…the frazzled faces are stacked like pictures in a yearbook, or perhaps men in a cellblock. 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.”
Lauded for his multifaceted approach and timely embodiment of our uncertain era, Rashid Johnson’s dynamic oeuvre speaks to a world inundated with impulses and overstimulation, as well as an artist’s journey through a treacherous world. “Fear is a stabilizer and anxiety is an alert system,” says Johnson. “There’s so many things happening today that my spidey sense goes off, and that’s my anxiety, and I’m happy to have it” (R. Johnson, quoted in A. Martinez, “Anxious Man: Rashid Johnson on Navigating Worry, Violence and Parenthood”, Observer, September 28, 2016).
Capitalizing on his internalized disquiet, Anxious Red Painting December 18th encapsulates some of the edge and frustration of life during Covid-19 lockdown in 2020. Part of an ongoing motif of grimacing, anxious faces, Johnson’s diaristic canvas evolved from his Anxious Men series (2015-17) by employing a new red paint (fittingly titled ‘Anxious Red’) custom-tailored to the artist’s need to create during the emotional intensity of a global pandemic. Swapping black and white media for bloody crimson, Johnson’s new body of work exhibits an increased urgency in line with the severity of current affairs.
Composed on a horizontal grid, twenty-eight stylized faces stare out at the viewer. Rendered in frenetic strokes of red over an armature of black lines on white, Johnson’s cadre of characters exhibits the cartoonish structure of Keith Haring overlaid with the fervor of Cy Twombly’s passionate mark-making. Each visage is composed of two bulging eyes and a jumble of lines that forms thinly-stretched lips or jagged teeth depending on the direction of the artist’s stroke. Inscribed within black rectangles, these faces vibrate and jostle within their frames in an effort to spill out into real space. As noted, in previous works Johnson has employed black instead of red, and New York Times critic Roberta Smith remarked, “The frazzled faces are stacked like pictures in a yearbook, or perhaps men in a cellblock. 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” (R. Smith, “In ‘Fly Away,’ Rashid Johnson Keeps the Focus on Race”, New York Times, September 15, 2016).
[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.”
Though Anxious Red Painting December 18th swaps the black media for red oil, the order underlying the entire composition lends itself to a logical continuation of the artist’s earlier works. The lines are serpentine and full of movement, but they remain bound by even thickness and Johnson’s visual substructure.
As the youngest artist included in Thelma Golden’s 2001 Freestyle exhibition at the Studio Museum in Harlem, Johnson inserted himself into a broader critical conversation early in his career. Thinking about materials and their connections to issues of identity, race, and class, he often uses disparate media to most effectively communicate his ideas. Having studied as a photographer at the Art Institute of Chicago, he shifted to a multidisciplinary practice in an effort more fully explore conceptual post-black methodologies. Talking about growing up the son of an African history professor and being introduced to distinctly African objects and materials, Johnson remarked, “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 culturize 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” (R. Johnson, quoted in P. Laster, “An interview with Rashid Johnson: ‘I was more African before going to Africa,’” Conceptual Fine Arts, October 26, 2016). By sticking to a more analytic, exploratory track rather than strictly autobiographical, Johnson has been able to reach a wide audience and examine issues that relate to a large swath of the population.
In an effort to continue this examination of societal constructions, Johnson’s 2020 Anxious paintings present themselves as an illustration of communal angst. Though created through a personal connection to the ongoing catastrophes of 2020, the multitude of faces give substance to what many were feeling simultaneous with their fellow humans. In a conversation with ArtReview, Johnson spoke about the Anxious Red Paintings, noting, “I think that they’ve always had so much opportunity to explore themes that were related to the times which they were made.” Regarding his work as a touchstone for the present, Johnson sees himself and the rest of society in the writhing 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” (R. Johnson, quoted in M. Rappolt, “Rashid Johnson on Anxiety, Agency and Digital Exhibitions,” Art Review, December 4, 2020). Not cemented into one definitive meaning, the Anxious Red Paintings instead act as a manifestation of a collective seething energy brought on by the pandemic’s colossal interruption to our way of life.
Proceeds from the sale of this work will benefit CORE (Community Organized Relief Effort), a disaster response organization founded by Sean Penn and Ann Lee and dedicated to saving lives impacted by or that are vulnerable to crisis. Since March 2020, CORE has been working on the frontlines with public and private partners to provide free COVID-19 testing, essential resources, contact tracing programs, and life-saving vaccines to communities most affected by the pandemic. CORE’s mission aims to address the inherent intersection of disaster and social justice; whether it be in their domestic or international relief programs, CORE is the first on the ground to provide critical services to communities who need them most.
Ann Lee, one of the co-founders and Chief Executive Officer of CORE, commented, “We are not out of the woods yet. COVID-19 has laid bare the deep inequalities that people in this country face. We are working directly with marginalized communities to ensure that those who need vaccines get them. We are immensely grateful to Christie’s for their partnership to raise critical funds and awareness, and are sincerely humbled by those who have so generously donated pieces to benefit CORE’s continued work on the frontlines of this crisis. History will remember those who are rising to the occasion during this inflection point for the human race."
Throughout the years, CORE has received an overwhelming support from the art world and, through its partnership with Christie's, has been able to raise over $4million in auctions to support programs in Haiti, Bahamas, Puerto Rico and the US.
The selection of contemporary artworks has been generously donated by the artists themselves, with proceeds from the sale directly benefiting CORE’s COVID-19 programs across Los Angeles, Navajo Nation, Washington D.C., Chicago, New Orleans, Georgia, and North Carolina.
Lot Essay Header Image: Present lot illustrated (detail).