Rashid Johnson - 20th Century & Contemporary Art Day Sale London Thursday, October 14, 2021 | Phillips

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  • Ever since making his debut as the youngest artist in Thelma Golden’s seminal group exhibition Freestyle at the Studio Museum in Harlem in 2001, Rashid Johnson has forged his own unique and powerful visual language. Working across a multitude of media including painting, photography, sculpture, installation, video and performance, Johnson explores themes encompassing literature, social, cultural and art history, psychology, philosophy and materiality.


    Fundamental to Rashid Johnson’s work is his characteristic, deeply subjective personal response to the world, as well as to the cultural and social experiences of the wider African American community. The materials that Rashid Johnson uses, notably the black splashes made from black soap and wax, are intimately connected with the Black body: ‘When I got older and started to see how things like shea butter and black soap were African products that really speak to an African American audience. They were delivered and sold on the streets of Harlem and the streets of Brooklyn and on the South Side of Chicago. I thought about what these materials must mean to the people that are using them and came to the conclusion that they were a way to culturise oneself in Africanness as you’re exploring or looking for an identity, especially in a country that has had such a complicated history with the people. Because of the lack of information that most Americans have about their ancestry they try to build their own histories, build a narrative or bridge to that African experience. There’s an absurdity to it, but it’s also really poetic. Those materials came to me while thinking about how that bridge functions and what that language looks like and how you can adopt the foreign space and the application of that foreign space to your body and how misinformed that can be’.i Johnson integrates these ideas and materials into his artistic practice, their multiple uses allow for multiple meanings, readings and significances. Used alongside his interest in abstraction and mark-making influenced by art history, Johnson creates new opportunities for the materials to carry multiple purposes.


    The poignancy of including these nostalgic materials is further emphasised by the way Johnson manipulates them onto the surface- pouring the soap and wax from kettle or saucepan onto the fragmented and fractured mirrored plain. The technique that Johnson uses to work with the materials often relates to and engages with the history of the medium. His mother was a history professor and subsequently the artist thinks deeply about not only a personal history but the history of medium and its discourse. Johnson has reflected how the use of tiles or fragmented surfaces as his base structure harks to a personal experience when he was studying at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. Suffering from anxiety, he would frequent a Russian and Turkish bathhouse. In the ‘Russian Room’ the walls were covered in white tiles and the bathers would stare at the walls to give their neighbours privacy. Johnson began imagining the front of white ceramic tiles as a sort of canvas which could enable a plethora of new ideas. Later Johnson mused: ‘It was really an interesting time in my life. I was growing in ways that I couldn’t have expected. I was exposed to themes and ideas that were fresh and new. I was in a basement with men, shvitzing and it was a portal.’ii


    Throughout the diverse extent of his artistic output, Johnson's influences from other artists is vividly apparent: Willem de Kooning in the gestural abstract painterly quality, Sol Lewitt in his building and implementation of structures, and Jackson Pollock in the energetic splatters of black soap. Johnson pools these together into an aesthetic that is solely his own: ‘I can look at Pollock and think, “Oh yes, this takes on Western themes. This is a white male artist in a canonised white male context.” But I could see my own energy there. I could see themes that I think mattered to me in the work.’iii


    Executed on a large scale, the geometric mirrored tiled surface of Black Lines, 2012, is disrupted by intermittent shattering and wonderfully contrasted by the organic, expressionistic splashes of poured melting pots of black soap. Whilst confronting serious topics and ideas, the work is also undeniably beautiful, as the artist once confessed: ‘It took time for me to forgive myself for thinking that beauty was ok.’iv


    Rashid Johnson is currently being celebrated with solo exhibitions at both David Kordansky Gallery, Los Angeles and Storm King Art Centre, New York and he recently had an exhibition at MoMA PS1 which ended earlier this month.

    A brush with… Rashid Johnson, The Art Newspaper, 26 August 2020, podcast


    i Rashid Johnson, quoted in, Paul Laster ‘An Interview with Rashid Johnson: “I was more African before going to Africa”, Conceptual Fine Arts, 26 October 2016, online 
    ii Rashid Johnson, quoted in Claire Barliant ‘Escape artist – an interview with Rashid Johnson’, apollo magazine, 8 November 2020, online
    iii Ibid.
    iv Rashid Johnson,  in interview, ‘A brush with… Rashid Johnson’, The Art Newspaper, podcast

    • Provenance

      Hauser & Wirth, London
      Private Collection
      SAKS Gallery, Geneva
      Acquired from the above by the present owner in October 2012


Black Lines

signed 'Rashid Johnson' on the reverse
mirrored tiles, black soap and wax on panel, in 6 parts
overall 245.8 x 306.2 cm (96 3/4 x 120 1/2 in.)
Executed in 2012.

Full Cataloguing

£140,000 - 180,000 

Sold for £176,400

Contact Specialist

Tamila Kerimova
Specialist, Director, Head of Day Sale

20th Century & Contemporary Art

+44 20 7318 4065
[email protected]

20th Century & Contemporary Art Day Sale

London Auction 14 October 2021