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Post-War & Contemporary Art / RASHID JOHNSON (B. 1977) Carver 2012

Lot 4
(B. 1977)

30 June 2022, 14:00 BST
London, New Bond Street

Sold for £264,900 inc. premium

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signed on the reverse
burned red oak flooring, black soap, wax and spray enamel in artist's frame

184.2 by 125.7 cm.
72 1/2 by 49 1/2 in.

This work was executed in 2012.


Hauser & Wirth, New York
Private Collection, US
Sale: Sotheby's, New York, Contemporary Curated, 24 September 2014, Lot 230
Acquired directly from the above by the present owner

Since the turn of the millennium, there are but a handful of artists that have captured the spirit, the tumult, and the ideas of an unravelling twenty-first century, those who occupy a rarefied place in the nascent contemporary canon. Rashid Johnson is unquestionably an artist of this calibre. His practice has delivered some of the most compelling visions of human experience that relate directly to black history and the history of the United States, and as such have been powerful images amidst the social unrest and political evolution of the last twenty years. His is lauded and highly sought-after by institutions and private collectors alike, and the present work, Carver from 2012, is definitive of Johnson's career as a voice in the broader artistic and cultural discourse. With typical verve and vigour, the work lays bare an intensely layered and worked surface of black wax and soap over a burned wooden support. It is pure materiality and conjures not only the splashy expressive canvases of Abstract Expressionism or the reserved palette and fabric of Minimalism, but an organic reality that speaks to the spectator through the painting's almost rudimentary construction.

Born in Chicago in 1977, Johnson studied photography at the School of the Art Institute, graduating in 2005. His early work showed a deep engagement with the photographic medium as documentary form and conceptual linchpin, consistently citing broader influences and inspirators from art and history through portraiture. His multi-disciplinary practice took shape rapidly, however, underpinned by these questions of identity as he developed a relationship with his materials that was personal and alchemical. "The materials I've used over the last five to 10 years were things that were close to me, that reminded me of certain aspects of my experience growing up", Johnson has stated; "for example, the relationship I had to Afrocentrism through my parents in the late '70s and early '80s. My mother would always have shea butter around, and she wore dashikis. I was celebrating Kwanzaa, hearing this unfamiliar language, Swahili, and seeing black soap and chew sticks around the house, things that were about applying an Africanness to one's self. [...] I was forced to negotiate what that period and those objects meant for me. I saw these things, as I got older, in Harlem, in Brooklyn, being sold on the street. I always thought to myself: What is the goal now with these materials? What are people trying to get from them?" (the artist interviewed by Christopher Stackhouse, ArtNews, 3 April 2012, online).

Whilst Johnson's work relates closely to the plurality of black experience, his aesthetic concerns have remained frontal in his work. In the vein of Jannis Kounellis and Joseph Beuys, the nature of objecthood and materiality confronts the formality of abstract painting. Perhaps most akin to his contemporary Mark Bradford, the work's associations with blackness are at once profoundly material and peripheral. In the present work, like much of Johnson's practice, the title lends a contextual opening to the piece – Carver. This can be read in so many ways: primarily, as a nod to George Washington Carver, one of the most eminent agricultural scientists of the twentieth century who revolutionised the agricultural economy of the south. Carver was born into slavery before abolition in 1865, at which time he sought an education, receiving a Master of Science at Iowa State University. He identified peanuts, soy and sweet potatoes as alternative crops to cotton that had been over-farmed and depleted the soil across southern farmland. Johnson has consistently nodded to the writers and intellectuals that have been massively inspirational to him, citing James Baldwin, Henry Miller, James Joyce, Richard Wright, Ralph Ellison, Zora Neale Hurston, and Alice Walker as various touchstones. Yet, the title can also be read as pure gesture – a possible nod to the action painting of Kazuo Shiraga or Jackson Pollock. In the surface of the painting, the motion of 'carving' comes vividly to life, and Johnson the named 'carver' of the present work.

In the physical and passionate surface of Carver there is a beauty and violence. The piece impresses upon the spectator an emphatic presence, as a silhouette against the burnt wood support and that of the artist himself throwing molten wax and black soap across the surface of the piece. The soap offers up a material that is meant to cleanse the body. Yet, as a work of art, it becomes an element that may cleanse the mind or soul, or yet an aesthetic question – to alleviate the work of an accrued intellectual bearing. Such examples as this, of Johnson's large-scale paintings, tackle questions of formality and painterly resolve as a method of highlighting a conceptual and cultural thread. Carver is undoubtedly one of the most refined of these works, its composition wonderfully balanced and materials sumptuously dense. It is through this social and art-historical matrix that the artist gives rise to a novel type of abstraction – one borne of a materiality and formality that places a cultural lens over the work whilst serving to embolden the visceral experience of the painting.

A contemporary artist whose work has been at the forefront of contemporary practice for nearly two decades as one of the most significant voices of his generation, Rashid Johnson's Carver is a painting that benefits from a strong associative title and magnificent scale. Having been selected for inclusions in global Biennales, his work resides in institutional collections that include the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; Guggenheim Museum, New York; Los Angeles County Museum of Art; and the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago. The present work is an impeccable example of his practice, displaying Johnson's masterful, effortless hand with his quintessential materials, and encapsulates the indelible impact and legacy that he has already established as one of the key names of the twenty-first century.

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