A Blacker Mirror

John Haber
in New York City

Rashid Johnson

Rashid Johnson finds an African American history as yet unwritten. It could hardly be otherwise, for much of that history is his, going back a generation. He creates at least a dozen personal and cultural histories, and he makes it hard to know which is which. He could be questioning a shared identity—or claiming multiple identities for the wealth of African American experience.

Black artists everywhere are reclaiming the past and the nation as their own. Johnson may seem to stand apart. A show of "Smoke and Mirrors" in 2009 cited influences from music to Minimalism. They and other traces lay in books, photographs, and other objects on makeshift shelving. Still more clung to a black painting that filled the opposite wall. They did not pretend to cohere, no more than a favorite musician of his, Sun Ra. Rashid Johnson's The Ritual (Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, 2015)

They also looked forlorn, as if the artist were struggling to hold onto his memories. The occasional potted plant, too, made a small side gallery look too large for its own good. Is that crusty, black expanse a challenge to formalism, African American history, or the viewer? I hardly know whether to call it smoke or a mirror. Still, it had me coming back to find out. Here I return to two shows eight years apart to look for clues.

With "The Dead Lecturer" in 2008, only an imaginary history and a huge target connected its parts. And with "Fly Away" in 2016, Johnson has set aside the personal—if only for a moment. Is he too mature now for anything less, or are things too urgent? He opens with a searing room of black faces, like street art run mad on its way to Chelsea. Soon enough, though, you get even more heartfelt associations as well. A separate review recovers one of its sources at the Drawing Center, in images of his father.


For an artist so often tagged as post-black, Rashid Johnson has a clear eye on blackness. And anyone who takes time with "The Dead Lecturer" can delight in his obsessions. He has plenty from which to choose at that. The show latches onto real blackness, but also a fully imagined past. It claims to describe "the New Negro Escapist Social and Athletic Club." The Harlem Renaissance was never like this—but it could have been.

At least in theory, and Johnson mentions more than one relevant theorist. His artist's statement seeks an audience in the language of dating ads: "Must enjoy race mongering, disparate disconnected thoughts, and sunsets (really). Familiarity with the work of Sun Ra, Joseph Beuys, Rosalind Krauss, Richard Pryor, Hans Haacke, Carl Andre, and interest in spelunking the death of identity a plus." Johnson's ad sets high standards, but one may find oneself wanting to meet them. Besides, one has clues to help.

Haacke might have picked out racism with the larger-than-life gun sight that targets the installation itself or anyone who dares to approach it. Beuys might have saved through years of war the soap that Johnson has fashioned into bowls of cornmeal, dubbed The Crisis of the Negro Intellectual. Andre might have made the black slabs of wax and soap on the walls, or he might have left them on the floor for ill-behaved visitors to stain their shoes. Krauss might have praised them as knockoffs, and Pryor would have laughed. Sun Ra might have contributed the cape from a galactic spacesuit that hangs nearby—or the background music for club members. Club meetings seem to have neglected socializing and sports for distant galaxies and higher mathematics.

Club members try to look their best in photographs, with names like Thurgood (as in Marshall) and Emmett (as in Till), in the broad-collared suits and sports jackets of a less ironic era. Johnson stakes his claim to history so convincingly that I could almost swear I recognized one dapper, serious-looking fellow as an actual musician. Just one young man, I am guessing the artist, plays all the others. He also manages the centerpiece of a very decentered exhibition. Its black shelves hold more yellow porridge, framed photos, some heavy-duty radio equipment, and an out-of-print encyclopedia of mathematics that intimidated me as a child. Like Sun Ra, the work stands at the nexus of the Great Migration, civil rights, art, and space aliens.

Even a post-black identity needs ancestors, the ancestors that Hank Willis Thomas and Kerry James Marshall are still seeking. Johnson appeared in "Freestyle" at the Studio Museum in Harlem, the 2001 show of emerging artists that popularized the term. He often gives his photographs a vintage patina, and he has expressed wonderment that digital photos will never fade in quite the same way, even as he poses in the guise of black history. He likes the white borders of yearbooks and studio photography, the same borders that framed his nocturnal black hand in "Freestyle." Post-black here means not abandoning or confronting stereotypes, but wearing them lightly. As that classified ad adds, "a sense of humor a must."

The ad also identifies his interests as "Godard films and masturbation," presumably at least half mental. Work like this hardly cares whether one calls it eloquent or frustrating, so long as one remembers to listen, to feel, and to smile. Anyone can lose patience with Johnson's spray-painted messages, such as the word RUN on a mirror here. For that matter, anyone can lose patience with Haacke, Krauss, Beuys, and Sun Ra. Sure, his first solo exhibition in New York may or may not add up, but it could add up. It is not about additions so much as aspirations.

That guy

At the start of "Fly Away," four rows of faces stare out from six large paintings. They blend together as caricatures, somewhere between horrified and grinning. They would look at home in a painting by Jean-Michel Basquiat, and Johnson works on tiles much like subway walls. Yet he conceives them as individuals. He thinks of every one of them as "that guy," even as he pours on a mix of black soap and wax—and then cuts into it before it dries. This is death by a thousand cuts.

The faces occupy a kind of negative space, the space of what deconstruction might call "under erasure"—and what the black community might know as invisibility to white eyes. They also endure further omissions, from gaps in the grid here and there without a face. Black lives matter, they say, except when they do not. Painting is serious business, except when it is exuberant and funny. It bears witness, but then so do its viewers. What began as Anxious Men, at the Drawing Center in 2015, has become Anxious Audiences, including you.

Johnson has made a career of riffing on personal associations. He might toss in a space suit out of Sun Ra or a photo of his father, a text in African American literature or a comic novel. It works because he is a consummate riffer—and because his associations speak to others, too. Here there is no getting around not just street art, race, and politics, but also the grid and monochrome of Minimalism. Anxious audiences may remember Abstract Expressionism as the "anxious object" for Harold Rosenberg, and those black faces arise from poured paint (or a reasonable substitute) and the artist's gesture. More than before, though, they ask to collaborate with others.

Not that Johnson has set his obsessions behind. Besides ceramics, his grids often include shelves and mirrors, as in "Storylines" the year before at the Guggenheim. And here soap, bathroom tiles, and broken mirrors outline the upside-down stick figures of his Fallen Men, as pixilated as an old video game. That photo of his father sneaks back into a medley of black silhouettes, colored tiles, and stock photographs of tropical plants, as Escape Collages. Johnson has used actual house plants before, in the hope of producing something alive. The show's final room recaps it all on a mammoth scale, with shelves of plants, books, heads sculpted in shea butter, and videos going back to his years at the University of Chicago.

Still, he is not just baring his soul, but embracing its place in public art. If a falling man makes you think of the Twin Towers, in an instantly famous photograph, this show opened just in time for the fifteenth anniversary of 9/11. Johnson has often used shea butter, the bright yellow gunk sold on the streets of Harlem and used in Africa for anything from cosmetics to foodstuffs. (His mother is a professor of African history.) Here he lays out a large table of it, fragmented and unsculpted, to expose his materials and his art. That mammoth final installation is an active collaboration with a pianist, Antoine Baldwin, who shows up when he pleases and produces swelling chords out of Keith Jarrett or McCoy Tyner.

The show also has an implicit narrative, from anxiety to escape and back again. Do not, though, expect too tidy an ending. The installation, Antoine's Organ, refuses to wrap up its themes in a neat package. Its books include Native Son but also The End of Blackness, for an artist often associated with "post-black identity" in art, and Sellout, for an artist who has moved to one of Chelsea's largest, whitest, and wealthiest galleries. It even hides the pianist on a high shelf within. If you spot him, bear witness.

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Rashid Johnson ran at Nicole Klagsbrun through May 29, 2008, and at Hauser & Wirth through October 22, 2016. "Smoke and Mirrors" ran at SculptureCenter through August 3, 2009. A related review visits his "Anxious Men."


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