The paintings that Lester Johnson made in the ’60s seem not to belong to any particular milieu. There were modernists on the East Coast, all hard at work on a figurative successor to gestural abstraction, but the ones to which he is most closely connected by biography, Larry Rivers, Wolf Kahn, and Philip Pearlstein, painted in ways that look nothing like his. Johnson’s palette and paint handling, if anything, evoke the work of Jack Tworkov, who hired him to teach at Yale in 1962—but Tworkov’s grinding, manic abstractions, not his figurative work.
Johnson used an inch-thick outline of black oil paint to hammer out blunt but economically rendered figures. He would sometimes fill in these outlines with yet more black, producing an enormously dour personnage, but more often used a palette of ochre, terra rosa, olive, and gray to build the forms and the spaces. Even then the mood in them is bleak. Back in 1951, the linear, icy, detail-driven paintings of Lucian Freud prompted the critic Herbert Read to dub him the Ingres of Existentialism. Johnson may likewise have been existentialism’s Matisse, at least for a time. Despite producing atmospheres reminiscent of smoke, rust, and acid, a streak of joy runs through them, generated by the simplicity of the forms and the boldness of the lines.
This joy took on a Greek flavor, providing the subject of the exhibition at ACME Gallery’s Lester Johnson: Classical Themes. Throughout the ‘60s Johnson made numerous riffs on the Three Graces and incorporated Ionic columns into his images. The source for this interest was amusingly banal—New Haven was full of classical revival architecture and Johnson found a Three Graces statue at a garage sale. But there’s no penalty for impurity in art, and he just rolled with it. The image that inspired Three Graces, Milford (1966) appears to hail from the disreputable oeuvre of Amicale Santini, a 20th-century Italian who perfected a process of combining marble dust with resin so that kitch-classical tchochkes could be cast, sanded up a bit, and sold as collectibles.
By Johnson’s time, the Three Graces trope had been explored artistically to within an inch of its life, if not a few inches past it. Whatever artistic viability that was left in the Greek models by the early twentieth century had been trampled by the National Socialists. The dregs available to Johnson were little more than ersatz humbug. None of this ended up mattering. Johnson was able to reach through the nonsense, grab the meaty part of Antiquity’s arm, pull her into the present, and put her to work. Three Graces, Milford is a success, exuberant in form but haunted in color. Johnson reminds the viewer via the title that this scene or the act that created it took place in a Connecticut coastal town, but there’s not a trace of irony. He has made the old conventions live again. There’s a lesson here, and anyone who doesn’t understand it is doing the world no favors by being interested in art.
The male nude figured importantly for Johnson during this decade as well. He idealized it in the classical manner, but he also pushed the image through a sieve of modern urgency and doubt, leaving his depictions streaked, scarred, and emptied of blood. Polykliton Figure (1966) is one of the more apparently Tworkovian pieces in the show, with the artist introducing variation into the heavy outline on the figure by carving lines into it with a blade. Monochrome in the hands of an able artist is an invitation to admire form, and its use here emphasizes the strength of the torso and arms, even as the figure’s cropped-away hands and bent head weaken the impression—he is a reluctant warrior, perhaps facing defeat. Polykleitos was an ancient Greek sculptor who gave his youths a thoughtful countenance, and this painting continues the tradition.
Milford Bathers, Silhouette is a frightening scene almost eight feet across. All but the barest bit of sandy warmth has drained from the livid sky, throwing the columns in the distance into shadow, while three swimming-brief-clad automatons crowd the viewer. Has an upscale pool party gone disastrously wrong? Is this a comment upon the emptiness of life among the Ionically columned in Connecticut circa 1965? Either way, the picture is genuinely unsettling. Here the rigidity of antiquity approaches the sinister.
Dancers (1966) has the hottest colors in the exhibition. We have approached the Milford trio close enough to appreciate the intimate space between them, and the sky is burning orange over their green skins. At this point the Three Graces have taken on a life of their own in Johnson’s work, and he plays with them here. Two of the women reach up out of view, with the other versions of this theme around the room filling in the narrative. The lower edge of the painting is a rhythm of bent elbows. The application of paint has the force of a swung axe.
Johnson changed his style in the ‘70s and he never again approached this level of brio, although the works he painted in the decade leading up to his death in 2010 are touching in their gentle way. For one thing, he developed a sensitivity to oil paint that obliged him to wear heavy gloves that you can see in the practically all-black Artist With Columns from 1965. For another, he shifted to a technique that allowed him to paint more complicated pictures, and the complications took him out of a world of icons—where he operated naturally—into a world of details that bogged his painting down. His pieces from the ’80s, especially, really look like they’re from the ’80s. In contrast, the exhibition at ACME shows Johnson reaching a mighty height and painting with commensurate toughness.