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Property Sold to Benefit Right of Return, USA

Surrender Painting "Sunshine"

Surrender Painting "Sunshine"
signed with the artist’s initials ‘R A J’ (on the right side edge)
oil on linen
72 x 96 in. (182.9 x 243.8 cm.)
Painted in 2022.
Courtesy of the artist
This lot is being sold by a charitable organization with proceeds intended to benefit Right of Return, USA, and a US taxpayer may be able to claim a deduction of up to 50% of the purchase price paid in excess of the mid-estimate.


Isabella Lauria
Isabella Lauria Vice President, Senior Specialist, Head of 21st Century Evening Sale


Rashid Johnson’s swirling, layered Surrender Painting “Sunshine” represents the work of the most inventive conceptual artists working today. At a sweeping six feet by eight feet, the canvas is as vast as the sun it references, asking us to be immersed in a painterly horizon. Johnson poses essential questions about how painting can be responsive to our contemporary world by thinking through structures of history and power. The Surrender Paintings are Johnson’s most recent iteration of the iconography of his Anxious Men works. Always thinking through the past and the present simultaneously, Johnson’s new canvases summon up feelings of redemption, leaving an atmosphere of simplicity and recognition. Johnson’s subject has always been the collective, and here we experience gridded bundles of marks that engender feelings of estrangement and optimism.

Surrender Painting “Sunshine” takes on the traditions of the monochrome and the grid, evoking Eva Hesse, Jasper Johns, and Agnes Martin. These abstract, cursive white marks become an ornate tapestry upon the unprimed canvas. In a Warholian fashion, Johnson knows that repetition always begets difference, and therein lies the beauty of human experience. Each grid is different, forgoing regimented or industrialized repetition in favor of painterly variation, recalling how even within communities of people is unpredictable individuality. Johnson vertically connects the vibrating squares with blocks of white paint, as if to turn them into handheld signs that we can grasp and raise above our heads in an act of protest. Extending to the edge of the large canvas, Johnson’s marks could be said to inhabit the space of the viewer, and our eyes dodge and weave within this abstract landscape.

Johnson’s Anxious Men works, of which Surrender Painting “Sunshine” is a continuation, represents the artist’s poetic investigation of politics and ennui. As Johnson theorizes of the series, “Constant escape is an underlying narrative” that recalls Afrofuturist discourses of utopia and science fiction (R. Johnson, quoted in C. Kino, “Rashid Johnson: An Anxious Man,” Cultured Magazine, September 7, 2016, https://www.culturedmag.com/article/2016/09/07/rashid-johnson-hank-willis-thomas). Surrender Painting “Sunshine” carries with it this longing to escape, and in its variability, there may indeed be those avenues. For there is never inevitability in Johnson’s work, only a plethora of options. Scholar Huey Copeland argues that Johnson’s work “conceptually reconfigures space-time through aesthetic means that, in coming together and falling apart, deliver on the promised freedoms of the present without losing sight of the productive constraints of the past” (H. Copeland, “Rashid Johnson,” Artforum, Summer 2012, https://www.artforum.com/print/reviews/201206/rashid-johnson-31090). Johnson is an art historian himself as he works through history and the future within the expanse of a single canvas. Using history as a medium and drawing on an innovative lineage of Black abstractionists like Ed Clark, Howardena Pindell, and Jack Whitten, Johnson has carved out a space all his own.

Born in 1977 in Chicago, Johnson quickly became one of the voices of a new generation of conceptual artists after his inclusion as the youngest artist in Thelma Golden’s historic 2001 exhibition Freestyle, which would become a touchstone in post-Black conceptual art. In 2012, the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago presented his first major solo museum exhibition, and he won the High Museum of Art’s David C. Driskell Prize for contributions to African American art in 2013. He went on to also present solo shows at Museo Tamayo, Mexico City (2019), the Aspen Art Museum, Colorado (2019), the Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art, Kansas City (2017), which traveled to the Milwaukee Art Museum (2017), and the Drawing Center, New York (2015). In 2019, Johnson also directed a feature film, based on Richard Wright’s Native Son, that premiered at the Sundance Film Festival and was released by HBO. Most recently, Johnson completed a commission for the Metropolitan Opera, New York and a major outdoor sculpture at the Storm King Art Center, New Windsor, New York (both 2021).

A rising star who has now matured into an icon of contemporary art, Johnson takes stock with Surrender Painting “Sunshine”. As with the paradoxes of life and the cycles of history, the canvas represents both defeat and a new dawn. Indeed, Johnson is always looking forward, “I’m just acting on all the things that come my way. That’s how I can honestly unpack where I am and that gives me the work and opportunities that illustrate that vocation” (R. Johnson, quoted in Artspace Editors, “Rashid Johnson on Art, Life & Everything In Between,” Artspace, October 4, 2022, https://www.artspace.com/magazine/interviews_features/need-to-know/rashid-johnson-on-art-life-everything-in-between-57190).

The present lot is being sold to benefit the Right of Return Fellowship, co-founded in 2017 by justice-impacted artists Jesse Krimes and Russell Craig as the first and only national initiative dedicated to supporting and men-toring formerly incarcerated creatives. Right of Return Fellows produce work that advances criminal and racial justice and challenges the status quo. The fellowship has flourished with the generous support of the Open Philanthropy Project, the Art for Justice Fund, and the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.

Positioning artists as changemakers, the initiative prioritizes funding for new projects that address or reimagine one of the biggest moral and human rights crises of our time: the creation of an American carceral system in which approximately 2 million people are behind bars, and nearly 4 million more are on some form of state supervision. Mass incarceration in the United States is unmatched in the world and historically unprecedented. It tears families and communities apart and fails to make us safer or address harm. Right of Return is part of the movement to change narratives and foster conversations around policing, punishment, and the systemic racial and class inequalities that are hallmarks of mass incarceration in the United States.

To date, we have supported 25 of the country’s most visible formerly incarcerated artists and worked with over 30 advocacy organizations in 13 states. Our fellows have gone on to receive to a MacArthur genius award, the Pulitzers prize, Guggenheim Fellowships, and other prestigious grants and residencies. We have created a self-sustaining community that can leverage relationships, skills, and knowledge to foster the creation of ambitious new works and public advocacy for visionary systems transformation. In 2022, we are building on the success of the first five-years of the Right of Return Fellowship to create the Art and Advocacy Society, which will expand opportunities for artists working at the vanguard of social movements to build collective cultural momentum in pursuit of liberation and equity. For more information visit rightofreturnusa.com.

This collaboration with Christie’s is steered by a host committee including Sarah Arison (chair), Beth DeWoody, Kate Fowle, Claude Grunitzky, Stephanie Ingrassia, Michi Jigarjian, Barbara and Jon Lee, Thor Shannon, Franklin Sirmans, Graham Steele, and Olivia Walton. Immense and everlasting thanks to the artists who are supporting our growth: Dwayne Betts, Rashid Johnson, Titus Kaphar, Mickalene Thomas, Hank Willis Thomas and Right of Return Co-Founders, Russell Craig and Jesse Krimes.

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