The Art Coming Out of a Pandemic – Part II

Liz Catalano
Published on

Online Exhibits by George Condo and Rashid Johnson, presented by Hauser & Wirth, Reflect on Social Distancing

Two contemporary artists have opened up about making art during the ongoing coronavirus lockdowns. Both George Condo and Rashid Johnson are creating works that reflect the anxiety and social isolation emblematic of this time. Hauser & Wirth, a gallery with locations in New York, London, and Zurich, recently opened online exhibitions of the art that Condo and Johnson have been working on over the last few weeks. The shows add to the growing wave of art directly related to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Johnson is an African-American Conceptual artist positioned at the front of the post-Black art movement. His work explores the legacy of slavery and racism in America, which he relates to his own identity using materials such as shea butter, funk albums, and black-eyed peas. His new series, Untitled Anxious Red Drawings, was made while under quarantine using an oil stick on a cotton rag. An expansion of his Anxious Men series, these paintings reflect the new reality of social distancing.

Rashid Johnson, Untitled Anxious Red Drawing, 2020. Image from Hauser & Wirth.
Rashid Johnson, Untitled Anxious Red Drawing, 2020. Image from Hauser & Wirth.

“The overall experience of being removed from society as a whole, removed from the touch of other human beings, has really taken something from me in the way that I see the world,” Johnson said in a video for Hauser & Wirth. “This is an incredibly anxious time, but it’s also a time that feels really radical, as if there’s a real urgency in it. And nothing feels more urgent than a red.”

Johnson will donate 10% of the proceeds from his paintings to the COVID-19 Solidarity Response Fund for the World Health Organization. That percentage is not insignificant, particularly given the artist’s recent history at auction. A piece executed in black soap on ceramic tiles was recently offered in Christie’s Post-War and Contemporary Art Evening Sale in November of 2019. The realized price for Untitled Anxious Audience was USD 879,000, well above the high pre-sale estimate of $300,000. It shows the same strained faces as those in Johnson’s most recent work but in black and white instead of vivid red.

Hauser & Wirth also recently released a virtual exhibition from George Condo. The New York-based artist has been painting out of his garage while in isolation. The resulting portrait drawings show Cubist faces kept slightly apart, created using crayon, pencil, and ink. Condo’s work has been described as “walk[ing] a line between realism and sardonic conceptualism.” Often likened to Pablo Picasso and Willem de Kooning, he worked in Andy Warhol’s Factory before developing his own style of fractured portraits.

George Condo, Together and Apart, 2020. Image from Hauser & Wirth.
George Condo, Together and Apart, 2020. Image from Hauser & Wirth.

“I’m imagining figures that are distant from one another. They don’t want to be, but they have to be,” he said about the new exhibition in a statement. “They somehow or another reflect my inner feelings about the way it is to be left alone out here in the wilderness.”

Six pieces are shown in the Drawings for Distanced Figures show, each priced between $100,000 and $125,000. In the month since its launch, the full show has sold out. Condo’s work has also experienced recent success on the auction block: his 2005 oil painting titled Antipodal Reunion sold for $1.3 million at a Sotheby’s auction in late April. It set a new Sotheby’s record for a painting sold online.

In a virtual interview with the New York Times, Condo and Johnson conversed about the experience of making art during lockdown. “We are at a time in the world where I think we can actually say we are seeing everyone struggle. Everyone is subject to a certain condition,” said Johnson.

On the same theme, Condo discussed the application of his theory of “artificial realism” during the pandemic: “Fear, anxiety, panic — how do you put that into some kind of poetic language that maintains your identity and integrity as an artist?” 

Lockdown is inspiring more hopeful sentiments in other creators. Maryam Eisler, an artist and contributing editor at LUX Magazine, has started a project capturing screenshots of leading contemporary artists on messaging apps such as FaceTime and WhatsApp. The ongoing work began in early April when Eisler started engaging with artists at their most casual on an equally casual platform. Eisler has since taken dozens of portraits, allowing each subject to caption the photo with short notes (“Love and Connect,” says Hong Kong-based art director Tim Yip), poems (Idris Khan wrote one about repetition), and discussions about hope during a pandemic.

“I am feeling anxious but I am also feeling optimistic,” Johnson is quoted next to his screenshot. “I don’t want to be motivated by fear. My preference is to be motivated by love.”

Auction Daily will continue to cover how artists adapt and respond to the global pandemic as the topic develops.