstract imagining of alternative futures. Johnson’s exploration of escape is grounded in the tenants of Afrofuturism, a diverse artistic and cultural aesthetic that promotes the African diasporic experience and envisions liberated Black futures. 


    In Untitled Escape Collage, visual collisions fuse in a manner that gives way to something greater than the sum of their parts. Patterned in a homogenous, diamond-oriented shape, the kaleidoscopic composition encompasses geometric blocks of tropicalia, cut outs of masks and smears of black wax, soap and enamel. Ovoid collages are sliced by gestural linear smears. Palm trees, a frequent motif across Johnson's practice, are featured throughout the work in heavily filtered photographs that feature light leaks and color casts reminiscent of Instagram filters used to idealize reality. To Johnson, the tree symbolizes success and carefree escape from the cold of his Midwestern upbringing. In concert with his eclectic visual tableau, they form the backbone of a utopic Afrofuturist imagining. 

    “I really wanted to create a body of work that spoke to the agency of the black character. In order to do that, I started to produce more of an escapist...There’s often a negative connotation to the word “escapism,” as if you’re not dealing with the realities of our times. But I see it as very optimistic.”
    —Rashid Johnson

    Untitled Escape Collage sits within a lineage of Afrofuturism that spans the fields of music, literature, philosophy and fashion. The breadth of this aesthetic allows the for diverse imaginative approaches as well as comprehensive worldbuilding, as exemplified in the present example. The term “Afrofuturism” was coined by Mark Dery in a 1994 essay titled “Black to the Future” and describes fantastical and magical realist approaches to thinking about and representing Black life. Afrofuturism was further developed and popularized by the musician Sun Ra, whose mythical persona, elaborate performances and science-fiction inspired visuals complemented his experimental sound. The artists Rammellzee (often remembered as a friend and collaborator of Basquiat), Ellen Gallagher, Lauren Halsey and Wangechi Mutu have all engaged with Afrofuturist ideas and visuals, which are characterized by rich color palettes, openness to technology, and references to historic African imagery.


    Rammellzee. Image: Mari Horiuchi

    Johnson draws form Afrofuturism’s fantastical eclecticism and open-mindedness. His escapism offers a strategic approach; he reflects: "I really wanted to create a body of work that spoke to the agency of the black character. In order to do that, I started to produce more of an escapist strategy in the way that the work was coming to life... There’s often a negative connotation to the word “escapism,” as if you’re not dealing with the realities of our times. But I see it as very optimistic. And I think that kind of optimism becomes infectious."i 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. 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.


    Johnson’s material transformations represent abstract potentials with objects rooted in reality. 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.”ii 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.iii  This deep conceptual and cultural meaning behind black soap gives the work its conceptual heft. By pouring black soap in two thick washes down the front of Untitled Escape Collage, Johnson exemplifies his unique ability to manipulate quotidian materials in a deeply symbolic and restorative way. 


    Beyond Afrofuturism, Johnson stresses the relatability of escape to all our lives. “Escape is impossible, in some respect,” he says. “Escape is temporary, at best.” 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.iv



    Rashid Johnson in Dan Weiskopf, “At Home in Abstraction: Interview with Rashid Johnson,” Burnaway Magazine, June 20, 2013, online.

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

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

    iv Ibid.

    • Provenance

      Courtesy of the Artist, Hauser & Wirth and David Kordansky Gallery
      ArtCrush Benefit Auction, August 3, 2018, lot 10
      Private Collection, Los Angeles (acquired at the above sale)
      Acquired from the above by the present owner


Untitled Escape Collage

ceramic tile, mirror tile, vinyl, animal skin, branded red oak flooring, spray enamel, oil stick, black soap and wax
97 x 121 x 2 1/2 in. (246.4 x 307.3 x 6.4 cm)
Executed in 2018.

Full Cataloguing

$600,000 - 800,000 

Sold for $635,000

Contact Specialist

Patrizia Koenig 
Specialist, Head of Sale, Afternoon Session
+1 212 940 1279 

20th Century & Contemporary Art Day Sale, Afternoon Session

New York Auction 15 November 2023