Lester Johnson (1919–2010) was an innovative figurative painter who has never quite fit into any of the accepted narratives of postwar American art, and that alone makes his work worthy of a longer look. He did four of the five paintings included in Lester Johnson, Dark Paintings, at Steven Harvey Fine Art Projects (October 16–November 17, 2013) between 1962–65, an explosively turbulent era marked by assassinations, race riots, space flights, the Cuban Missile Crisis, the Beatles’ and Rolling Stones’ first American tours, and the rapidly escalating Vietnam War. Everyone was wary and on edge. Meanwhile, in the New York art world, all eyes were fixated on the rise and triumph of Pop Art, Minimalism and Color Field painting.
Johnson was one of the few artists that was attuned to the dismay that everyone was feeling during the violent and schizophrenic time, the sense that it could all come crashing down. However, his work was never overtly political or didactic. While his dark, brooding, monochromatic paintings of anonymous men gained a small and loyal following, they also became part of that largely invisible history of a time when New York was a tough, scary and exciting place to be.
More than fifty years after they were made, Johnson’s Dark Paintings continue to retain a coarseness that we associate with gestural Abstract Expressionism and Jean Dubuffet’s anti-psychological, anti-personal portraits incorporating sand and gravel. One sees in them the antecedents of Joyce Pensato’s gestural exaggerations of Groucho Marx, Homer Simpson and Minnie Mouse. While Pensato brings an infectious humor to her work, Johnson was more somber. I cannot help but think that both these artists chose their bedraggled subjects out of empathy and a trace of identification.
Johnson’s all-black impasto, “Portrait/Front View 10th Street” (1962) measures 20 x 16 inches, which is small for a painting but big for a head. It isn’t a painting so much as the topography of a deeply furrowed face, a desiccated skin stretched over a canvas, a descendant of the bogman. And yet, for all these associations, I don’t find the painting morbid, which is surprising. Its rough surface, with its invitation to run our fingers over it, imbues the work with an unexpected tenderness. The very thought of touching the painting reminds us that we are not likely to have touched a stranger down on his luck.
This is just one aspect of his achievement. In “Three Transparent Heads” (1961) Johnson entangles the three linear silhouettes in a welter of skeins and drips. Looking becomes a process of excavation, which can be associated with society’s wish that these men remain unseen, hidden away.
Johnson doesn’t demean or pity his subjects and he doesn’t allow us to become sentimental about them. Additionally, he doesn’t let us become voyeurs or let us off the hook, which is why I think these works haven’t become widely known or popular. Instead, he infuses looking with a moral dimension, inviting us to be conscious of what we chose to ignore in everyday life. The Dark Pantings give us much to think about. Embedded within the paint and ink, his men attain a level of dignity and reserve. Their muteness is what I find most disquieting.
Lester Johnson, Dark Paintings, continues at Steven Harvey Fine Art Projects (208 Forsyth Street, Lower East Side, Manhattan) through November 17