The mode of the person becomes the mode of the world,
For that person, and, sometimes, for the world itself.
The contents of the mind become solid show
Or almost solid seem show – the way a fly bird
Fixes itself in its inevitable bush. . .
It follows that to change modes is to change the world.
There is a drop that is life’s element,
Sole, single source and minimum patriarch,
The one thing common to all life, the human
And inhuman same, the likeness of things unlike.
. . . Or is it enough to have seen
And felt and known the differences we have seen
And felt and known in the colors in which we live,
In the excellences of the air we breathe,
The bouquet of being – enough to realize
That the sense of being changes as we talk,
That talk shifts the cycle of the scenes of kings?
Excerpts from Wallace Stevens, “Conversations with Three Women of New England”¹
When Lester Johnson became Lester Johnson in the mid 1950s, the mode of the world was abstract. With the most visible exception of de Kooning, who defiantly continued to work on his Woman series, action painters did not tackle the figure. Johnson and such contemporaries as Jan Müller, Grace Hartigan and Larry Rivers were among a small minority who chose to forge a new figural style as expressionists. The sole member of the prestigious Eighth Street Club to devote himself to the figure, Johnson was instrumental in changing the mode of the world.
Born in Minneapolis in 1919, Johnson arrived in New York in 1947. He had received training at the Chicago Art Institute, the St. Paul School of Art and the Minneapolis School of Art where he worked with Alexander Masley who had been Hans Hofmann’s student in Germany. Johnson’s early work consisted of small urban landscapes and hard edge abstractions.
Johnson’s epiphany as a figural expressionist came in 1951 while working with a mirror on a self-portrait. He summarily painted it out one day:
At that point I was free to start in again. I had these colors on my palette and I started making diamonds-two on top, two on the sides, two on the bottom and one in the middle. I thought that the painting really worked. It goes across the canvas. It goes up and down. It’s natural. But then I said, ‘no, it’s not done.’ I took a tube of paint and squeezed the paint right onto the canvas, painting faces in each of the seven diamonds. I was real happy but I had no idea what it was all about.²
Johnson had discovered the “plastic symbol” of the body, as he would later term it, which was the appropriate vehicle for his humanistic content. In the ensuing years, his painting style became increasingly freer.
By the second half of the 1950’s, Lester Johnson exerted a seminal influence on the younger generation of New York and Provincetown artists, especially for those associated with the unusual Sun Gallery in Provincetown. Under the directorship of painter Yvonne Andersen and poet Val Falcone, the Sun held a series of weekly exhibitions each summer from 1955 through 1959. Johnson was the only artist to have shown there during every season of its operation, and was honored with a three week retrospective in 1957.
Many of those associated with the Sun were former Hofmann students who were disinterested in abstraction. During Val and Yvonne’s tenure, the Sun’s network included Jan Müller, Bob Thompson, Jay Milder, Tony Vevers, Alex Katz, Mary Frank, Robert Frank, Allan Kaprow and Red Grooms. During the summer of 1958, one of the first Happenings ever done, Red Grooms’s Play Called Fire, was staged at the Sun. Subsequently, Johnson himself would participate with Al Leslie in an early Happening by Bob Whitman at the Reuben Gallery in New York.
It was Lester Johnson’s unique mixture of figural subjects, urban content and expressionist style that particularly impressed the young Red Grooms. Johnson had long been interested in images of the city and the Sun Gallery reflected and shared this enthusiasm by mounting two group exhibitions on the subject of the city in 1958. That winter, Johnson, Grooms, Andersen and Falcone had teamed up to assemble a portfolio of text and images entitled City which contained poems by Val, reproductions of charcoal studies by Lester, and ink drawings by Red. It was shown in the theme show at the Sun the following summer.
During the winter of 1958-59, Red Grooms and Jay Milder opened the City Gallery in Red’s lower Manhattan loft, initiating what may well have been the first alternative art space in New York City. Not only did Lester Johnson exhibit at the City Gallery, (as did Claes Oldenburg, Jim Dine, Mimi Gross, Bob Thompson and Alex Katz), but he also taught painting classes there.
Grooms and Johnson and the two energetic directors of the Sun collaborated on another art project in the spring of 1958. This enterprise was an outdoor billboard project, erected at the edge of a Salisbury, Massachusetts amusement park. Andersen and Grooms gathered a group of unused telephone poles and constructed three elevated twelve-by-twelve-foot panels. Grooms depicted a carnival scene on one, Andersen painted an enormous grinning face on the second, and Johnson used his to describe a man in profile next to a plant. This radical and unsponsored experiment in public art stayed up for twelve years, until Falcone’s father sold the lot it sat upon.
Lester Johnson has always been engaged by the activities of the street. His studios were normally just one flight up, affording a slightly distanced view of events below. In response to a requested statement when his Broadway Street Scene 1962 was included in the 1966 New School exhibition Contemporary Urban Visions, curated by Paul Mocsanyi, Johnson wrote:
I did this painting on Broadway and twenty eighth Street. During the day there was always activity; import-export salesmen, toy distributors, etc. The luncheonettes were jammed at noontime. In my painting I was working for forms that were alive, that moved across the canvas, and never set, that had some of the noise, chaos and order of the city.³
This description of his purpose would also fit this present exhibition, which includes work spanning the quarter century from 1962 to 1986. In surveying the unfolding of Johnson’s vision, we mark the ways a master painter and teacher changed his mode and changed his world.
The words “green, green” float cinematically across the surface of Large Green Man, 1962, straying in front of the head and slipping beyond the edge of the frame. From time to time in his early work Johnson augmented his painted images with color names, playing their graceful, calligraphic curves against the vigorous, raw strokes with which the figure was defined. By naming names, presenting his color in both word and deed, Johnson annexes a literary tradition as in Garcia Lorca’s empassioned revelation, “Verde que te quiero verde,” (Green, how much I want you green).
Discernible in this earliest work here on view are characteristic visual concerns that Johnson sustained throughout his career: the primacy of the human figure inhabiting virtually the entire field of vision; and the implication of uncontainable movement. This unbridled energy was initially conveyed by expressive, gestural brushstrokes. As he gradually pulled away from action painting, motion was embodied in the behavior of his subjects, who refused to be regulated by the boundaries of the frame.
The brazen, black lines which silhouette the monumental brown figure in Large Green Man surface again to define the frontal presence in Bowery Patriarch, 1963, and the Untitled man of 1963. Many of these abstract personalities reveal a hint of Johnson’s own identification with his subjects: their emphatic ears call to mind the artist’s various self portraits which delineate this prominent feature.
A dark shower of pigment settles across the lower left section of Portrait with Feet, 1963, veiling the distinction between figure and ground. The black outlined subject and the field share the self-same surface plane of rapidly brushed ochre and green. (In the course of his career, Johnson has periodically challenged himself to treat background and people in nearly identical hues and tones, evident most recently in the majestic Passing Crowd #1, 1986.) Portrait with Feet erupts with a powerfully emotive content. Energetic spurts of pigment leap like sun flares beyond the limit of the head. Drizzling edges read as easily as tears as they do the signature technique of an expressionist.
The series of feet making their way across the top of the picture seem like an off register frame from a vertical strip film. InBroadway Street Scene, 1962, not in this exhibition, Johnson also included a horizontal trail of activated feet. Their most evident significance is to be found in the artist’s stated quest for “forms . . . that moved across the canvas” But Johnson’s compositional devices often provide multiple readings. From time to time Johnson will employ motifs which originate in a much earlier art historical time. For example, in representations of the Ascension, only the feet, calves and lower garments are included to imply the figure has arisen. Nine years later, the motif of the aerial feet reappears in Lower Broadway II, 1972, revealing the artist’s continued fascination with this symbol of ascension.
In the 1960’s Lester Johnson shifted his mode to encompass multiple figures and crowds. By the time he painted Lower Broadway II he had moved away from a brushy, expressionist style which often conflated figures and ground. Now he favored shallow spaces and more palpable volumes. Like the blocky forms of antique hat molds, Johnson’s new heads conveyed a generalized mass. His preference for frontal views and figures cut off at the waist expanded to include a variety of three-quarter views and profile poses.
While committed to the figure for more than thirty-five years, Lester Johnson has never been a realist. His quirky handling of space is as tantalizingly irrational as that of any master illuminator or panel painter of the twelfth century. In Main Street Gracesof 1976, the three congested figures crowd each other out as if they inhabited a tall but impossibly narrow glass room.
When Johnson’s sphere shifted again in the early 1970’s, he had begun to include women in his work and his palette broadened. Inspired by the visual energy of their bright colors, Johnson now acknowledged the compositional richness of patterned fabric. His new awareness was contemporary with the appearance of the Pattern and Decoration Movement when artists such as Miriam Schapiro, Robert Kushner and Robert Zakanitch also harnessed the rich potential of patterned cloth. In numerous examples from the 70’s and the 80’s, Johnson clad his summery city dwellers in form-fitting, sleeveless, knee length garments, fiddling with the format to reveal equal portions of arms and legs. His sustained interest in a visual vocabulary of generic sheaths, to which he would later add bikinis and trousers, calls to mind the imagery of sculptor Judith Shea, who for different reasons is likewise attracted by the form and content of clothing.
In his canvases and watercolors of the past twenty years, Johnson mines the figure in search of the universal “bouquet of being,” in Wallace Stevens’ phrase. Unfettered billows of hair, in a range of colors and textures, frame and accentuate each female head. Fingers are often loosely outstretched, as if to make explicit their actual and not implied existence. Gestures may resemble generalized dance movements, as in City Girls #10, or evoke religious associations as in City Girls #5. Here the impassive male motions towards his female companions with a gesture like that of a Byzantine Madonna, pointing the way to Christ. One of the Figures in Two Women, 1986, frames her upturned face with her hands as if she were addressing the heavens.
The most recent examples on exhibit are a group of watercolors Johnson worked on in his summer studio. In seeming sympathy with his verdant surroundings, Johnson introduced the foil of a green background, returning to a color he had not used in that context for several decades. The lithesome women depicted move with a decidedly pre-Renaissance grace, and hark back to the lightly clad dancers delineated on Egyptian tomb murals.
As a painter and as a teacher, Lester Johnson embodies the energy which remains his underlying theme. By universalizing the human form, Johnson quietly asserts the commonality of human experience, “the likeness of things unlike.”
¹Wallace Stevens, “conversations with Three Women of New England,” Opus Posthumous, (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., 1957), pp. 108-109.
²Lester Johnson quoted in Charles Giuliano, “Lester Johnson,” Lester Johnson: Selected Paintings, 1970-1986, exhibition catalogue (Greensburg, PA: Westmoreland Museum of American Art, 1986), p. 12.
³Lester Johnson in Contemporary Urban Visions, exhibition catalogue (New York: New School Art Center, 1966), p. 9.