Lester Johnson: Dark Paintings

October 16 - November 17, 2013

Steven Harvey Fine Art Projects presents Dark Paintings 1960-65 by Lester Johnson. SHFAP exhibited Johnson’s two Last Paintings in 2011 in our rear gallery. The paintings in this exhibition are drawn from the Artist’s Estate.

This exhibition focuses on a group of major works from the early 1960s that. Johnson created while working in his studio at 222 Bowery in downtown Manhattan. The monochrome works in Dark Paintings present a unified group within Johnson’s overall oeuvre. Single figures and urban groups swim in dense painterly fields of intensely worked monochromatic color, the figures merged within the rectangle lend a powerful unity to figure and ground.

John Yau writes that,
“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.“

Johnson’s 222 Bowery studio was directly across from the Bowery Mission, where homeless men lined up for assistance.

James Kalm wrote in the Brooklyn Rail:
“With his studio near the Bowery, Johnson found the subject for his first major breakthrough in the guise of the downtrodden men who flocked to the area for its cheap bars and dollar-a-night hotels. The early paintings are dark and reductive, brooding with existential angst. … aware not only of the AbEx painterliness of de Kooning, Still, and Pollock, but also of the European “Material Painters” like Dubuffet.“

Dore Ashton speculated that Johnson was influenced by seeing a 1948 exhibition of work by Alberto Giacometti at the Pierre Matisse Gallery. There is a profound connection between the monochromatic figures of Johnson and Giacometti. Both confront the existential state of the figure in a void. Yet, in contrast with Giacometti’s sculptural stillness, Johnson’s figures are always in flux. Johnson stated:

“There is no balance in my paintings because balance seems to me to be static. Life, which I try to reflect in my paintings, is dynamic …. To me, my paintings are action paintings—paintings that move across the canvases, paintings that do not get stuck, but flow like time.”

Johnson was born in Minneapolis. He studied with two former students of Hans Hofmann- Alexander Masley at the Minneapolis School of Art and Cameron Booth at the St Paul School of Art. After moving to NYC in 1947 he shared a studio with Larry Rivers. He worked as a framer for Baroness Hilla Rebay at the Guggenheim Museum. His work transitioned from abstraction into figurative and landscape imagery in the early 1950s in Provincetown and New York. . He was one of the few figurative artists to be a member of The Club. In 1962 he began to show with the Martha Jackson Gallery.

Johnson taught at Yale from 1964- 1989 and served as the director of the graduate painting program at the Yale School of Art and Architecture between 1969-74 . He was received a Guggenheim Fellowship in painting in 1976, a Citation in Painting at the 1987 Brandeis University Creative Arts Awards, and in 2003 was honored for lifetime achievement by the American Academy of Arts and Letters, New York. His work is included in the collections of The Museum of Modern Art, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, The Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum among many others.

The exhibition is accompanied by a catalog with an essay by scholar/collector Herbert Lust.