Works by Lester Johnson, right, “Self Portrait” (2010), left, “Portrait of Jo” (2010) (images courtesy the author)

Lester Johnson (1919 – 2010) remains a cult figure, particularly for those who care about painting, which, let’s face it, is a cult made up of warring factions. Johnson is a full-fledged member of the faction to which the terms “painterly,” “expressionist,” and “figurative” have accrued, but which are too diluted to be of any use. He remains best known for his paintings of men, often depicted as monochrome silhouettes packed tightly together. One of his strongest supporters, the art critic Harold Rosenberg called them “golem-like.” “Johnson’s grim dolls seem to push forward out of a background darkness which they bring with them to the painting surface,” Rosenberg wrote in an issue of Art News (1966).  Their meaning is synonymous with their perceptual acuity.

Done between the late fifties and early seventies, Johnson’s paintings of anonymous men were outsiders in art as they were in life. He was a maverick, who, after he began painting crowds of women in colorful print dresses and men with bowler hats, faded from the downtown scene. More than fifty years after his work first gained attention, his monochrome silhouettes remain strong and fresh, as well as anticipate the work of Joyce Pensato and others. But they should not be the only works to hold our attention. This is one reason why you should make special trip to Steven Harvey Fine Art Projects, 208 Forsyth Street, just around the corner from Yonah Schimmel’s Knishes Bakery on East Houston. At the gallery, in the back room, you can see what are supposed to be Johnson’s last two paintings, both of which he completed at the age of ninety-one. Together, they form, as Harvey told me, “a coda to Johnson’s life.”

The largest one is a portrait of the artist’s wife when she was much younger, while the smaller one is a self-portrait. The monochrome self-portrait is mustard-colored.
He is merging with the yellowish ground, going back into the ground, rather than forward out of the darkness, as his earlier paintings did. His head is tilted down, retrospective, with eyes as black pits, sightless, it would seem, or nearly so. It is the mind’s eye that sees. In the other painting, his wife, Josephine, is looking away — and away from him — imagining a bright future.  A network of linear arabesques surrounds her head. She too is caught in time.

The show at Steven Harvey Fine Art Projects (208 Forsyth Street, Lower East Side, Manhattan) lasts until Sunday, November 19th. Next up is Bob Thompson drawings, November 30, 2011 – January 8, 2012.

John Yau has published books of poetry, fiction, and criticism. His latest poetry publications include a book of poems, Further Adventures in Monochrome (Copper Canyon Press, 2012), and the chapbook, Egyptian...

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