With Art Basel in the rear view, art-world insiders traded the belle-époque rooms of the Trois Rois hotel for top-deck cabins on their summer yachts, and Hauser and Wirth hosted a reception for Rashid Johnson’s latest solo show at its Mediterranean outpost in Menorca. (Read our review of the show here.)
The 45-year-old artist’s recognizable paintings—which touch on contemporary themes while harkening back to established art-historical traditions—have become increasingly hard to buy in recent years, with long waiting lists and priority given to collectors generous enough to help works make their way into museum collections.
We took the occasion to delve into Johnson’s market history to see what we could discern about its past, present, and future.
Auction Record: $2.6 million, achieved at Christie’s New York in November 2021
Johnson’s Performance in 2021
Lots left: 43
Bought in: 5
Sell through rate: 89.6 percent
Average sale price: $279,729
Mean estimate: $123,169
Total sales: $12 million
Top painting price: $2.6 million
Lowest painting price: $17,446 for a spray paint on mirror work from 2008
Lowest overall price: $1,125, for a stamped fine bone china plate in an edition of 175 produced by Coalition for the Homeless
- Market Ascent. Johnson began attracting art-world attention in 2001, when he was included in “Freestyle,” a landmark exhibition of young African American artists at the Studio Museum in Harlem whose work curator Thelma Golden described as “post-Black.” Though his art first hit the auction block in 2008, mid-recession, it did n’t begin to gain traction until 2011, when prices jumped in tandem with the announcement that he had joined mega-gallery Hauser and Wirth (he is also repped by David Kordansky). From there, total sales climbed a whopping 96.1 percent in four years, to $1.6 million in 2015.
- Anxious Men. While Johnson began his career making conceptual photography, films, and sculptural installations, his market is (unsurprisingly) concentrated around his wall-based mixed-media works and paintings. The most sought-after body of work by far is his “Anxious Men” series, paintings featuring frenetically drawn faces. Three of the four works that have surpassed the $1 million mark at auction feature the “anxious” motif—in red (Anxious Red Painting December 18th), blue (Bruise Painting “Or Down You Fall”), and black (The Crowd). On the primary market, prices range from $500,000 to $2 million. At Art Basel last week, Hauser and Wirth sold one of his two-tone “surrender” paintings, the newest variation on the anxious motif, for $975,000.
- Levels of Demand. Other in-demand series include the “Broken Men” tile mosaics and “Escape Collages,” mixed-media paintings made with ceramic tile, mirror, black soap wax, oil stick, and photographs. (David Kordansky sold one of these from 2017 for $1 million to a major Asian collector at Art Basel.) Demand is also growing for Johnson’s recent series of repeated blue crescent forms, which he calls his “Seascape” paintings (Hauser and Wirth sold one at FIAC 2021 for $850,000). Less popular, though still coveted (especially by institutions), are his cumbersome-to-live-with shelf sculptures lined with plants, books, and ephemera from the artist’s Afrocentric material life. Perhaps the most under-appreciated body of work is his early “Cosmic Slops” series made with black soap.
- Watershed Moment. Barring 2016 and 2017, when there was a crunch on supply to the auction market and total sales dipped back down to $631,581 (though much more was traded on the private secondary market through his galleries), as well as a 2020 pandemic dip, Johnson’s market has continued to ascend, reaching a record $12 million in total sales in 2021. That year, his record was broken twice at Christie’s New York, with his Anxious Red Painting December 18th (2020) bringing in $1.95 million, nearly 10 times its low estimate, in the spring. That fall, another work from the series fetched $2.6 million.
- Continued Growth. Johnson now has a global collector base and is in museum collections from New York (the Met, MoMA) to Paris (Fondation Louis Vuitton) to Shanghai (the Long Museum). Demand for the work continues, as 2,373 users searched for Johnson in Artnet’s price database in the past 12 months, and to date in 2022, his work has made more than $ 4 million at auction.
Rashid Johnson is among a cadre of American artists whose work embraces themes of art history, individual and shared cultural identities, philosophy, poetry, and critical theory. How much that work will appreciate in the history books, it is too early to tell, and there is a lot to unpack within his wider artistic practice. But the growth of his market can be attributed to the explosion of interest in ultra-contemporary painting and his identification of a key strategic recipe: domestically scaled, wall-hanging works that are powerful and recognizable but not too challenging. Hard to acquire on the primary market and expensive on the secondary one, they are increasingly part of the vocabulary of good taste—a trophy of market access and a sign of influence among top collectors.
As an American artist based in New York, Johnson has room to expand his profile in Europe and Asia, though he now has a following in France and a forthcoming solo exhibition at the Long Museum in Shanghai. Meanwhile, his galleries are encouraging collectors to help place the work in museums worldwide. It seems like a good strategy that will secure Johnson a place in history—though at just 45, he has plenty of opportunity left in his career to experiment and make his mark beyond the paintings the market loves. And this could make the difference between work that is owned by museums of the future and work that is shown in them.
It remains to be seen how the whispers of recession will affect the ballooning prices for ultra-contemporary painting writ large. Then again, for certain echelons of largesse, recession doesn’t really mean anything.
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