STACKHOUSE: You mentioned your interest in the history of black abstraction, and what black artists were forced to contend with by excluding what would otherwise be thought of as black content from their work. We were talking about Norman Lewis . . .
JOHNSON: Yes, Norman Lewis and Ed Clark and Al Loving . . .
STACKHOUSE: Jack Whitten, Sam Gilliam, Alma Thomas . . .
JOHNSON: All artists who I have a real affinity for.
STACKHOUSE: Lewis's work has an urban black id to it.
JOHNSON: I would say that about Clark and Loving as well. But, it gets interesting with Gilliam because, in his early work, you see no sign of any sort of cultural designation.
STACKHOUSE: It's purely formal.
JOHNSON: Formal and maybe existential issues but not specific concerns to black fraternity or a cultural group. Though you do see some of those references in the later work.
STACKHOUSE: In what way?
JOHNSON: It happens with Al Loving as well. They start moving into issues of patterning. It makes me think of the way people perceive Martin Puryear's work. Wasn't he making most of that stuff in Sweden or something? He studied in Sweden. He did spend a brief period in Africa, but all of it seems to be really about formal concerns. Again, it becomes about this tension, this contradiction. Regardless of what you make, in all likelihood some sort of cultural experience is projected onto the work. And I really want to take some ownership of that, to be able to shape the conversation in a way that deals with my experience, in my time, while still participating with the other decisions and issues you confront as an artist.
STACKHOUSE: Do you feel you fit into a line of black American painters and artists? Do you feel part of a continuum, or don't you see it as a continuum? Is it more like a crowd than a line?
JOHNSON: That's a difficult question. In a lot of ways, and maybe unfairly so, I do see a line that I fit into. I might look at Jacob Lawrence and Romare Bearden, and see how that leads to Norman Lewis and then Martin Puryear, and see how that gives birth to David Hammons and then Mark Bradford, and then how an artist like me fits in. I have left out a lot of people in that list—a tremendous number of people. In the early '90s, there was a lot of work that explored and reexamined a narrative that had been somewhat abandoned by the abstract painters. I'm talking about black female photographers like Lorna Simpson and Carrie Mae Weems, as well as Glenn Ligon after them. It all starts to twist and turn, to become a complex of both history and contemporary art practice.
STACKHOUSE: I find it disconcerting that the advent of abstraction in American art is tied to Hans Hofmann. From a conceptual and material standpoint, the ways that the black community has estheticized itself in terms of color, line and shape, all of the components, involve the concerns of formal painting. There has always been this attention to abstraction. Do you see this persistence?
JOHNSON: Yes, as much as I reject the idea of a singular black experience, I do.
STACKHOUSE: Invention and reinvention.
JOHNSON: Reuse and improvisation. Some things are almost necessarily consistent to the black experience. Moving and adjusting. It happens throughout the day, depending on who you're talking to, you may use a certain tone or a certain command of the language to communicate.
STACKHOUSE: Code switching.
JOHNSON: Yes [laughs]. And this affects the way that you move in space. In an art practice, that movement may influence the way you consider marking, consider mapping, negotiate the terms of experimentation and improvisation.
STACKHOUSE: How do you feel about potentially being exoticized as a "young black artist"?
JOHNSON: I am not concerned about the issue of ghettoization or being exoticized in any way. You are going to be treated or perceived in whatever way the audience is capable of dealing with what it is you do. And if you sit around overly concerned about those issues, then you are probably just not going to be productive.
CURRENTLY ON VIEW "Rashid Johnson: Message to Our Folks" at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago, Apr. 14Aug. 5, 2012.
CHRISTOPHER STACKHOUSE is a writer and artist.