From Outside In: Rashid Johnson Has Plied His Status as an Art Star to Effect the Kinds of Change He Wants to See

BY MELISSA SMITH

A Black man stands in front
Rashid Johnson.PHOTO AXEL DUPEUX/COURTESY HAUSER & WIRTH

Aftermeetingat a neighborhood bar a little more than a decade ago, Rashid Johnson and Joel Mesler became such fixtures together on New York’s Lower East Side—where Johnson lived and Mesler owned a gallery—that one day Mesler half-jokingly said to his friend: “‘Look, man, we’ve got to divide Orchard Street properly.” Mesler decided that he would commandeer the thoroughfare two blocks south of Grand Street, while Johnson would take control of the blocks to the north. After quickly becoming the unofficial mayor of his zone, Johnson would “sit out on his porch, on the steps, and smoke cigarettes—and he just knew everybody,” Mesler recalled.

For one so outwardly social, Johnson doesn’t seem to care much for small talk these days. Close friends and acquaintances alike describe him as measured and thoughtful in what he says, and they tend to go out of their way to remark on how much they benefit from even run-of-the-mill conversations with him. When Mesler catches up with Johnson, the most mundane talk is liable to turn “crazy philosophical”—and, interestingly enough, to compel Mesler, who hates talking on the phone, to hop on the line with Johnson three or four times a day.

Talking to the many people in Johnson’s orbit, one gets a nagging suspicion that quite a few of his relationships defy type. Collectors of his work are also friends who regularly seek out his advice on matters unrelated to art. His studio manager, who oversees the production of the large-scale paintings for which the artist is best known, doubled as his movie producer in 2019 when Johnson made his first feature film, a contemporary adaptation of Richard Wright’s Native Son. That same studio manager’s sister starred in an adaptation of Amiri Baraka’s 1964 play Dutchman, which Johnson restaged in a sweltering bathhouse in New York.

And then there are the artists he mentors and supports. Alteronce Gumby’s nearly 10-year history with Johnson dates back to when he was a student at Hunter College. Johnson gave him one of his first artist crits, and, when Gumby went on to graduate studies at Yale, he linked up with Johnson to get tips on what to do next in his career. A coffee date in SoHo was followed by a lunch meeting in Paris some years later, when Gumby was there to do a residency, and Johnson to install a piece for a show at the Louis Vuitton Foundation.

A sculpture with two rough-hewn heads in Black with various plants on it, installed outside
Rashid Johnson’s Stacked Heads, from 2020, on view at Hauser & Wirth in Somerset, England.PHOTO KEN ADLARD/COURTESY HAUSER & WIRTH

After Gumby made a surprise visit in 2017 to the opening of Johnson’s show at the Hauser & Wirth gallery in Somerset, England, Johnson offered to include him in “COLOR PEOPLE,” a group exhibition that Johnson was curating at Mesler’s Rental Gallery in East Hampton—where Gumby’s work was ultimately displayed alongside pieces by Mary Heilmann, Robert Colescott, and Sam Gilliam. Not knowing where to stay in the Hamptons for the opening, Gumby ended up crashing at Johnson’s house. Sheree Hovsepian, Johnson’s wife, had casually offered Gumby a room, and after only a few casual encounters with Johnson, Gumby somehow got the sense that he could take her up on it.

Describing how Johnson treats people in his circle, Gumby recalled a podcast episode he’d listened to hosted by the rapper N.O.R.E. “He had Fat Joe on there, and Fat Joe was talking about how everyone who was around him during the 2000s—everyone ate,” he said. “Rashid is one of those people: If you are around him, you’re gonna eat.”

Artists at the level of success and stature that Johnson has reached tend to face an onslaught of people expecting help. Black artists, in particular, have worked inside and outside the system to formalize that help, by establishing grants, residencies, art schools, and other avenues specifically for artists of color. Johnson tends to focus his wide-ranging support in and around the New York art world—like an insider from the outside and an outsider on the inside.

He certainly does not present the picture of an introvert—which he claims to be. “My relationship to anxiety that’s illustrated in my work is not a fiction,” Johnson said, referring to his “Anxious Men” series of drawings, which he once compared to self-portraits with violent scrawls taking the place of eyes and mouths. “I think we often mischaracterize what [‘introvert’] means. Introverts are people who can go out and engage and interact, but it takes something out of them.”

Installation view of a sculptural installation with various levels and plants
Rashid Johnson’s Fatherhood, from 2015.PHOTO ALEX DELFANNE/COURTESY HAUSER & WIRTH

Despite this, Johnson is confident enough in what he has to say—in his work and otherwise—that he puts himself out there quite a lot. He sought out his first dealer, Monique Meloche, in his early 20s, asking her to represent him shortly after she opened her Chicago-based gallery two decades ago. “He was making a lot of Afro-futurist constellation abstract photographs using very culturally relevant objects like chicken bones, cotton seeds, black-eyed peas, and barber shavings,” Meloche recalled. “But there was a lot of homogeneity in it”—so Meloche agreed to represent Johnson on two conditions: “If you don’t make any more chicken bones, and if you go to grad school.”

Taking her seriously, Johnson enrolled in the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. He dropped out a few classes shy of graduating, however, and moved to New York in 2005 “because he had big ambitions,” Meloche remembered. “He was born and raised in Chicago. He wanted to get out of Dodge.”

Bernard Williams, a fellow Chicago artist who had befriended Johnson while they were both working with the Black-owned gallery G.R. N’Namdi, considered his move to New York particularly bold. “That’s something that I always respected with him, because he had tons of support in Chicago and probably could have done a lot of stuff out of Chicago,” Williams said. “There’s just more opportunity in New York.”

Whenever Meloche visited New York in those early days, she would invite curators and dealers interested in seeing Johnson’s work to parties in his tiny studio. “Rashid certainly had his struggles, and he had a limited budget,” said his friend and collector Daniel S. Berger. “What was so compelling to me was his tenacity and his genuine perseverance to succeed.”

In terms of “conceptual notions of Black abstraction,” Berger continued, “Rashid, along with other artists like Mark Bradford, has ignited the public’s interest.” He is also “responsible for igniting interest in some of the older African American artists who would have been forgotten—like Sam Gilliam, Alma Thomas, Ed Clark, and Norman Lewis.”

At the same time, Johnson’s influence has spread beyond his art practice to administrative roles he has taken on at the institutional level, as an adviser and a member of multiple museum boards. Twenty years ago, “there were no artists represented on museum boards,” said Meloche. “There were certainly not a lot of people of color on museum boards. So the times have caught up with his other ambitions.”

As Mesler put it, “What he’s actually done and helped to make happen—I think it’s even more than people realize.”

A long octagonal painting that is mostly black white three Black figures at top and a plant in the center.
Rashid Johnson’s Triple Consciousness, from 2009.COLLECTION DANIEL S. BERGER

When Johnson was a kid, he noticed how few Black artists were represented in museums around Chicago. Later, as a young adult, seeing exhibitions like Kara Walker’s at the Renaissance Society or Gary Simmons’s at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago helped him understand how gratifying it can be “to see Black thought and have Black awareness in these kinds of cultural institutions for a young person.”

Having his own child—he and Hovsepian have a 10-year-old son, Julius—solidified his “thinking about the future and the world that [his son and others] will continue to step into,” said Isolde Brielmaier, Johnson’s longtime friend and the recently appointed deputy director of the New Museum in New York. “He cares very deeply about the art ecosystem, particularly for those of us who are underrepresented, and he’s reached a stage in his career where he has impact and reach and influence.”

While Johnson knows that institutions are in crisis and, in some ways, even inherently flawed, he remains committed to trying to make them better. “From a pragmatic position, I grew up going to these places,” he said. “These places still have relevance. These places are still some of the spaces in which we see our recorded histories, whether they’re contemporary or ancient. I think if we’re not active in changing the discourse and dialogue and language around those spaces, we’re doing everyone a disservice.”

In 2020, as a new board member of the Block Museum of Art at Northwestern University, Johnson gave a speech about the history of cultural institutions, laying out dates and actions to illustrate which ones were more—or less—effectively embracing communities of color. While museum director Lisa Graziose Corrin listened, what resonated most with her wasn’t so much what Johnson said but how he said it. Speaking with “moral authority,” Corrin recalled, he came across to her as someone “who has been inside the system but has a unique capacity to stand outside the system and look at it very objectively.”

Of all his board positions, Johnson has been the most deeply involved with the Guggenheim Museum, which he joined in 2016. His presence there was especially significant following public allegations of internal racism issued by Chaédria LaBouvier, the guest curator of the Guggenheim’s 2019 exhibition “Basquiat’s ‘Defacement’: The Untold Story.”

As controversy swirled, “with all kinds of new truths emerging, he became the person who could help us analyze what was happening, tell us about what had happened, and then really help us devise a solution and a way forward,” said Guggenheim director Richard Armstrong. Referring to him as an “oak tree in the storm,” Armstrong explained how Johnson would sit squarely at the center of “dialogue from not only trustees but also staff, saying, ‘Here’s how to redirect that question’—not in an accusatory way but much more on the level of earned wisdom.”

Shying away from taking this much credit, Johnson downplayed his specific contribution. “I just feel like being in the room and championing diversity is a point of interest for me,” he said, “as well as making an investment and [having] involvement in other aspects of how the institution imagines itself in the landscape. I don’t want to handcuff myself to being exclusively invested in diversity.”

Navigating that double bind is common practice for Black people in the field. Like many other BIPOC folks dedicated to museum work, his focus is on the potential for museums to become sites for his cultural heritage too. Johnson said he doesn’t believe “there is a cabal at cultural institutions who sit in a circle and aspire to close the doors to Black and brown folks and women. I think that a lot of that is born by circumstances where diversity and different aspects of diversity aren’t inherently prioritized.”

A small gallery room that is mostly dark with a projection that is yellow-green-blue hued with a silhouette of a person
Johnson’s video work Samuel in Space, from 2013, installed at Ballroom Marfa.PHOTO FREDRIK NILSEN STUDIO/COURTESY BALLROOM MARFA

Johnson received a good deal of institutional support early on, particularly after Thelma Golden included him in “Freestyle,” a seminal group exhibition of Black artists at the Studio Museum in Harlem in 2001. At the time, Williams was working near Johnson in a New York studio where the walls of the spaces didn’t quite reach the ceiling, so he was able to eavesdrop on a visit paid to Johnson by influential collectors Mera and Don Rubell. Asked if his friend seemed nervous, Williams laughed and said, “Not really. He was right on top of it.”

Looking back, Johnson said his advice for young artists now is to do everything their own way, for good and bad. “You can’t really mimic another artist’s approach,” he said. “I’m talking about the ways of showing your ways of being, ways of discussing your work, ways of contextualizing your work to best fit your personality.”

Limits, boxes, stereotypes, tropes—Johnson is more allergic than most to what they represent. And despite the market pressures many artists feel to stay in one lane, he has made his practice artistically varied.

In 2013, he collaborated on a project with Ballroom Marfa cofounder Fairfax Dorn, who said Johnson appreciated how her institution was “so experimental, and that we were not afraid to take risks.” Johnson produced one of his first video works there—and joined Ballroom Marfa’s board shortly after.

He made a similar move with Performa, the New York–based performance art biennial known for its experimental ethos. For the festival in 2013, he made his first foray into directing with Dutchman—and then joined Performa’s board the following year. (This past August, he was named chair.)

A Black man in a suit with glasses and a beanie and stnads in front of a red car in front of a house
A still from Johnson’s feature film adaptation of Richard Wright’s Native Son.COURTESY HBO

In many ways, Johnson’s presentation of Dutchman laid the groundwork for his pivot into feature filmmaking, Native Son. A big part of why he wanted to make another version of the story, Johnson said, was to create an “autonomous Black character navigating the world with their own sensibility.” His goal was to take a narrative structure “and then turn it on its head—and produce this other Black outsider narrative.”

In Johnson’s remake, the main protagonist, Bigger Thomas, has green hair and the look and attitude of an out-and-out punk. After Barack and Michelle Obama presented themselves on a national stage as “unequivocally accomplished, brilliant, capable Black protagonists,” Johnson said, “that made me feel like we no longer needed to be protected from Bigger, as if showing him would neutralize Negro progress. Black characters can be problematic and flawed and complicated.”

Celebrated playwright Suzan Lori Parks, who wrote the screenplay for Native Son, said she and Johnson wanted the story to resonate with the “experiences Black folks live today.” From their first conversation about the project, Parks felt as if they “were on the same page.” And not knowing too much about Johnson before then, Parks was struck by how he showed profound “respect, not just for the original work but for me and for what I do.”

“A lot of brothers or sisters out there don’t know how to support each other,” Parks continued. “He’s just one of those brothers who knows how to work with a sister. And that is no small thing.”

A version of this article appears in the December 2021/January 2022 issue of ARTnews, under the title “From Outside In.”

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