Rashid Johnson Turns to Color as a Respite From Politics

The celebrated artist turns from his own explorations of race and controversy to curate a vibrant exhibition at Rental Gallery.
Bob Thompson, The Golden Ass, 1963
, Oil on canvas, 62 1/2 x 74 1/2 inches / 158.8 x 189.2 m
 © Estate of Bob Thompson; Courtesy of Michael Rosenfeld Gallery LLC, New York, NY

For the last two decades, the celebrated artist Rashid Johnson has been obsessed with the mid-century black figurative painter Bob Thompson. During his short career (Thompson died of a heroin overdose in 1967, at the age of 29), Thompson painted more than 1,000 canvases of scenes populated with figures of all hues that were deeply influenced by Renaissance and Baroque painting and the 1950s movement of post-Beatnik and bebop-inflicted Abstract Expressionism. Thompson's resplendent portraiture has inspired Johnson to curate Color People, a group show at Rental Gallery of painters including Sam Gilliam, Amy Sherald, Mary Heilmann, and Thompson, among others, who share an exploration of the social radicality of color.


Mary Weatherford, River, 2015, Shellac ink and river water on Gampi Torinoko 17 5/8 x 23 1/8 x 1 5/8 inches. Courtesy David Kordansky Gallery.

"I just kind of fell in love with Bob's work," Johnson tells Creators. The artist was introduced to Thompson's work in the late 1990s, in part through the massive retrospective Bob Thompson, staged by Thelma Golden at the Whitney Museum of Art in 1998. "I just thought it was so different from anything that I had seen because, at the time, so many of the artists of color were working in heavy abstraction or very differently in terms of figurative representation."

He says, "Thompson's' paintings were more allegory of blue, yellow, and red people. It was fascinating to think about how he got to that place where he was depicting these characters that were race-less."

Robert Colescott Last Rights: The Spirits of the Dead are Watching, 1992 Acrylic on canvas 84 x 72 inches / 213.4 x 182.9 cm Courtesy Michael Rosenfeld Gallery

The most obvious link between the artists in the show is their use of color itself. Although some use representation, like Robert Colescott in Last Right: The Spirits of the Dead are Watching, and others use abstraction, like Mary Weatherford in her tippy river painting, the thing that binds them all, for Johnson, is their "decision-making." Johnson believes there is a certain kind of taste development in the assembled painters' use of color and an opportunity to explore their palette as race, theory, and feeling. "In this particular exhibition, I am talking about how artists perform and choose color and how those choices speak to an individual sense of what the world could look like if you bring color to it."

Nathaniel Mary Quinn , Mean Ol' Teacher, 2017 , Black charcoal, gouache, soft pastel, oil pastel, acrylic gold leaf powder on Coventry Vellum Paper, 14 x 11 inches. Courtesy the artist

A variety of approaches are seen in the show. Gilliam's red, blue, and green watercolor, Parade VII, employs color through staining; Thompson's humorous oil painting, The Golden Ass, features a more traditional application; McArthur Binion uses crayon and collage elements in his 2016 brown abstraction, DNA: Sepia II; Nathaniel Mary Quinn's Mean Ol' Teacher uses color as a way to bridge abstraction and figuration in a collaged face made up of many different harlequin features.


In all, Johnson calls the exhibition "joyous in nature." He says color is something that he has been interested in exploring in his own practice too. In Johnson's last exhibition, Fly Away, at Hauser & Wirth, his thinking around color was on display in his Escape Collages, green landscapes that used color as a way to create content and show Johnson's autonomy as an artist. At their core, for Johnson, the collages "dive into what aesthetics are and what is valuable and interesting to any individual artist past the idea of iconography." His use of green in those works represent a sincere employment of color to tell a narrative that is dictated by what a specific color can mean.

Sam Gilliam , PARADE VII, 2015 , Watercolor on rice paper, 72 5/8 x 38 1/4 inches. Courtesy David Kordansky Gallery

If the expectation was for Johnson, an artist who is well-known for his explorations of race, to devise a show that more overtly nettles the current administration or longstanding systemic inequality, this summer show defies it.

"It's an exhibition that doesn't focus on a time," he says. "It doesn't locate us in the situation we are currently in. For this summer show, I didn't want to be fully negotiated. I didn't want to make a now show."

McArthur Binion DNA: Sepia II, 2016 Oil paint stick, sepia ink and paper on board 48 x 40 inches Courtesy Galerie Lelong

Adds Johnson, "Art doesn't have to speak to every moment to maintain its radicality. In a time like this, art can provide a respite from some of the conditions [to which] we have been subjected." Amen.

Alteronce Gumby, Notes on Black(ness), Oil on canvas, 23 3/4 x 95 inches. Courtesy the artist

Color People continues through July 25 at Rental Gallery. Click here for more information.


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