Three Women is a print by 20th-century American artist Lester Johnson. The work is part of the later period of Johnson’s career and, as such, belongs to his family of “robust figurative paintings [that] provide an important link between Abstract Expressionism and the vehement paintings of the Neo-Expressionists of the 1980s” (Chernow, Grove). Although Johnson drew on his Abstract Expressionist background throughout his career, the resolutely figurative subject matter that characterizes his later work dictates that this body, to which Three Women belongs, is more in keeping with the Neo-Expressionists. While Johnson’s earliest works favored abstraction and experimented with non-representational forms, as art critic Matthew Guy Nichols explains in his article “Lester Johnson at James Goodman,” during the 1950s, Johnson’s “non-objective canvases gradually gave way to an assertive figuration that has remained his métier to the present day.” In his early figurative works, Johnson “describe[d] schematic male bodies with slashing brushstrokes, allowing excess pigment to drip and splatter across his canvases. Despite their loose execution, most of these single-figure compositions are rather stiff and hieratic” (Nichols). [See Lester Johnson’s City in this exhibition for an example.] In the 1970s, Johnson again changed artistic direction, incorporating brighter colors into his works, and “all but abandon[ing] painterly gesture for a crisper definition of form that brings to mind Max Beckmann” (Nichols). “By the early 1970s females entered Johnson’s increasingly congested urban processions, accompanied by a considerably brighter palette. The exuberant color in varied and strongly patterned fabrics and the strenuous gestures of his voluptuous women brought a heightened energy to the late work” (Chernow, Grove). Three Women belongs to this later figurative portion of Johnson’s career.
In Three Women, Johnson depicts three middle-aged women, who are suspended against an undefined, solid background that fades gradually from a golden yellow to a dark, burnt orange, with broad, loose lines. The women’s curvaceous bodies overlap with one another in the crowded composition, which fails to contain them completely. This congestion is typical of much of Johnson’s work. In “Lester Johnson’s Outgoing People,” John Russell comments on this phenomenon, remarking, “If there is such a thing as the poetry of congestion, Lester Johnson invented it. The people in his paintings just love company. They can’t get enough of it. No matter how he packs them in we feel that both he and they would gladly find room for someone else.” The women wear vibrant, patterned clothing, another element prominent in Johnson’s later work, and gaze towards a common, unidentified point, beyond the borders of the represented space. The women’s faces are rendered free of emotion; instead, the piece derives all feeling from the arrangement of bodies of the women, and the brightly patterned clothing adorning them. Three Women serves to illustrate Johnson’s Abstract Expressionist roots through both its compositional structure, and the artist’s handling of the human body as an abstract form.
In Three Women, the figures float within the composition, appearing to hover in space, their physical and temporal location decidedly ambiguous and undefined for the viewer. This decision reflects Johnson’s Abstract Expressionist sensibility, privileging his interest in the relationships of the women’s bodies to one another above their concrete, physical realities. Ideological remnants of Action Painting, an Abstract Expressionist technique employed by Johnson in many of his early, more abstracted works, reveal themselves in the piece. Although the impulsive, gestural brushwork characteristic of Action Painting is absent in Three Women, the underlying ethos remains. “As an action painter,” art historian Burt Chernow explains, “he learned to exploit accidental events, developing an approach that was neither preconceived nor arbitrary” (“Lester Johnson”). In the piece, Johnson depicts three anonymous women. The viewer knows nothing about the subjects; their stories remain a mystery, and yet in the work, Johnson manages to exploit whatever encounter or “accidental event,” led him to the women, and the result is a striking and powerful print.
Johnson’s Abstract Expressionist background is further apparent in Three Women in his reduction of the human body to an abstract form. In the piece, the limbs of the women feature prominently, calling attention to themselves with their thick, dark outlines. While the heads of the women appear to retreat into the background of the print, their arms and legs insert themselves loudly into its foreground, twisting, overlapping and creating a rhythmic pattern. The women’s limbs function as abstract objects in Three Women, creating an internal rhythm within the composition in much the same way inorganic forms might in a non-figurative Abstract Expressionist work. This reduction of the human form to an abstract object, coupled with Johnson’s undefined compositional arrangement, demonstrate the traces of his Abstract Expressionist background in Three Women.
Despite Johnson’s widespread identification as a “second-generation Abstract Expressionist,” his steadfast dedication to the human form ultimately allies him more strongly with the Neo-Expressionists of the 1970s and 80s (Chernow, “Lester Johnson”). While the Abstract Expressionists favored non-representational subject matter, “the human figure, whether treated as an archetype or an individual, remained [Johnson’s] favoured subject” (Chernow, Grove). “Even today,” Chernow writes in “Lester Johnson: In New York and P-town," “few realize how difficult Johnson’s choice of subject matter was in an adamantly pro-abstract art climate.” Johnson remained loyal to the human figure throughout his mature artistic career, despite criticism from his non-objective Abstract Expressionist contemporaries. The Neo-Expressionists, a loosely affiliated group of painters, produced works that were “typically on a large scale, rapidly executed, and display[ed] a raw, expressive approach to their materials” (Neo-Expressionism). Unlike that of the Abstract Expressionists, Neo-Expressionist subject matter, like Johnson’s, was “usually figurative,” translating the earlier abstraction of energy to figurative expression (Neo-Expressionism). Though in Three Women Johnson renders the women’s faces emotionless, their figures, adorned in brightly patterned clothing, insert a strong sense of energy into the piece. Further in keeping with the Neo-Expressionist norm, Johnson’s women exist without a context, heightening the image’s pure expressive force.
Lester Johnson “is one of the few painters whose work holds significance for both abstract and figurative artists” (Chernow, “Lester Johnson”). Although Three Women belongs to the later, figurative portion of Johnson’s career, remnants of his Abstract Expressionist roots, specifically his compositional structure and abstract handling of the human form, are present. While ultimately Johnson’s decisively figurative subject matter dictates that Three Women is more closely aligned with the Neo-Expressionists, he skillfully blends elements from both movements, resulting in “‘a style that is unequivocally his own’” (Chernow, “Lester Johnson”).
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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.
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