Series

Ariel Pink Used an Artist’s Image on an Album Cover Without Her Consent. She Responded With a Series of Blistering NFTs


When Jill Miller found a photograph of her face had been used without her consent on an Ariel Pink album cover, she could have addressed the violation in any number of ways. Calling it out online maybe, or even bringing suit. But why do that, she reckoned, when, as an artist, she could respond with an art project?

In 2006, musician Ariel Pink released Thrash and Burn, a 36-track compilation of his late-‘90s lo-fi experiments, its cover featuring a close-up image of Miller’s face. Across her forehead was scrawled his name “ARIEL,” and beside her face the word “STINKS.” The cover art was credited to visual artist Michael Rashkow; its subject remained unnamed.

During lockdown, Miller came across her own face on Pink’s record sleeve, and was confused. She had no idea how he had come to possess the photograph—and had certainly not granted permission for her image to be used on his album cover. 

In subsequent DMs with Pink over Instagram, the L.A.-based singer simply directed Miller to Rashkow, who turned out to be her former classmate at UCLA. Back in the early 2000s, Miller was earning her MFA at the university and hosting regular open studio visits, where Rashkow likely snapped her picture.

The cover of Ariel Pink’s Thrash and Burn (2006), featuring a photograph of artist Jill Miller. Photo: HEM

That image would somehow end up in the hands of Jason Grier, the director of the music label Human Ear Music, which released Thrash and Burn (then reissued it in 2013). He claims his “next-door neighbor” designed the album’s cover, before he sought and received Pink’s sign-off on the artwork, though not Miller’s authorization.

“My initial thought was, ‘how rude,’” Miller told Midnight Publishing Group News of her reaction to seeing her face on Pink’s album sleeve. “And my follow-up thought was, ‘how predictable.’”

Her next move? Creating 50 alternate album covers of Thrash and Burn, intended to replace—and parody—the original.

Generated using A.I. software and released as NFTs, these digital works are grouped into four themes, largely centering Pink in a variety of absurd scenarios. There’s Ariel Pink as a sad clown, as a TSA agent, working at Walmart, with a pet skunk, and on a field trip to D.C. (a scene referencing the January 6 U.S. capitol riot, where Pink was in attendance), his face often warped by the algorithm. Every cover bears the phrase “ARIEL STINKS” for its added “comedic potential,” per Miller. 

Field Trip to DC, from the series “Ariel Stinks (50 Alternative Album Covers to Thrash and Burn).” Photo: Jill Miller.

The first part of Miller’s “Ariel Stinks” NFT series has been released on crypto art marketplace Taex in one-for-one editions, priced at 0.39 ETH (about $624) each; a second drop is planned for February 2. One cover has also been made available for free as a digital download.

“Making a series of NFTs felt like the right response to a 16-year-old album cover with my stolen image on it,” said Miller. “I wanted the series to exist in a form that resonated with 2023—which is digital music.” Buyers of the NFTs, too, will retain commercial rights to the work. 

The medium of NFTs further befits an artist, also the Assistant Professor in Art Practice at the University of California, Berkeley, whose practice has been intertwined with new media. In her work, she has sought to challenge contemporary perceptions with the help of technologies from augmented reality to 3D rendering to the internet. Her foray into NFTs, she said, expands on those explorations.

“As an artist who experiments with new technologies, I was curious about NFTs existing as art without the physical object,” she explained. “I see them as being conceptually linked to early photography, video, and other art forms that confused (and later delighted) the art world.”

<em>Ariel Stars in a Horror Film</em>, from the series "Ariel Stinks (50 Alternative Album Covers to Thrash and Burn)." Photo: Jill Miller.

Ariel Stars in a Horror Film, from the series “Ariel Stinks (50 Alternative Album Covers to Thrash and Burn).” Photo: Jill Miller.

And A.I., for that matter, is “another tool in the artist’s box,” Miller said. “I think it could be used as part of a studio practice, but I don’t think it’s essential.”

For “Ariel Stinks,” she used a text-to-image generator to “imagine a number of ways that Ariel could literally stink,” before editing the output in post-production. A generated image featuring Pink on a For Wanted poster, for example, was reworked to include a quote from Mary Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication on the Rights of Woman.

The technology, too, served as a mediating layer between artist and subject, according to Miller. “Making a portrait is quite an intimate exercise,” she said. “I used the A.I. to run interference between Ariel Pink and me… The A.I. acts as a buffer between us, so I don’t have to look too closely for too long.”

Miller is of course well-aware of the copyright litigation currently swirling generative A.I., and has covered her legal bases. According to her attorney, M.J. Bogatin, an intellectual property lawyer based in California, Ariel Stinks falls under the fair use exemption of U.S. copyright law, as the work would be considered parody. “She absolutely has the creative license to use Pink’s image, to adulterate it the way she has,” he told Billboard.

Ariel works at Walmart, from the series Ariel Stinks (50 Alternative Album Covers to Thrash and Burn). Photo: Jill Miller.

Ariel works at Walmart, from the series “Ariel Stinks (50 Alternative Album Covers to Thrash and Burn).” Photo: Jill Miller.

All 50 “Ariel Stinks” covers will be compiled and released as a coffee-table book, the culmination of Miller’s project to reclaim her image, while examining the bounds of appropriation. The act, she said, “calls into question outdated values or cultural assumptions.”

“The record preceded the #MeToo movement,” she added, “and back then men were still getting away with things that would not be allowed today.”

Grier, for his part, has apologized for “unwisely [choosing the photograph of Miller] as the cover art for the release.” Pink—who, January 6 aside, has long courted controversy by spouting statements that have been deemed racist and misogynist—called the project “a prank” and “a sort of snarky bit of revenge,” adding that it exists “to make me look bad.”

“I didn’t realize he called it a prank!” said Miller about Pink’s response. “That’s funny, but not surprising. He can’t really acknowledge it as art without accepting the underlying concept behind it, which is that he authorized his record label to use my image without my permission.”

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Philadelphia Museum of Art Director Timothy Rub Will Retire After a Series of Scandals and Staff Turmoil


Timothy Rub, the director and chief executive of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, has announced that he will retire from his position early next year.

“It has been a great honor to serve as the director of one of this country’s finest art museums, and to play a role in strengthening its collections and programs as well as renewing our landmark main building to make it ready for another century of service to the community,” he said in a surprise statement to the museum’s staff and board of trustees on Friday.

The director’s last days atop the museum will come in January 2022. After that, he will stay on as a consultant until a new director has been put in place. (Rub will also serve as chief curator of the museum’s upcoming Sean Scully survey, set to open in April of next year.) 

The board has already commenced a search for Rub’s successor, according to the museum.

Rub, who previously served as director of the Cleveland Museum of Art, where he led a $350 million expansion, came to the Philadelphia Museum in 2009, following the death of previous director Anne d’Harnoncourt. In doing so, he inherited his predecessor’s own ambitious, $500 million renovation plan, put in place years before. 

In total, Rub, 69, has been with the museum for 13 years. But his tenure may well be remembered for the last two—a period of highs and lows at the institution marked by sexual harassment scandals, staff cuts, a contentious unionization effort, and the completion of a monumental Frank Gehry-designed expansion project.

The “core” phase of that project, a $233 million overhaul of the museum’s entrances and interior spaces, was unveiled this spring. It came at a time when the museum was in need of some positive press. 

Exterior of the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Photo by Ben Davis.

Just over a year prior, in January 2020, an investigative report published in the New York Times found that Joshua Helmer, a former assistant director for interpretation at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, had been accused of sexual harassment by at least three female employees between 2016 and 2018, when he resigned for reasons that have not been made public. 

Helmer went on to become the director of the Erie Art Museum, where additional harassment allegations came to light. He was pushed out of his role after the release of the Times report. 

The following month, the Philadelphia Museum of Art came under fire again, this time for allegedly protecting a retail employee who was accused of physically assaulting colleagues. And in May 2020, after workers at the museum launched a campaign to unionize, the institution responded by hiring an infamous union-busting law firm for the negotiations. 

The staff was ultimately successful in its effort, voting in August to form the first wall-to-wall museum union in the country. The decision came just two days after the Philadelphia institution downsized its staff by 23 percent, laying off more than 80 employees and reaching a separation agreement with 42 others.

“If I had to turn back the clock, I would have also recognized sooner that we needed to focus at the same time—and with equal vigor—on the museum’s internal culture,” Rub told the New York Times last week, on the occasion of his retirement announcement. “We’re doing that work now, and the museum will be better off for it.”

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Try These 10 Tasty Cocktail Recipes That Frick Collection Curators Mixed for the Museum’s Hit Lockdown Video Series


For over a year now, art lovers looking to end their weeks on a high note have been turning to the Frick Collection, which for 65 straight Fridays has offered new episodes in its YouTube series “Cocktails With a Curator.”

Each installment shares a drink recipe and invites viewers to join in at home while learning about an artwork in its storied collection of paintings, sculptures, and decorative arts.

Today, that streak comes to an end, with deputy director and chief curator Xavier Salomon having poured his final drink for online audiences last Friday night.

“Like all good things, they naturally come to an end at some point,” Salomon told Midnight Publishing Group News in an email.

The series ended like it began last April: with a Manhattan. Salomon chose that first cocktail in tribute to the island that the museum calls home at a time when New York was under siege, at the epicenter of a global pandemic.

Giovanni Bellini, <i>St. Francis in the Desert</I> (1480). Courtesy of the Frick Collection, New York.

Giovanni Bellini, St. Francis in the Desert (1480). Courtesy of the Frick Collection, New York.

“It started at the time of lockdown and forced quarantines, when people could not go out with friends to share a drink, so the idea of mixing cocktails with art came about fairly quickly,” Salomon said.

He mixed that first Manhattan, which includes whiskey and sweet vermouth, to go with one of the Frick’s most famous paintings, Giovanni Bellini’s St. Francis in the Desert. Last week, Salomon wrapped things up with a variation of the drink, a Black Manhattan, which swaps Amaro, a bitter Italian digestif, for the traditional sweet vermouth. In the meantime, he discussed Arrangement in Black and Gold: Comte Robert de Montesquiou-Fezensac by James McNeill Whistler.

“My favorite cocktails are also some of the best known and traditional,” Salomon said, “like the Martini Vesper, Manhattan, and Mint Julep. On the other hand, I had to struggle to drink an Ouzo Lemonade—I never liked the taste of anise.”

The video series was a surprise hit for the Frick, having been collectively viewed more than 1.7 million times to date. (Pre-pandemic, a typical Frick program might top out at just 400 YouTube views.) In May, the museum was honored with a Webby award for the series.

“I have always been surprised and humbled by the success of the program,” Salomon said. “I am glad that people all over the world responded to the simple idea that works of art from the past can have an effect on us and improve our lives, especially at times of crisis.”

Here are 10 recipes to try from “Cocktails With a Curator.”

Xavier’s Manhattan

1 part Italian Vermouth
1 part Bourbon
Stir well and strain into a cocktail glass
Maraschino cherry

 

Aperol Spritz

3 parts Aperol
2 parts dry prosecco
1 splash of sparkling water
Garnish with orange or lemon

 

Vesper

3 parts dry gin
1 part vodka
½ part Lillet Blanc
Chilled

 

Toreador

1 part blanco tequila
½ part apricot brandy
½ part fresh lime juice
1 dash bitters

 

Whiskey Sour

2 parts Whiskey
¾ parts simple syrup
¾ parts lemon juice
serve chilled

 

Jaded Countess

1 part absinthe
½ part vodka
½ part fresh lemon juice
½ part simple syrup
stir with ice and strain
top with champagne and garnish with a lemon twist

 

Widow’s Kiss

1½ parts Calvados
½ part Benedictine D.O.M.
½ part Yellow Chartreuse liqueur
2 dashes of Angostura bitters
mint leaf

 

Genever Brûlée

2 oz genever
1 teaspoon brown sugar
A few dashes of classic bitters
A dash of orange bitters
A splash of sparkling water
Garnished with a caramelized orange slice

 

Bloody Mary

1 part Vodka
2 parts Tomato juice
Lemon juice
Worcester sauce
Few drops of Tabasco sauce
Horseradish
Salt and pepper
Ice
Garnish with celery, lemon, olives

 

Limoncello Spritz

1 part limoncello
1 part sparkling lemonade
Topped with Prosecco and garnished with mint

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Why Andy Warhol’s ‘Prince Series,’ the Subject of a Long-Term Copyright Dispute, Should Be Considered Fair Use After All


Last month, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit declared that a notable group of Andy Warhol paintings—his famed “Prince Series”—infringed the copyright of the photographer whose image served as the basis for the body of work. 

The court’s controversial decision, grounded in a narrow understanding of copyright law’s “fair use” provision, may have granted judges more power in evaluating artistic expression than some might like. But less than two weeks later, the Supreme Court provided a more expansive understanding of fair use, this time in Google v. Oracle, a case involving the copying of computer software code. 

Technology and art are very different. Yet the Supreme Court’s recent decision suggests that the Second Circuit, which sits one rung down on the ladder of federal judicial authority, may have some further thinking to do about how copyright’s fair use doctrine applies when artists copy or reference existing images. 

 

The Lawsuit

In 1984, Vanity Fair paid Lynn Goldsmith $400 to license the photograph she had taken of Prince three years prior in order to use it as an “artist reference” for an illustration in the magazine. The artist Vanity Fair had hired, unbeknownst to Goldsmith, was Andy Warhol. 

Warhol cropped the photograph down to Prince’s face and used it as the raw material for 16 works, one of which, pictured below at right, ran alongside an article on the musician.  

 

Right: Lynn Goldsmith's original photograph of Prince; left: Andy Warhol's <i>Orange Prince</i>

Right: Lynn Goldsmith’s original photograph of Prince; left: Andy Warhol’s Orange Prince.

In 2016, Vanity Fair reprinted the same Warhol work as the cover for a special issue commemorating Prince’s death. This use was not covered by the original license, and Goldsmith made her displeasure known. The Andy Warhol Foundation responded by going on the offensive, seeking a declaratory judgment that the “Prince Series” did not infringe the Goldsmith photograph.

The foundation argued that Warhol’s use of the Goldsmith photo was fair use. (It has restated that view in an en banc petition filed last week asking the court to reconsider.) Viewed broadly, fair use is an exception to the usual copyright rules aimed at furthering the larger aim of copyright: to promote creativity in the arts. As the Supreme Court has explained, fair use permits one creator to use the work of another when forbidding that use “would stifle the very creativity which that law is designed to foster.”

(A canonical example of a fair use would be a parodic song which copies the melody of a famous song —such as 2Live Crew’s version of Roy Orbison’s “Pretty Woman,” upheld as fair use by the Supreme Court in 1994.) 

In the Warhol case, the trial court judge agreed with the Warhol Foundation, holding that the Prince series was fair use, in large part because it transformed the original Goldsmith work to give it a new meaning. While the Goldsmith photograph portrays Prince, in the court’s words, as “not a comfortable person” and a “vulnerable human being,” the Prince Series portrays Prince as an “iconic, larger-than-life figure.” Such “transformative” use, in the district court’s view, creates something new, and is therefore the kind of use that is more likely to be fair use.

On appeal, the Second Circuit disagreed. That court found that Warhol’s use of the Goldsmith photograph was not “transformative” and, based in large part on that conclusion, went on to hold that Warhol’s Prince portrait did not qualify as fair. 

 

A Question of Transformation

So what does this notion of “transformativeness” in copyright law actually mean? The core idea is that if a second work sufficiently changes the first, it becomes a new work worthy of protection. Though it is not the only element in evaluating fair use, the transformativeness concept has come to occupy a central place in legal analysis.

In fact, shortly after the Second Circuit’s decision in the Warhol case, the Supreme Court reaffirmed the importance of transformativeness when it held that Google’s unauthorized use in its Android operating system of 11,500 lines of code from Oracle’s Java SE program was transformative enough to qualify as fair use. 

Such use, the Supreme Court stated in Google v. Oracle, “adds something new and important,” typically by shifting the original work’s purpose, meaning, or message—and, as a consequence, stimulates creativity. Google had done just that, the court held, when it used code from Oracle’s Java (a programming language that had previously been used mostly to build desktop applications) to build a new operating system for mobile phones—something Oracle had tried to do, but with little success.

If Google’s use was transformative, why wasn’t Warhol’s? Was it fair to say that Google’s use of 11,500 lines of code to make a new operating system was transformative but Andy Warhol’s use of Goldsmith’s photo to make Orange Prince was not? 

Andy Warhol's Prince illustration based on the Lynn Goldsmith photograph as it appeared in Vanity Fair, here reproduced in court documents.

Andy Warhol’s Prince illustration based on the Lynn Goldsmith photograph as it appeared in Vanity Fair, here reproduced in court documents.

In a sense, the Supreme Court in Google v. Oracle had an easier job than the Second Circuit did in Goldsmith v. Warhol. Whether Google had used Oracle’s code to create something new was a question the Supreme Court could answer simply by comparing Google’s software’s functionality with that of Oracle’s: Android provides a new functionality (that is, it works well on a mobile phone), meaning Google put elements of Oracle’s code to a new purpose. 

By contrast, the appeals court in the Warhol case was facing questions not of functionality, but aesthetics. How is a court to determine whether Warhol’s use of the photograph changed its purpose, meaning, or message?

The Second Circuit argued that while it may have been Goldsmith’s intent to portray Prince as a vulnerable young artist, and Warhol’s “to strip Prince of that humanity and instead display him as a popular icon,” whether a work is transformative cannot depend merely on the artist’s intent.  

Rather, for Warhol’s work to be transformative, “it must reasonably be perceived as embodying an entirely distinct artistic purpose, one that conveys ‘new meaning or message’ entirely separate from its source material.” In other words, the new meaning must not be linked to the source material itself but rather to something else the appropriating artist did with the work. It must flow from a new artistic vision—or so it must seem to the eye of a federal judge. 

As an example of work that meets that standard, the Second Circuit pointed to two previous art cases. The first involved Jeff Koons’s painting Niagara (below right), which incorporated a photograph from a fashion magazine (below left). In that case, the court believed that Koons’s work gave a new meaning to the underlying photograph.

Left, a magazine advertisement used in Jeff Koons's Niagra (2000). Courtesy of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York.

Left, a magazine advertisement used in Jeff Koons’s Niagra (2000). Courtesy of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York.

That same court, in a subsequent case involving the “Canal Zone” series by Richard Prince (example below right), which incorporated photographs of Rastafarians by Patrick Cariou (below left), held that most of the Prince works transformed the message of the Cariou works, turning Cariou’s classical portraits into something disjointed and frenetic.

Left, a Rastafarian by Patrick Cariou and right, an image from the “Canal Zone” series by Richard Prince.

Left, a Rastafarian by Patrick Cariou and right, an image from the “Canal Zone” series by Richard Prince.

What do the Koons and Prince works have in common? They’re both collages. They take bits and pieces from various works and arrange them into something new. Like Google’s use of some of the Oracle code, the underlying work becomes a building block in a larger creative edifice. 

On the other hand, Warhol’s Prince work is based on a single source photo. The Warhol court thought that this difference mattered, noting that artworks previously deemed transformative “draw from numerous sources, rather than works that simply alter or recast a single work with a new aesthetic.” By contrast, the court held, Warhol’s Prince works “retain… the essential elements of the Goldsmith Photograph without significantly adding to or altering those elements.”

 

Was It Wrong?

The Supreme Court’s decision in the Google case casts some doubt on the lower court’s conclusion. Viewed abstractly, what Warhol has done with Goldsmith’s photo isn’t too different from what Google did with Oracle’s 11,500 lines of code. The code that Google took sits in Android, unchanged, just as the Goldsmith photo recognizably appears in Warhol’s Prince works. Google built a program around Oracle’s code that provides new functionality. Warhol also built a work around Goldsmith’s photo that provides something new. And under the Google decision, adding something “new and different” is sufficient to render the second work transformative of the first. 

The real challenge in the Warhol case is articulating exactly what the “new and different” elements are. And this illustrates an age-old problem in copyright law that has never been solved, and that makes copyright risky for artists who, like Warhol, work through appropriation. 

In Bleistein v. Donaldson Lithographing Co., a classic copyright case from 1903, the Supreme Court considered whether circus posters, like the one shown below, were copyrightable.

An image from the Bleistein v. Donaldson Lithographing Co. case in 1903.

An image from the Bleistein v. Donaldson Lithographing Co. case in 1903.

The defendant contended that copyright should not protect mere advertisements. But the famed Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes disagreed:

It would be a dangerous undertaking for persons trained only to the law to constitute themselves final judges of the worth of pictorial illustrations, outside of the narrowest and most obvious limits. At the one extreme, some works of genius would be sure to miss appreciation. Their very novelty would make them repulsive until the public had learned the new language in which their author spoke. It may be more than doubted, for instance, whether the etchings of Goya or the paintings of Manet would have been sure of protection when seen for the first time. At the other end, copyright would be denied to pictures which appealed to a public less educated than the judge. Yet if they command the interest of any public, they have a commercial value—it would be bold to say that they have not an aesthetic and educational value—and the taste of any public is not to be treated with contempt.

Holmes’ argument is that copyright law should not engage in aesthetic discrimination. But isn’t that precisely what’s going on in the Warhol case? The court sees the Prince and Koons collages as transformative because they have the quality of cut-and-paste that makes the artist’s contribution hard to miss, even if the particular message that the appropriating artist is sending is difficult to distill. 

Koons helped his case by testifying to his intent to “comment on the ways in which some of our most basic appetites—for food, play, and sex—are mediated by popular images.” Richard Prince claimed that he “[doesn’t] have any interest in what [another artist’s] original intent is because … what I do is completely try to change it into something that’s completely different.”

Unlike Koons or Prince, Andy Warhol isn’t able to speak for himself. (Though given Warhol’s famously cryptic utterances, it is anyone’s guess if it would have helped.) And the power of Warhol’s transformative work in his “Prince Series” may be more difficult for judges to apprehend. 

On a technical level, the changes may seem modest: Warhol cropped Goldsmith’s photograph and removed some of the humanizing details. He then boldly outlined Prince’s face against various brightly colored backgrounds. But to our eyes, the Warhol work just communicates an entirely different feeling than the Goldsmith photograph. The Goldsmith photo is a portrait. The Warhol works are a sort of religious iconography: They place Prince in the American pantheon. 

It is unclear precisely how Warhol achieves this transformation; Warhol’s ineffability is entwined with his greatness. But it is clear—at least to us—that Warhol does in fact produce work that is both recognizably based on the Goldsmith photo and yet indisputably new.

The question is what courts can see in an artwork, and what they cannot. It’s easy for courts to see Google’s transformative work—it’s visible in the literally millions of lines of new code that Google wrote to create Android. It’s much more difficult to see, or to explain, exactly what Warhol’s transformative contribution was.  

In the end, the Second Circuit’s ruling may be less about Warhol and more about, as Justice Holmes warned, that judges have not yet learned the language that artists like Warhol are speaking. As the Google decision suggested, grafting new materials onto existing material seems inherently transformative. But it is really more additive. Truly transforming an existing work, as Warhol did, is more alchemical, more mysterious, and more likely to be ignored—or even, as in this case, condemned. 

 

Christopher Sprigman is the Murray and Kathleen Bring Professor of Law at New York University. Kal Raustiala is the Promise Institute Chair in Comparative and International Law at UCLA School of Law.

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How That Simple Phrase Inspired Rashid Johnson’s Series of Shelflike Sculptures


What is a table? According to the characters in a humorous artist book by Lawrence Weiner, it’s “something to put something on.” Simple enough, right? Not for artist Rashid Johnson, who has said that reading Weiner’s book, aptly titled Something to Put Something On, sparked a whole new way of thinking, and inspired his series of shelf-like sculptures that would hold a range of objects with specific importance to Johnson.

I was really interested in this idea,” Johnson says in an exclusive interview with Art21 as part of its New York Close Up series, “the semiotics of how something exists and why it exists and what we call it. So I started making something to put something on.” 

Johnson made the shelves from black wax, pieces of mirrors, tiles, and branded wood, all chosen to send up traditional notions of domestic objects are constructed with. Lining the shelves are pieces of the artist’s Afro-centric material life: “the books I was reading, the records I was listening to, the things I was applying to my body,” he tells Art21, and the combination of those things became stand-ins for the artist, his cultural affiliations, and “began to gel together to form what I thought was my conversation.”

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Production still from the Art21 “New York Close Up” film, “Rashid Johnson Makes Things to Put Things On.” © Art21, Inc. 2011.

Influences including James Van Der Zee’s photographs of the Harlem Renaissance, Sun Ra’s mystical Afro-futurist philosophy, and Marcus Garvey’s political views all meld together in Johnson’s fictional secret society: The New Negro Escapist Social and Athletic Club—an acknowledgement of the historic struggles of Black Americans tempered by an optimism for the future.

“It’s not fully about the predicament of history,” Johnson says in the video, which first aired in 2011, “it’s about what you’re able to author yourself and how you’re able to form the future rather than living purely kind of in the past.”

For one of his latest shows, at Storm King Art Center in upstate New York, Johnson has installed his sculpture The Crisis, a steel yellow pyramid that is activated by an accompanying ballet, conceived with choreographer Claudia Schreier. The performance follows two hikers, both African American, on individual journeys that eventually meet up.

“How does the Black body function in space when it’s being witnessed versus when it’s not?” the artist asks, noting the rise of footage of violence against Black men and women, and the onslaught of media at the U.S.-Mexico border. “It’s about how the body becomes accustomed to the conditions of stress and anxiety.”

Watch the video, which originally appeared as part of Art21’s New York Close Up series, below. The brand new 10th season of the show is available now at Art21.org. “Rashid Johnson: The Crisis” is on view at Storm King Art Center through November 8, 2021. 

This is an installment of “Art on Video,” a collaboration between Midnight Publishing Group News and Art21 that brings you clips of newsmaking artists. A new series of the nonprofit Art21’s flagship series Art in the Twenty-First Century is available now on PBS. Catch all episodes of other series like New York Close Up and Extended Play and learn about the organization’s educational programs at Art21.org.

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