Artist Rashid Johnson on How ‘Naiveté’ and Chutzpah Helped Him Land His First Solo Show

As part of a collaboration with Art21, hear news-making artists describe their inspirations in their own words.

Production still from the Art21
Production still from the Art21 "New York Close Up" film, "Rashid Johnson Keeps His Cool." © Art21, Inc. 2015.

Rashid Johnson is a very busy man. Earlier this year, he made his directorial debut with an adaptation of Richard Wright’s Native Son on HBO, and now his two-venue solo show, “Rashid Johnson: The Hikers,” is on view simultaneously at the Aspen Art Museum and the Museo Tamayo in Mexico City. But Johnson didn’t always have such an impressive resume. In fact, he got his first big break through sheer force of will.

In an exclusive interview filmed back in 2015 for Art21’s series “New York Close-Up,” Johnson recounts an experience of foisting his portfolio on the owner of Chicago’s Martha Schneider Gallery as a 19-year-old in a quest to be considered for an upcoming group exhibition. Instead, she did him one better: she gave him a solo show instead.

“It was naiveté more than balls,” Johnson tells Art21, that got him the gig. “I think I was just an idiot…I wouldn’t make that decision today. I’m not going to go to MoMA with my portfolio.”

Today, however, MoMA is far more likely to come to him. Since his Chicago days, Johnson has risen to broad acclaim for his multimedia work that encompasses photography, painting, video, installation, and sculpture, often incorporating non-traditional materials like soap, plants, LPs, and shea butter to infuse his works with what he describes as a “psychological cleansing, as well as a physical cleansing.”

Johnson notes that his work engages with his own identity, but also bigger questions about art-making and art history. While it addresses “my blackness, or the issues around that…I don’t think that it’s really the sum of what my work is,” he says. “I’m trying to approach art making in a way that is a part of a bigger history of art.”

Watch the full segment, which originally appeared as part of the “Art in the Twenty-First Century” television series on PBS, below. “Rashid Johnson: The Hikers” is on view at the Aspen Art Museum in Colorado through November 3, 2019 and at Museo Tamayo in Mexico City through November 10, 2019. 

This is an installment of “Art on Video,” a collaboration between artnet News and Art21 that brings you clips of newsmaking artists. A new season of the nonprofit Art21’s flagship Art in the Twenty-First Century television is available now on PBS. Watch full episodes and learn about the organization’s education programs at Art21.org.


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