Lester Johnson was a prolific artist working with themes of movement and crowds. City demonstrates both these aspects through its fluid lines and cramped composition. The print was completed in 1972 while Johnson was working as a professor at Yale University, but due to its title, it is likely that City is reflective of the time that Johnson spent in New York between 1947 and 1961.
City is a beautiful example of Johnson’s style even though it is not necessarily representative of Johnson’s most popular work. In fact, City sits between two eras in Johnson’s life, his time in New York, and his time in New Haven. Seen in this way, City represents a departure from one style in Johnson’s work while simultaneously opening up new directions for him to move into. One way to approach City is by identifying stylistic themes that Johnson appropriated from his teachers.
One of Johnson’s most influential teachers was Hans Hofmann (1880-1966). At the same time that Johnson studied with Hofmann, the Abstract Expressionist movement was gaining strength in New York City, and in some ways Hofmann is seen as the father of this movement. Indeed, by following Hofmann, Johnson soon became affiliated with the Eighth Street Club and the New York School. Johnson is affiliated with expressionism; however, he never fully embraced the abstract. Johnson never abandoned the human subject. Instead of making abstraction his subject, Johnson integrated abstract elements into his compositions.
This can be seen in the relationship between Johnson and Hofmann's work. Hofmann was an abstract painter who heavily relied on rectangular geometric forms within his composition. Pieces like The Gate (1959-60) reiterate the edges of the frame with various rectangular shapes, some loosely rendered and other starkly outlined and autonomous from surrounding shapes (Grimes). The rectangles become subjects unto themselves within Hofmann's compositions. Johnson recognizes this and uses rectangular shapes as the basis for his human forms consistently throughout his career (Grimes). Further, Hofmann worked in gouache, a technique that Johnson soon adopted. Johnson gained his stylistic foundation from Hofmann--yet the themes of his work, movement and crowds, were derived from his environment.
Johnson lived in the Bowery in the fifties, which, at the time, was not a well-to-do neighborhood. However, in the 1950s, with the construction of the IRT Third Avenue Line, the Bowery was bustling with new denizens. The people who lived there were mostly male, and generally close to or below the poverty line. The inhabitants of the Bowery became Johnson's subject, and the sheer number of them directed his compositions. Indeed, Johnson’s compositions are bustling with life, his crowds are rarely static.
One overarching influence on Johnson's work was the Italian sculptor Alberto Giacometti (1901-1966). Johnson saw an exhibition of Giacometti's work in 1948 (Grimes), soon after he had moved to New York. Giacometti's sculptures, which feature nondescript walking subjects, optimize movement. Sartre wrote, “Giacometti has to make a man; he has to write movement into the total immobility, unity into the infinite multiplicity” (Sartre). Johnson picked up on the existentialist paradox of conveying motion in a static medium. He accomplished this goal through fluid line quality and by exaggerating the legs of his figures. Johnson contrasted the implied motion of his figures with their boxy static construction. Thus instead of depicting thin elongated legs like Giacometti, Johnson enlarged the legs of his figures and emphasized their thighs. Also, because Johnson worked with paint and ink instead of sculpture, he was able to augment the perspective of his pieces in order to draw the legs to the forefront of his compositions.
Johnson combined Hofmann's rectangles with Giacometti's understanding of movement in order to develop a unique and dynamic style. Critic Hilton Kramer described Johnson's style as having “an attitude of interrogation and anxiety in dealing with the figure” (Grimes). While it is true that Johnson's early work is unified by these themes, his style changed dramatically after he moved away from New York.
In 1964 Johnson accepted a teaching position at Yale University. During his time there Johnson's work gradually transitioned from the forlorn characters of the city to move lively depictions of women, moving about in colored dresses. [See Lester Johnson’s Three Women in this exhibition for an example.] Indeed, over the thirty years that Johnson was producing art he developed a number of styles but stuck predominately to two, the first of which was rendered in the thick gouache that Johnson adopted from Hofmann and employed up until the time he moved to Connecticut. These paintings are generally rendered in dull monotone colors with sparse lines depicting the figure. In contrast, his later works are marked by bright patterns, greater detail in the faces and clothing of his subjects and more attention to depth and shadow within his compositions.
City sits between these two styles and is a beautiful example of the different aspects that Johnson appropriated from his teachers. It incorporates the line quality and masculine figures popular in Johnson's Bowery work; however, it is rendered in black ink on white paper instead of the thick gouache which Johnson appropriated from Hoffman’s style. The high contrast and interplay between positive and negative space lends the piece a sense of air and freedom. City can be seen as a point of departure from the existentialist themes of Johnson's earlier work. Perhaps the fact that all of the figures within City are directed towards the edge of the frame mirrors Johnson's move away from New York City. Johnson left behind the characters who inspired his work in the Bowery and instead found new subject matter in Connecticut.
City serves as a tribute to the New York School and the Abstract Expressionists who surrounded Johnson while he was in the city. This can be seen in the drip technique that Johnson used, a style made famous by another Abstract Expressionist, Jackson Pollock. City is invested with energy; the ink reflects the gestures that Johnson made in applying it to the lithography stone. However City is also shallow, the faces of the figures are blank, and the figures themselves are leaving the frame. In this way City could represent a sort of tabula rasa, Johnson is creating a blank slate upon which to try new things.
Although it is impossible to know the significance of City to Johnson at the time it was printed, looking at it in context of the work that preceded and followed it demonstrates that City marks a transitional period in Johnson's overall style. It was painted at a time when Johnson was moving beyond the squalor and destitution that surrounded him throughout the beginning of his career, and embracing more representational techniques. Looking at City from this context adds a psychological dimension to the composition. Perhaps City is a tribute to the lessons Johnson learned in New York while also a recognition that it is time to move on to new projects.
"Lester Johnson." Denise Cadé Gallery LTD. 2010. Web. 03 Dec. 2010.
Grimes, William. "Lester Johnson, Expressionist Painter, Dies at 91.” The New
York Times. 09 June 2010. Web. 03 Dec. 2010.
"Jean-Paul Sartre on Alberto Giacometti: The Search for the Absolute."
York Times. 09 June 2010. Web. 03 Dec. 2010.
Lester Frederick Johnson was born on January 27, 1919 in Minneapolis, Minnesota. After graduating from high school, Johnson briefly apprenticed at the Cosmopolitan Art Company, where he made frames and copied calendar landscapes. In 1942, resolved to be an artist, Johnson enrolled at the Minneapolis School of Art, where he studied with Alexander Masley, a former student of Hans Hofmann, the German-born Abstract Expressionist. When Mr. Masley was subsequently “dismissed because of political infighting at the school,” explains Johnson’s New York Times obituary author, William Grimes, Johnson transferred to the St. Paul School of Art, where he studied with another Hofmann protégé, Cameron Booth. In the mid-1940s, Johnson moved to Chicago to study at the School of the Art Institute, and in 1947, he moved to New York to pursue a career as a professional artist.
Living in New York during the heyday of the Abstract Expressionist movement, Johnson shared, at different times, a lower East Side studio with fellow artists Larry Rivers and Philip Pearlstein. In 1949, two years after his arrival, Johnson married art historian Josephine Valenti. Johnson maintained an assortment of odd part-time jobs in order to support his art, and in 1951 he held his first solo exhibition at New York’s Artist Gallery. Over the following years, Johnson enjoyed considerable artistic success and, in 1964, accepted a job at Yale University, teaching figure drawing. The Johnsons, who had by this point welcomed a daughter, Leslie, and a son, Tony, relocated to Connecticut, where they remained through Johnson’s retirement in 1989. In 2004, the James Goodman Gallery exhibited a survey of his work, entitled Lester Johnson: Four Decades of Painting. The following year, University of Connecticut in Storrs mounted People Passing By: Paintings, Drawings and Prints by Lester Johnson, a fifty-year retrospective of his work, held at the William Benton Museum of Art. On May 30, 2010, at the age of ninety-one, Johnson passed away at a nursing home in Westhampton, New York.
Grimes, William. “Lester Johnson, Expressionist Painter, Dies at 91.” New
York Times 9 June 2010: A23. Web. 30 November, 2010.