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This lot will be removed to our storage facility a… Read more PROPERTY FROM A DISTINGUISHED AMERICAN COLLECTION

Untitled Anxious Audience

Untitled Anxious Audience
signed 'Rashid Johnson' (on the reverse)
black soap and wax on ceramic tiles
73 x 94 1/2 x 2 1/2in. (185.4 x 240 x 6.4cm.)
Executed in 2016
Hauser and Wirth, New York.
Acquired from the above by the present owner.
Special notice
This lot will be removed to our storage facility at Momart. Christie’s will inform you if the lot has been sent offsite. Our removal and storage of the lot is subject to the terms and conditions of storage which can be found at Christies.com/storage and our fees for storage are set out in the table below - these will apply whether the lot remains with Christie’s or is removed elsewhere. Please call Christie’s Client Service 24 hours in advance to book a collection time at Momart. All collections from Momart will be by pre-booked appointment only. Tel: +44 (0)20 7839 9060 Email: cscollectionsuk@christies.com. If the lot remains at Christie’s it will be available for collection on any working day 9.00 am to 5.00 pm. Lots are not available for collection at weekends. This lot has been imported from outside of the UK for sale and placed under the Temporary Admission regime. Import VAT is payable at 5% on the hammer price. VAT at 20% will be added to the buyer’s premium but will not be shown separately on our invoice. Christie’s has a direct financial interest in this lot. Christie’s has guaranteed to the seller that whatever the outcome of the auction, the seller will receive a minimum sale price for the work. This is known as a minimum price guarantee.

Brought to you by

Tessa Lord
Tessa Lord Senior Specialist, Head of Department

Lot Essay

Fifteen faces grimace wide-eyed from Rashid Johnson’s Untitled Anxious Audience (2016). They are laid down in a thick, tactile compound of black soap and wax, splattered and scrawled into grid formation upon a ground of white ceramic tiling almost 2.5 metres across. Their whirling eyes and gritted teeth are scratched into the soap mixture with a visceral sgraffito energy that counters their blocky, rectilinear silhouettes. The work is electric with emotive tension. Johnson’s Anxious Audience series developed from a group of single figures, the Anxious Men, that he debuted at the Drawing Center in New York in late 2015. He had conceived of these characters as spectators to the tumult of the moment—‘global immigration issues, attacks on America, and attacks within America by police on young black men’. After becoming a father, he began to take a wider view, multiplying his anxious men into ‘audiences’ of subjectivity. ‘I was coming to the realisation that my anxiety was not mine exclusively,’ he said. ‘… When something happens to me, it happens to my family—to the human family’ (R. Johnson, quoted in C. Kino, ‘Rashid Johnson: An Anxious Man’, Cultured Magazine, Autumn 2016, p. 175). With their vivid, frantic expressions, the Anxious Audiences act as a cathartic mirror for our collective concerns.

The Anxious Audiences saw Johnson reach new heights of formal ambition. The present composition’s mural scale and gestural intensity rival the force of a vast Abstract Expressionist canvas, while its tiled ground and textural depth lend it the weighty presence of sculpture or architecture. As a piece of scenography it conjures the unnerving echo of a bathroom-stall freak-out, walling us in and collapsing public and private spaces of emotion. Indeed, there is a reflexive intimacy and confrontation in viewing the faces as an ‘audience’—they witness us as we witness them. As Roberta Smith wrote on viewing these works, ‘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. Each painting is titled “Untitled Anxious Audience,” which works both ways in an art gallery’ (R. Smith, ‘In “Fly Away,” Rashid Johnson Keeps the Focus on Race’, New York Times, 15 September 2016). Johnson has continued to develop these themes during and after the coronavirus pandemic, which saw both claustrophobia and collective action taking on outsized roles in the life of American society.

Since his 2001 debut as the youngest artist in Thelma Golden’s seminal group exhibition ‘Freestyle’ at the Studio Museum in Harlem, Johnson has developed a conceptual practice underpinned by eloquent material intelligence. The black soap in Untitled Anxious Audience not only lends itself to explosive physical application, but also imbues the work with history, political consciousness and humour. Johnson calls it ‘cosmic slop’, in reference to the Funkadelic track of the same name. Invoking the ephemera of African-American bodies and lives, he echoes the practice of the artist David Hammons, who incorporates media such as afro hair, chicken bones, basketball hopes and grease into his works. ‘I was first exposed to many of these things as a young man,’ Johnson explains. ‘My mother is an African history professor so she would have these kinds of materials around the house. When I got older I started to see how things like shea butter and black soap were African products that really speak to an African-American audience … 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 … There’s an absurdity to it, but it’s also really poetic’ (R. Johnson, quoted in P. Laster, ‘An interview with Rashid Johnson: “I was more African before going to Africa,”’ Conceptual Fine Arts, 26 October 2016).

The modular, anonymous faces in Untitled Anxious Audience seem to figure this reach for identity: if Johnson’s black soap cannot capture the complexities of individual selfhood, it nonetheless constitutes a vision of communal experience. The stark contrast between soap and tiling also complicates deeper ideas of difference between black and white. If the faces appear to besmirch the sterile tiling, the fact that they are formed of soap contradicts any notion of dirt and disorder: no less than the bathroom, they in fact express a mode of cleanliness. Embedding such subtleties in the very substance of his work, Johnson creates a picture whose vital immediacy gradually unfolds rich, complex and shifting layers of meaning. In doing so, he foregrounds the importance of the nuanced, thoughtful engagement that is required to navigate contemporary life with care and understanding. Ultimately, perhaps, such an approach might allow us—as audience members and as actors in the world—to transcend the conflict that animates these highly-strung faces.

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