Rashid Johnson Explores Blackness and Invisibility


If you enter “Fly Away,” Rashid Johnson’s new show at Hauser & Wirth, at the right moment, you will be drawn to the heart of the exhibition by the sound of a piano echoing through the vast space. After moving past several large-scale collages and sculptures, you come to a room dominated by a cage filled with plants, books, and monitors; at its center sits the musician Antoine Baldwin, a/k/a Audio BLK, improvising on the piano.

The installation, Antoine’s Organ, blends the natural and sterile. Lush evergreens in pots are lit by fluorescent tubing, playing dramatically off the black steel of the cage. Stacks of books point us to the project’s intellectual genealogy — Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Between the World and Me, The Sellout by Paul Beatty, works by Du Bois and Kierkegaard. The books speak to the anxieties of the black male body under attack and to the double bind of “selling out.” Interspersed monitors play videos of low-key performances: In one, a man does yoga outdoors (a continuation of Johnson’s piece The New Black Yoga); in another, we watch someone watch a video of the writer Debra Dickerson reading from her book The End of Blackness (also on display).

But it’s Baldwin’s music that keeps you there, compelling you to circle the cage, to linger and see where his improvisation will go next. It’s a blend of classical, jazz, and blues — not unlike Keith Jarrett’s legendary, long-form improvisation on The Köln Concert, but with more beat. Baldwin, seated in the middle of the cage, is hard to see; if you stand in the right spot, you can see his back as he faces the piano.

The piece is a multi-sensory parable of the artist’s playing for people without having to face (or emote for) them. The steel cage is both barrier and protection, porous to sound but not to sight. It’s reminiscent of Miles Davis turning his back on the audience — Davis refused to entertain, believing his music spoke for itself. Here, if the artist is allowed to “fly away,” it’s through the act of creation, Baldwin pushing his own improvisational skills through hours of continuous music. If we want to stay and listen, that’s up to us.

Questions of audience and presence drive the other works in the exhibition. Johnson is known for reworking iconographies of blackness, from turning a gun’s crosshairs into sculpture in Black Steel in the Hour of Chaos to inventing the secret society of “The New Negro Escapist Social and Athletic Club,” a photography series that is a tribute to and magical twist on early twentieth century Harlem portraiture. He has turned recently to sculptural collages, and for this exhibition he has created a fantasy version, by turns romanticized and ugly, of paradise. In his “Untitled Escape Collage” series, a grid of bright tropical motifs on tile are interrupted by black paint splashes and drips. The splashes might be the human figure crashing through the forest, or the dark spots inherent in nature. In one standalone sculpture, a billiard-size table is covered with large, crumbling clumps of shea butter. Johnson offers up an intimate part of black life, showing how easily it is repurposed as a readymade sculpture.

His six “Untitled Anxious Audience” works, massive wall-mounted pieces that open the show, play with the modernist grid. In these, a continuation of his “Anxious Men” series, Johnson draws square heads with squiggly eyes in black soap and wax on white tiles. These uneasy faces, thrown against the gleaming surface, are unsettling, totem-like. They might embody traumas of the contemporary moment, such as the repeated witnessing of videos of police brutality. Or they might be watching Johnson himself, to see how he navigates between flying away and selling out, to see if he can perform for himself and not the audience.

Rashid Johnson: ‘Fly Away’
Hauser & Wirth
511 West 18th Street
Through October 22