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Lester Johnson: The Image as Counterforce


     To respond to Lester Johnson's work is to respond to painting, rather than to technical minutiae, or to art history, to the social environment, to a tickle of the optical nerve.

     With painting undergoing an annual revolution of de-definition (Is it theatre? she display business? an illustrated lecture? science fiction?) to paint amounts to imposing arbitrary restrictions on painting. An artist who is satisfied to apply pigment to a flat surface is likely to appear slow and intellectually unadventurous.

     Indeed, such an artist often is. There is no inherent value, moral or esthetic, in adhering to the materials and instrumentalities of an art for their own sake. Nor has historical necessity or some celestial essence decreed that painting ought to maintain its chastity by going dressed in black, in white or in stripes.

     Lester Johnson has nothing in common with the scolds of the Scarlet Letter school of art criticism who uphold purity in painting. If he limits himself to paint, canvas, drawing, it is not for any doctrinal reason but becausehe has discovered in practice the vital principle that hedging oneself in is essential to the enlargement of experience. The advantage of the brush as against the silk screen, the plastics machine or the electronic panel lies precisely in its inefficiency, which demand more concentrated attention from the user. Johnson welcomes the limitations of painting as generators of energy. His is an art of feeling compressed into concreteness under carefully pre-determined esthetic conditions. The formal rigor of his Still Life Milford #6 or Man Before a Balustrade is no different in kind than that of a painting by Albers or Newman.

     Johnson has chosen to build his art upon Action Painting through tightening its procedures. An heir of de Kooning, Kline, Pollock, Hofmann, Guston, he emphasizes an essential principle of their work continually obsacured by the clichés of art journalism: that an action is not a letting go, a surrender to instantaneity, except as a ruse. Painting that is an action is a struggle against limits, those within the artist himself, those which he finds in the situation of art, those which he deliberately sets up on the canvas. Mere stroking and slopping of paint resulted in tiresome caricatures of Action Painting that marked its phase of mass acceptance.

     Johnson has had the insight to go in a direction opposite to looseness. Distrusting the easy effect obtainable through color, texture and non-representational shapes, he followed a course analagous to that of de Kooning in his "women" paintings and of Guston in the compositions of the past four years, both of whom brought into play as a counterforce to spontaneity the more or less felt presence of objects and the human figure. Johnson's figures are more visually "set" than de Kooning's or Guston's, with whom the object-as-obstacle defines itself in the act of painting. No doubt the younger artists feels trhe need for a more severe constriction. Today, when painting itself implies a self-limiting, Johnson divined that the freedom of the artist is best served by establishing the boundaries that will most effectively challenge his capacity to act.

     The present exhibition represents Johnson's widest range to date of experiements with deliberately hampered movements.

     The most extreme blocking is to be found in the frontal figure paintings and heads, like Man and Letter "N", Two Self Portraits, Man Before a Balustrade, which belong to the order of images by which Johnson is best known. Here the act of painting has been forced to contend against almost insuperably rigid confinement. The golem-like bodies, with their domed heads of space travelers or men in divingsuits, divide the painting areas of the canvas into rough squares and ovals within which the "expressiveness" of the paint handling must assert itself. The effect of encompassment is enhanced by the cord-like outlines which bind the forms to the surface.

     Like Pollock, Johnson projects himself psychically into the canvas "as into an arena." But instead of finding there a release of organic energies, he enters into the pre-arranged clumsiness of a gladiator locked in a suit of armor who must exert enormous efforts merely to budge. Johnson's grim dolls seem to push forward out of a background darkness which they bring with them to the painting surface. In Dark Portrait #3 and Dark Portrait #2, light lies behind the figures as emptiness – this is characteristic of the figure paintings but not of the still lifes, which tend to fill the canvas. In his rows of swimmers one figure succeeds in coming a shade closer to us than the others, and his triumph is enough to foment a movement in depth. The major tension in Johnson's compositions, however, is caused by the pull toward the sides and top of the canvas; this underlines the feeling of an underground or underwater enclosure.

     Johnson's drippings and splashings of paint have a more naturalistic scent that Pollock's or the bursts in de Kooning's 1960's landscapes – at times they suggest falling rain or, on the stiffly demarcated figures of Two Self Portraits and Man with Columns, spots of blood painted on tomb carvings, Johnson's figures carry him half way between the dream and the sepulcher.

     The imaginary voyage reaches greater animation in his "classical" figures with their tilt from the vertical axis and their flowing contours. In these paintings pressure is relaxed in the interior of the composition and the action is sped along linear channels, as in Pollock or Hofmann. Against the coasting curves, however, the top and sides of the canvas exert a counter-pressure, as do the vertical drips in the triple Eve. The combination of lines of force and lateral pressure is responsible for one of the strongest of the paintings in this group, Classical Figure #1, which brings Johnson close to the abstractions of Kline but without the slightest sacrifice of his own intentions: in this work, tensely controlled strokes and angles are built into a system of forces which is held in the squeeze of the top and the right-hand column. Spring Still Life #1 and #2 also recall the force of Kline though unmistakeably originating in the temperament of Johnson.

     It is interesting that the still lifes are less still than the figures, even those figures, like Adam and Eve After Durer, which gesture has begun to appear. Perhaps the lack of animation of tables and bottles convinced the artist that he could be more active without wrecking the feeling of balance. In any case, Johnson here plays on a wider keyboard of controls and decontrols that in the figure paintings. While Spring Still Life #1 is almost totally an accumulation of calligraphic sweeps, Still Life with Bottles is a closely packed composition of solid ovals and rectangles with handwriting superimposed as in the figure paintings. Still Life in Milford #1, #6 and #7, each built on a single bold oval, are somewhere in between, and among Johnson's most immediately attractive paintings. Still Life in Milford #4 is in all respects, including its overall compostion, an Abstract Expressionist painting: without a trace of tiredness or late arrival it holds its own with the top run of works in this mode.

     Johnson's still lifes are much less difficult paintings than the figures. Their beautifully modulated thick, but never gluey, grays and blacks, like smoothed mud, strike pleasant naturalistic overtones of the plain and the everyday – farmhouse, kitchens, repainted furniture and doors. The drawing is as decisive as in the figures, but freer. By comparison the figure compositions raise the risk of monotony, at least when looked at casually. Yet the force of Johnson's art is greatest in the figures, which stand on a rung of grandeur.