Poring through a cache of my late uncle’s works on paper, I come across an arresting print purporting to be a self-portrait. It is on delicate and weathered paper. The notes at the bottom state simply: “10/10 Self-Portrait Serigraph, 7 Color” followed by an undecipherable signature that ends with the year “’64.”
The figure’s narrow, downcast eyes, his dramatic eyebrows and furrowed brow, and his bushy, helmet-shaped dome of hair, however, do not correspond to the appearance of my uncle, Robert Corless. Also, the print’s stolid, geometric and woodblock-like figuration, its contemplative severity complemented by deep blues, pale grays and swatches of mustard yellow, differ far too much from my uncle’s curvaceous figures, tremulous lines, open negative space and bright pastels.
Without any biographical frame of reference besides the year 1964, I am free to examine this virtuosic self-portrait as an isolated artifact. Cultural markers drop away. I am in touch with the anonymous nature of art, like looking at an Egyptian or Roman frieze, or gazing at a statue of an apostle on the exterior of Chartres Cathedral, or quixotic graffiti on East Village walls and sidewalk sheds. Perhaps no work is ever fully anonymous. The Catholic Church becomes the surrogate “author” of any given stained glass window, and a shadowy Banksy-like persona anthropomorphizes in the imagination to fill the authorship void when we see any formidable street art.
However in studying this “Self Portrait, ’64” I cannot replace its anonymity with a fabricated archetype of an artist concocted from cultural references. After all, how many different painters and schools were active in the transitional years of New York City art in the 1960s? So the serigraph is, at least for a while, a self-portrait without a maker, and I am drawn into a direct and necessarily creative involvement with is content. My eyes on its hewn face and my attention to the intensity of its pose are unmediated by any famous name, any market reputation, or any particular school of painting. Initial frustration about the picture’s unreadable signature gives way to the pure play of my unpretentious appreciation. There’s no minefield of embarrassed misinterpretation possible. I can look, wonder. Is that a window or a door in the background? Is the space in which the artist is seated a loft apartment, or an art school’s studio? I am moved by how this serious, compassionate self-portrait is crafted in the technical medium of a serigraph. I am taken by how this twenty-something artist depicts himself in a concentrated yet slightly perturbed act of drawing. There are traces of hesitancy in the face, flickering within his practical demeanor. Despite the shrewd severity of its shady contours, a vulnerability animates the subject’s chiseled surfaces, intimated by his hunched posture and lean, tense arms. Why has the self-portraitist cropped his figure to the right? It seems as if his solitude competes with the encroaching, warm and varied shades of blue that predominate over and above him, the blues punctuated here and there by surprising squibs of red.
Would I pay an artwork as much attention to its details and effects on me if I had known the name of its maker? Or am I normally intimidated from a sincere appraisal by the institutional status of the “known” painter? Put another way, can I approach a recent artwork and evaluate it without knowing who made it? The question implies the manipulative hand of the market and the unspoken role a name plays over judgment of content in criticism. Would I like Moby-Dick less if, say, tomorrow, Melville scholars unearthed indisputable proof that someone unknown, named Harris Gunner or D.C. Fairfield had written it? Or, for that matter, would I invest a few million in a gargantuan replica of a balloon animal done by anyone without the name “Jeff Koons”?
Why is “unknown artist” such a subliminally pejorative or troublesome category? Is it the predominance of the auto-typed brand name and the search engine algorithm where every moniker competes with a million other monikers for hits? Even as I examine this serigraph I am soon distracted from its content by a need to know who made it. After much work, I drew on my uncle’s past and from that investigation, I recognized the penciled autograph at the bottom of the print to be E. Johnson.
I know from my father’s memories around visits to my uncle’s studios in the 1960s and ’70s that Robert Corless and a tall, lanky man named “Eddie Johnson” were comrades in the same circles of the lower Manhattan art scene. Beyond this clue and the reinforcing fact that my uncle’s cache contains at least four fine drawings signed “E. Johnson,” I knew precious little about the man himself. Given the ubiquity of the names “Eddie” and “Johnson,” search engines were of little use as I tried to find out more.
Then, late last year, a new trail opened up. While reading Lee Hall’s biography Elaine and Bill: Portrait of a Marriage (HarperCollins1993), I discovered a passing reference to an Eddie Johnson who had been Elaine de Kooning’s assistant when she made the trip to West Palm Beach, Florida, to work on her famous series of portraits of President John F. Kennedy in 1962 (228). I also knew that back in New York my uncle had sat in for de Kooning as she finished the portrait of Kennedy following his assassination. I was also in touch with my uncle’s former peers and associates from that bygone art scene.
Painter, printmaker, aerial artist and novelist Steve Poleskie owned and operated the vanguard printmaking shop Chiron Press in the East Village, where the likes of Warhol, Lichtenstein, Frankenthaler and Rauschenberg were among his clients. While walking among established giants, Poleskie knew the unknown Eddie Johnson quite well. In that period of the early and mid 1960s, Johnson was a paid assistant to the sculptor Herbert Ferber. In addition to being a metalworker and carpenter, Johnson was a talented photographer who took the photos that appeared in Life magazine’s feature about de Kooning’s portraiture of JFK, and he regularly snapped photos of clients who visited Chiron Press. Johnson even co-directed, along with Poleskie and Elaine de Kooning, a short feature called “The Bird Film,” which premiered at The Bridge theater on St. Mark’s Place in the mid 1960s and featured, as one of its leads, the Warhol starlet Deborah Lee.
Sherman Drexler, the painter and unofficial historian of the New York School from the 1950s to today, also knew Eddie Johnson well enough to recall that the artist was an avid fan of Joseph Heller’s recently published novel Catch 22. Poet and essayist Margaret Randall, a lifelong friend of Elaine de Kooning, knew Johnson in both New Mexico and New York City in the late 1950s and early 1960s. I learned from Poleskie that Eddie Johnson left New York City and returned to his native New Mexico to take over his family’s house painting business, and Randall told me that she saw Johnson again socially in Albuquerque in the mid 1980s. From there, though, the Eddie Johnson trail goes cold.
Speculating on what might have happened in Johnson’s life to trigger his departure from the New York art world, I gave up grand presumptions and settled on the modest hypothesis that Johnson was another talented and struggling artist, out of thousands like him who arrive in New York City and stay for a while but eventually retreat from the city’s often spurious, expensive and always capricious culture. And, after all, the polluted, crime-ridden and bankrupt city was going down the tubes fast in the 1970s. Who can blame a man for hightailing it back to the big skies and cleaner air of the desert Southwest, liberated forever from the dominion of Art News and sidewalk muggings?
What a contrast, then, between such a tentative and inexplicably shortened artistic career and the forceful and even bravura artworks produced by Johnson that I luckily found in my uncle’s cache, including a Johnson portrait of Corless.
Johnson’s portrait of my uncle is rendered in thick outlines and colored in energetic hatchings and cross hatchings, as if to convey the illusion that the drawing was quickly dashed off, maybe ahead of an East Broadway loft party circa 1963. Yet looking more closely reveals Johnson’s patient handiwork as that of a skillful, precise portraitist, an artist of kaleidoscopic highlights and fluctuating tones. Johnson’s portrait of Corless is the art of an expressionistic colorist who knew how to evoke exterior features and interior states even in the straightforward subject: a young man sitting cross-legged on a couch while making a drawing himself.
In one Johnson watercolor painting on cardboard, dated 1961, the model’s naked abundance, awash in watery pinks and tinted red, is counterbalanced by an energetic and harmonious rendering of the woman’s anonymous profile, her wide torso and her dark pubis. Another nude by Johnson depicts the model caught up in the spiraling vortex of her pose, an energy underscored by thick, fluid brushstrokes of contrasting primary colors. Johnson’s ribboned rainbow traces the deliberate proportionality of the female form from head to foot. Taken as I was by these works on paper, I wondered where Eddie Johnson’s oil paintings might be, if they were at all.
A persistent online search found only one of Johnson’s paintings, which had been sold recently to a private collection by the auction house Rago Arts in New Jersey. The painting is composed of nebulous yet meditative shades of white, gray and black. Obliquely named “Manor Tree” (1964) the painting seems as filled as it is empty, a late Abstract Expressionist Rorschach test. The limited colors and overlapping forms connote a hazy tangle, suggesting snow banks, or cumulous clouds, or hoarfrost, or even, at a certain angle, a splayed human form, legs akimbo or, from yet another vantage point, a half-concealed landscape in which a dark tree and its spindles disrupts a tranquil field, cutting into the whitish-gray miasma, an image of an austere winter moment.
Although, like “Manor Tree,” the works on paper that I found are signed, the name Eddie Johnson refers to little outside of their content. His obscurity sustains the thoughtful, if demanding intimacy that any given drawing or painting offers to any given viewer. Separated from quantifiable fame won or lost, Johnson’s works remind me about the pure necessity of expression and the Romantic separation between the creator and a bureaucratic culture that, like the one depicted in Heller’s Catch 22, could not care less what becomes of the Eddie Johnsons of the world.
I’ll try to remember those moments of first encountering the Johnson serigraph the next time I am in a queue outside a gallery or museum, facing famous names unfurled on long banners: Raphael, Vermeer, Rothko. Names and reputations too often anesthetize my judgment even before I enter the building or room and encounter a single work.
What use is a known name, then, if its sacred notoriety obscures the detailed soul of the artist’s individual work? In the end, artists or not, we are all going to be forgotten. In a remark of profound condescension, novelist William Faulkner once said that no one remembers Shakespeare’s child. The statement shows how the fanatical desire for fame lurks within even the most uncompromising and challenging artisan, as Faulkner surely was. His quip ignores the ephemerality of any human creator. No one remembered William Shakespeare, as such, and his sonnets, which often eulogize the writer in the act of writing, show how the writer, soon to be known as The Bard, grappled with his eventual oblivion. On some important level, the word “Shakespeare” is just the desktop icon that helps us find and open the file named Hamlet.
So here’s to your humility, Eddie Johnson, wherever you are today. If you are not painting anymore, know that your work had an impact on me. If you are still active, please let me know where I might see the latest works. Anywhere but in Chelsea or Williamsburg, of course. Perhaps you can leave some works unsigned. Maybe display them among some borrowed unsigned works by your unknown artist friends. This way I can further discover why it is that I like what I like.