LESTER JOHNSON was born in 1919, in Minneapolis, Minnesota. He studied at the Minneapolis School of Art, the ST. Paul Art School, and The School of the Art Institute of Chicago from 1942 to 1947. In 1947, Johnson moved to New York to pursue a career in art. There, he was embraced by the bustling bohemian lifestyle of SoHo. He worked as the artist-in-residence at the University of Wisconsin, and as a professor of painting at Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut. In 1969, Johnson was promoted to the position of Director of Studies for Graduate Painting at the School of Art and Architecture at Yale University.
Upon moving to New York, Johnson encountered the Abstract Expressionist movement. He was drawn to their democracy of subject matter, freedom of movement on the canvas and “All-Over” painting style. An associate of the collective, he was voted into the Eighth Street Club (the famous weekly gathering of the Abstract Expressionists). Johnson painted the joys and sorrows of the everyman on the streets of New York. His boxy figures were rendered sensually. Areas were applied with thick impasto or thin washes; paint was either clumped or dripping. Johnson would scratch on the human features.
Johnson had two distinctive fazes of his art practice. His earlier faze , which occurred in the 1960s, focused on isolated and embattled lonely human figures. They appeared still or stumbling, and always broken. The expressions on these figures were stoic or grimly defiant. These works featured loose and versatile expressionist brushstrokes. They were highly painterly. These techniques allowed for the emergence of the life and vigor captured within the collection of grave and solitary subjects. His “All-Over” technique created the illusion that the people were being confronted with brutal external forces. They were compressed from all sides by their environment.
Later, Johnson abandoned his scenes of isolation to paint to bustle of crowds. The figures were rendered with his signature flattened and scratched style. In contrast to his first series, these painting are vividly colourful. This series features men and women dressed in in decorative prints. Unlike his lonely figures wearing suits, these men and women wore casual t-shirts and dresses. The patterns that clothe Johnsonʼs subjects speak to the abstract movements occurring all around him. The works in his second series featured canvases which were equally congested. However the subjects moved with ease around the expansive canvas, enjoying the bustle of the crowd.
Lester Johnson died in 2010 at the age of 91 in Westhampton, New York.
Awards & Prizes
1987 Elected Associate National Academy of Design
1978 Brandeis University Creative Arts Award for Painting
1973 Guggenheim Fellowship
1961 Longview Fellowship Massachusetts Institute of Technology
1942 Midwestern Artists Competition 1st prize
1941 St. Paul Gallery Scholarship
1940-41 The Presidentʼs Scholarship Minneapolis School of Fine Arts
1939 Alfred Pillsbury Scholarship
Lester Johnson : ochre head, 1958, oil on paper, 34.25 x 25.75