Rashid Johnson. Page from Untitled Sketchbook. 2020. Courtesy the artist

A Rashid Johnson Sketchbook

The artist shares a never-before-seen drawing project and talks about his “existential line-making.”

Rashid Johnson was on my mind as I installed the works on paper in Degree Zero: Drawing at Midcentury. His particular approach to anxious mark-making seemed to share commonalities with drawings made seven decades earlier by Jean Dubuffet, Willem de Kooning, Louise Bourgeois, and Beauford Delaney. When I asked him about the relationship, he shared a just-completed sketchbook whose pages he filled in the weeks between the election and the inauguration. Our conversation—about sequence and rhythm, mobility and humility, personality and perspective—not only confirmed but expanded my sense of his drawings as spiritual successors to the works in this show.

Samantha Friedman: Let’s start by talking about the rhythm of your sketchbook practice. How do you use sketchbooks generally and when, in particular, did you work in this sketchbook?

Rashid Johnson: It’s something that I’ve used sporadically in my project for several years. I didn’t have a sketchbook as nice as the one that I used for these more recent drawings; that was actually a gift of Alex, who is my studio director. She knew that I was messing around and drawing during these 4:00 meetings that I had, and so she bought me a couple sketchbooks. My drawing and sketching practice previous to that was on found pieces of paper—bubblegum wrappers, the backs of receipts, envelopes, cardboard. I’d draw on anything.

But this sketchbook created this scenario for me where I needed to refine how the images were gonna graduate into one another because it lives in the form of a book. You turn the page, you see the next drawing, and you see that there’s a sequencing of images, sketches, and ideas as they expand day to day. I hadn’t had a project like this since I was quite young, when I had sketchbooks that I used in high school and even in college. A sketchbook was a big part of how that practice functioned when I was just coming out of my interest in graffiti and street art. After that, I abandoned the sketchbook, but I never abandoned sketching or playing or drawing.

Rashid Johnson. Page from Untitled Sketchbook. 2020

Rashid Johnson. Page from Untitled Sketchbook. 2020

Rashid Johnson. Pages from Untitled Sketchbook. 2020

Rashid Johnson. Pages from Untitled Sketchbook. 2020

You alternate between a few kinds of motifs in the sketchbook. There’s the grid of faces, different colors; a single face, small and tight at the center of the page; a crescent motif that appears and returns. Then toward the end of the book, you see this line that’s a little bit freer and wandering but sometimes still enclosed within a grid. I wonder if you could talk about the way you approach each page on a different day. Is it your conscious choice to explore a particular motif or return to one particular motif or another, or is it something that’s more automatic for you?

I kept finding these themes and there were things that I was interested in and imagining on a larger scale. The crescent shape that you mentioned reminded me of a boat. I was thinking a lot about vehicles and mobility and movement, and thought, What kind of vehicle would I explore? What does it look like? I was thinking about a Cuban artist named Kcho who always used boats. I kept thinking about why he used boats and what boats might’ve meant for him.

The Anxious Men you see in there are dated. The dates allow you to imagine, “This is what was happening at 4:00 p.m. or 4:15 or 4:30 p.m. on Friday, December 23rd.” I like the idea that those anxious characters could be located and placed into the framework of time and space quite specifically. The gridded characters are not dated.

Rashid Johnson. Page from Untitled Sketchbook. 2020

Rashid Johnson. Page from Untitled Sketchbook. 2020

I like that existential line-making: something that can change direction or get confused in the middle of being made.
Rashid Johnson

There’s this sequence of line drawings which were different lengths of lines. I was interested in how and why a certain line would start and end at different spaces on the page and how the quality of the ink changed as I dragged the pen across the paper. Some of that was just experimentation and thinking about the methods, strategies, and philosophies for how a line comes together. Like you suggested, at the tail end of the sketchbook, it gets more and more loose, and you start to see these other kinds of characters develop as the pen goes from a lucid and fluid gestural line to hard changes in direction. I think quite often about my philosophy for how a line is structured and how it can represent both personality and perspective.

The lines that Picasso made were always quite consistent from the point they begin to where they resolve. You feel like the intention was fully there—that the line had no expectation to go any other direction other than the one that he had projected for it—and he captured all of that intention from the start to the finish. I think something similar happens in the work of someone like Willem de Kooning, who understood and had tremendous confidence in the directionality and intentionality of his lines.

I like to contrast that with someone like Christopher Wool, whose lines you feel have a clumsiness to them, and in an almost insecure way, take other directions as if they’re quite confused. I like that existential line-making: something that can change direction or get confused in the middle of being made. I think that’s a better representation of contemporary life and of how I see the world. I like to start in a certain direction and imagine I’m going that way, but really I’m open to a very hard turn in the other direction. I think it requires honesty and malleability to be humbled in the making of something to say, “Oh, wow. Is this the right way? Maybe I should change direction and make a hard turn and an uncomfortable turn.”

Rashid Johnson. Page from Untitled Sketchbook. 2020

Rashid Johnson. Page from Untitled Sketchbook. 2020

Rashid Johnson. Pages from Untitled Sketchbook. 2020

Rashid Johnson. Pages from Untitled Sketchbook. 2020

I love that phrase that you used, “existential line-making.” The artists in Degree Zero worked in the ’50s, when Existentialism was on deck. Jean Dubuffet is in this exhibition and was interested in graffiti. I wonder if you could speak a bit about whether graffiti played a role in a sketchbook like this.

My previous relationship to sketchbooks really came from my time as a graffiti artist. When I picked up a sketchbook again over the course of the pandemic, some of that 16-year-old me popped in and said, Well, what did I do with this previously? In the case of someone like Dubuffet, there's always the suggestion of naiveté that comes into play and the way that we think about both his skilling, or deskilling if you will, and to whom and how he conjures these images. Dubuffet deals a lot with the city and has this incredible investment in how you conjure images that represent the city or urbanity.

For me, where I grew up in Chicago, there were two parallel worlds in urban street mark-making: the folks who consider themselves to be artists and were using the city as a backdrop or canvas for their work, and then there were folks who were associated with gangs and whose mark-making intentionally located where and how you were to understand the space that you were in. This neighborhood has been marked by that gang which means that that gang controls this street, etc.

As I got older and started thinking about what marks mean, how they function, how they become signifiers, I oftentimes went back to the gang work; although it wasn’t often recognized as skilled work or didn’t have the intention to please, it did have the intention to deliver a message very specifically. As I started thinking, What does my project mean? What are my intentions? What are the signifiers? What are the concepts and philosophies and concerns of my work? It almost had as much to do with that deskilled work and the gang graffito than other aspects that were more aesthetically inclined.

Rashid Johnson. Page from Untitled Sketchbook. 2020

Rashid Johnson. Page from Untitled Sketchbook. 2020

When I picked up a sketchbook again over the course of the pandemic, some of that 16-year-old me popped in and said, Well, what did I do with this previously?
Rashid Johnson
Rashid Johnson. Pages from Untitled Sketchbook. 2020

Rashid Johnson. Pages from Untitled Sketchbook. 2020

It seems fitting that we’re talking about this particular sketchbook, which you started just before the election in early November and finished in early January, when we’re embarking on a New Year just after the inauguration. I’m curious whether your art might be any less anxious at a moment like this.

The idea of anxiety and its relationship to my project very much predates the political turmoil of the last four years. At the same time, I think a lot of us are feeling a sense of relief. There’s also a real reticence to accept that. You always hear that caveat of, “We still have a lot of work to do.” This is only the beginning of some of the successes that we’d like to see over the next few years from an activist perspective.

But at the same time, I do feel a little bit of a weight lifted. And so I would like to see where that turns the project. And I’ve had a lot more levity and joy. I hope that I continue to explore all of the pieces that make up my thinking and ideally also capture how other people are seeing the world. Although this is often made with the intention of creating an autobiography of sorts, other people have experienced the work and said, “Oh, I see and understand these symbols and signifiers. These are concerns that I share.” In that respect, I feel like art has led me to feel less alone, which was never really my intention. I came to art from more of an academic positioning. I thought: tell honest stories, be focused, think about history. Yet it’s become far more poetic, which is a really beautiful part of why I chose this direction for myself.

Rashid Johnson's Stage, a participatory installation and sound work, is also currently on view at MoMA PS1.

Rashid Johnson. Page from Untitled Sketchbook. 2020

Rashid Johnson. Page from Untitled Sketchbook. 2020