On ViewHauser & Wirth
In this exhibition are eight works made with oil on cotton rag. All have the same title, Untitled Anxious Red Drawing. Five, horizontally oriented, are 38 1/4 by 50 inches, but three are a little smaller, 30 by 22 inches oriented vertically. These drawings all have horizontal and vertical grids on which vertically oriented elliptical red forms are placed. And then they are overpainted, also in red, sometimes creating wide horizontal or vertical bands. Often the color runs slightly beyond the grids. Also, the reds vary in hue, with some relatively dark and others brighter.
Earlier in his “Anxious Men” series, Johnson scratched faces into the picture surface. Now, as the short video presentation on the gallery online site reveals, he works directly onto the surface, making face-like shapes that often are obscured. This “incredibly anxious time,” Johnson says, “feels simultaneously unsettling, urgent, and radical.” And so he aims to respond in this art. Red is the color of anxiety. (A show of “Untitled Anxious Blue Drawings” would seem a contradiction in terms.) And here both the color and the drawing are highly anxious. The focus on process in these quasi-abstract images (and also in the accompanying video of the artist drawing) suggests that Johnson has been inspired by Abstract Expressionism, a movement very much involved with the expression of anxiety. In making “action paintings” that engage this tradition, Johnson connects the Abstract Expressionist tradition to race, and now to 21st-century politics.
Johnson created this accomplished body of art very quickly. It is the first exhibition which I have reviewed that has been painted entirely during the present coronavirus siege. In the online viewing room, Johnson lists some films, books, a musical playlist, and even a family recipe as background interpretative clues. And there’s a short, marvelous piano concert recording by his young son. This, the most elaborate such self-presentation I’ve ever had the pleasure of encountering, wisely leaves the immediately visual interpretative labors to the viewer.
A significant artist responding to our present international public health crisis must satisfy two conditions. First, he or she needs to create work that speaks to the transnational struggle. What’s unique about coronavirus, compared with past crises that often inspired armed competition amongst nations, is that right now, it affects most countries across the globe. Second, since swift internet communications mean that everyone can ostensibly learn about the experience of other people everywhere, an artist needs to find some creatively original response to our common life situation. Only then will his or her art be of more than anecdotal significance. With the immediacy of an online viewing room, Johnson’s Untitled Anxious Red Drawings satisfy both of these conditions. Human diversity (of gender and race) is submerged in part, visually: behind ubiquitous masks. In these drawings the individual face-like elements are set on grids, and then often submerged beneath overpainting. In this elliptical way, Johnson responds to our shared anxieties.
Initially I was puzzled by the fact that an artist whose earlier works were more varied had settled for this exhibition into an almost Ad Reinhardt-esque repetition of a single format. Often I’ve found this problem when viewing mega-gallery shows of ambitious mid-career artists. It’s not easy showing in these vast spaces. I recall a magically successful display of Ad Reinhardt’s late black-on-black pictures at David Zwirner in 2013, which enlivened the entire space; and a wonderful roomful of Giorgio Morandi’s small still lifes, also at Zwirner, in 2015. But I also remember all too many Chelsea shows where one seemed to see repetitions of one basic visual template.
Part of the problem here, I grant, comes in presenting an exhibition of eight works. Any one of these drawings in isolation would look handsome. But working in series creates real problems. One painting from almost any one of Frank Stella’s series is fascinating, but a presentation of the full series in a single exhibition would be as exhausting as an evening of Philip Glass’s vocal music. I felt the same here.
Certainly there are real variations amongst Johnson’s drawings, and so making comparisons and contrasts could be a valuable exercise in connoisseurship. But while I admire the speed with which Johnson has worked, and applaud his desire to respond to the immediate present, I don’t know that I find the repetitions especially compelling, conceptually speaking, in a time in which it is increasingly difficult to adequately capture this present disaster in art. Johnson’s execution is brilliant, but the concept of the exhibition is flawed. At least looking online. I wish that I could see Untitled Anxious Red Drawings in the gallery. In his classic essay, “The Work of Art in the Age of Its Technological Reproducibility,” (1936) Walter Benjamin argued that in contemporary culture the aura of the traditional artwork was being destroyed. Many art writers of my generation greatly admired this conclusion. But sometimes when you get what you thought you wanted, you’re surprised. That’s what’s happening right now.