Kemper Scores a Coup with Rashid Johnson Exhibit

Rashid Johnson’s “Antoine’s Organ” (2016), an installation incorporating grow lights and live plants, rugs and a piano, is part of his exhibit, “Rashid Johnson: Hail We Now Sing Joy,” at the Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art through May 21. Courtesy of the artist and Hauser & Wirth Gallery

Rashid Johnson is one of the most sought-after artists of his generation. In 2013 “Flash Art” magazine christened him a “post-black flower child” whose work coaxes viewers to come to grips with “complex historical reckoning.”

“Hail We Now Sing Joy,” an exhibit of Johnson’s work now at the Kemper Museum, stands to be one of the most compelling exhibitions of 2017.

Johnson’s art combines photography, drawing, assemblage, sculpture, installation and video, using such common materials as ceramic tiles, shea butter, black soap, wax, mirrors and wood.

Born in 1977 in Chicago, where he earned an MFA from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, Johnson was only 24 when he had a major show at the Studio Museum in Harlem. He is the first artist appointed to the Guggenheim Foundation’s Board of Trustees since the Foundation’s first founding director. Now represented by the international powerhouse gallery Hauser & Wirth, Johnson created new works specifically for his show at the Kemper.

Erin Dziedzic, director of curatorial affairs at the Kemper, has been involved with Johnson’s exhibit from its inception. A longtime admirer of Johnson’s art, she was one of a number of curators invited to the artist’s New York studio last year to discuss the possibility of exhibiting new work by him.

“Barbara O’Brien (Kemper Museum director) and I had already discussed the possibility of showing Rashid’s work at the Kemper,” Dziedzic said in a recent interview. “When I went to Rashid’s studio and met his team, he was super-responsive.”

Johnson’s “Untitled Escape Collage” (2016) is also on view in the Kemper exhibit. Courtesy of the artist and Hauser & Wirth Gallery

The Kemper’s collection, Dziedzic notes, establishes a bridge between modern and contemporary art, which makes it a great fit for Johnson’s work. “Art history is really embedded in Rashid’s work; in addition, a lot of his work is infused with jazz history, along with his personal stories.”

Johnson came to Kansas City in September for a site visit at the Kemper and was involved with re-designing the gallery spaces for his new work.

He is best known for his large installation “Antoine’s Organ,” which incorporates a boxed grid of metal shelving, live plants, books, and a piano that can be played in the interior space. A version of this is installed at the Kemper.

“It (is) the largest scaled grid piece that Rashid has ever done in the United States,” Dziedzic says, “and it engages with the museum’s architecture. Rashid also made most of the ceramic pots for the plants, and has been working with botanists. This is not just new work for him; it’s also a new experience for the museum.”

The piece also incorporates video, sculpture and lights.

“Hail We Now Sing Joy” is an actual music track by composer Joseph Jarman for “The Meeting,” a jazz album released in 2003 by the Art Ensemble of Chicago. So it is fitting that the museum developed a schedule of musicians to play throughout the space during the run of the show, and that Johnson gave an artist’s talk at the Gem Theater in the 18th and Vine District during his visit to KC for the exhibit’s Feb. 9 opening. — Elisabeth Kirsch

“Rashid Johnson: Hail We Now Sing Joy” continues through May 21 at the Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art, 4420 Warwick Blvd. Hours are 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesday, Wednesday, Saturday, Sunday and 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. Thursday and Friday. For more information, 816-753-5784 or www.kemperart.org

Elisabeth Kirsch

Elisabeth Kirsch is an art historian, curator and writer who has curated over 100 exhibitions of contemporary art, American Indian art and photography, locally and across the country. She writes frequently for national and local arts publications.

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