The intensity of Rashid Johnson’s Untitled Anxious Red Drawings is what pulls you in. Each drawing is a mixture of broad kinetic strokes and aggressive overdrawn circles. They feel symptomatic of this collective moment of frenzy and containment. If these are portraits of anxiety, however, it is of the ambient variety rather than personalized. These are frantic times defined by uncertainty, emergency, and dread. Worse, there is seldom space for anything else. Johnson’s drawings capture these heightened emotional states, but instead of producing catharsis, they keep viewers hanging in the air. There is nowhere to go: each drawing’s white border points to this claustrophobia as both an emotional and physical situation.
Johnson’s “Anxious Men” series, which premiered at the Drawing Center in 2015, offer a visceral point of comparison. Most of those were made from black soap on white tiles; features such as eyes and mouths were produced through erasure. There are many ways to read these images, but what binds them together is that they are portrayals of response. The tension resides within each figure as a form of psychic difficulty that is externalized through personalization. In Untitled Anxious Red Drawings, however, the anxiety is the thing. Johnson is acting as a vessel for its manifestation, but the anxiety is abundant and everywhere.
Interestingly, this channeling of collective mood finds an echo in the portal through which we are invited to view the pieces. These drawings, created during the time of stay-at-home orders are, thus far, only available online on the Hauser & Wirth website. They are for sale (and sold out) with a percentage of the proceeds donated to the COVID-19 Solidarity Response Fund for the World Health Organization. Their ability to speak to our moment, then, is deliberate rather than accidental. This coincidence even finds a cheeky resonance with the downloadable Zoom backgrounds that the gallery has made available. Frustrated with the overload of screen time? Let Johnson’s drawings do the emotional lifting for you. Perhaps this is Instagrammable art for a new era?
But the question of how to translate these drawings for online viewers runs deeper than offering remote emoting.
Hauser & Wirth offers many solutions. Their website contains a short film of Johnson drawing. He stands at a wall, moving his entire arm over large sheets of paper, methodically making circles and zigzags for faces that he then draws over. As his voiceover describes his own difficulty processing the loss of in-person social interaction and the uncertainty over what happens next, one can sense the pressure on the paper and even imagine the smell of the oil stick. This offers proximity to the art by introducing viewers to Johnson’s process such that they can feel for its sensual qualities even as they are not otherwise easily perceptible.
The video also, however, offers footage of Johnson’s son playing Für Elise on the piano. These shots remind us that Johnson, too, is at home with family and that there is actually a counterweight to anxiety. Over the song’s soothing melodies, Johnson muses on his son’s dedication to his practice and impressive skills, guiding us toward thinking not only about the state of the world, but multiple strategies of coping.
In juxtaposing anxiety with the intimacy of home, Johnson also gives us ways to think about the drawings within the larger framework of Blackness. Here, the framing is both historical and ecological. Meeting atmospheres of threat with moments of succor is not unusual in the history of Black people. So, alongside portraits of our time, Johnson offers strategies for survival. This is not only in relation to his son, but in his recipe for BBQ, his Spotify playlist, his recommendations for what to read and what to watch. In essence, Johnson is not only channeling anxiety, but offering access to his own tools for survival. It is striking that these are all ways that produce connection to community. If you follow his recipe for ribs, you are (in a way) being fed by Johnson and you are feeling into the larger history of Black survival, perhaps setting anxiety aside for a moment. This, too, is another way to engage with the drawings; anxiety is everywhere, but it cannot be the only thing. While the drawings offer anxiety as spectacle, Johnson also provides a counterbalance—a dash of nurturing.