Daniel LaRue Johnson

Freedom Now, Number 1

La Rue Johnson Freedom Now No 1 Mo Ma Ny 1500 - © 2016. Digital image, The Museum of Modern Art, New York/Scala, Florence
  • Daniel LaRue Johnson
  • Freedom Now, Number 1
  • 1964
  • Pitch on canvas with “Freedom Now” button, broken doll, hacksaw, mousetrap, flexible tube, and wood
  • 136.6 × 140.5 × 18.9 cm
  • The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Given anonymously, 1965 - © 2016. Digital image, The Museum of Modern Art, New York/Scala, Florence

This work, part of Daniel LaRue Johnson’s “Black Constructions” series of the 1960s, questions the treatment of civil rights protesters from a deeply personal perspective. Johnson made Freedom Now, Number 1 (1963–64) after he personally experienced civil rights activism in the Deep South. As a powerful political statement about the perils of racism once deeply entrenched in the United States, this work reflects the challenges and struggles surrounding activism and change. At the center of the composition is the “freedom now” button that lends the work its name. This campaign pin was worn by civil rights activists as a public form of support and solidarity for the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE). The other items—blackened, crushed, and torn—suggest the aftermath of violence, as if trampled to the ground. Johnson created this work in the context of the dramatic and destructive racial politics of 1963, with violent attacks on protesters, such as the one that occurred when Martin Luther King organized a civil rights march in Birmingham, Alabama. As it bears silent witness to human suffering, Freedom Now, Number 1 takes on a poetic poignancy.

Caroline Wallace

Biography of Daniel LaRue Johnson

  • Born 1938 in Los Angeles, CA, USA
Daniel LaRue Johnson was already active in the Los Angeles art scene before he studied at the Chouinard Art Institute in the first half of the 1960s. Even as a student he received noteworthy awards (Whitney Fellowship, 1963) and had a solo exhibition at the Rolf Nelson Gallery in Los Angeles (1964). Johnson’s art changed in response to the violence of the civil rights movement, and he began to create confrontational assemblages, such as Freedom Now, Number 1 (1963). He often combined found objects, such as fragments of broken dolls, hacksaws, and mousetraps, which he arranged in wooden boxes and then painted (or tarred) entirely black. In 1965 he received a Guggenheim fellowship, enabling him to study in Paris with sculptor Alberto Giacometti (1901–1966). After returning to the United States (New York City) in 1966, Johnson abandoned his “black boxes” and instead began painting hard-edge abstractions with vibrant colors, glossy surfaces, and precisely painted contours. Johnson has also made a number of large-scale commemorative sculptures, in abstract, Minimalist forms. His work has been exhibited at the Whitney Museum of American Art, the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, and the Museum of Modern Art, all in New York.