Aha Moment: Rashid Johnson on Clyfford Still

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Growing up in Evanston, Illinois, Rashid Johnson remembers school trips to visit The Art Institute of Chicago. On one visit, while horsing around trying to impress a girl, Johnson bumped into a painting. Chastened, he “decided that it was probably in my best interest to actually pay attention” to the docent’s remarks.

The painting was a large, black monochrome by Clyfford Still, the most reclusive of the Abstract Expressionist artists. The museum docent interpreted the canvas as an empty universe with a tiny crease of red paint in the corner that represented hope. Johnson was fascinated that an image with nothing in it could tells somebody so much. He had discovered abstraction.

Johnson grew up to work in photography, sculpture, painting, and film. For the past four years, he’s created black monochrome works using a liquid mix of African black soap and wax. Although the content of his work is very different, he credits the Still painting as an inspiration. “I often have conversations with people who feel disappointed by abstraction,” he says. “For me, there's always a second story outside of what you're seeing."

Is there a painting, album, movie, or other work of art that's changed your life? Tell us in a comment below or by e-mail.


Clyfford Still, PH-246, 1951-2. Oil on canvas, 119 x 156 in. (Art Institute of Chicago. (c) Clyfford Still Estate )


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