Primitive Culture

Lester Johnson: Dark Paintings
Stephen Harvey Fine Art Projects
Through November 17, 2013

To create oneself through the process of making an object is an ethical act of decision making and passion, thought the painter Barnett Newman, who in 1947 outlined this philosophical position in a short essay titled "The First Man Was an Artist." Newman wrote that early Homo sapiens had become something more, something human, by asserting themselves not through the making of objects for some use, but through the creation of objects for poetic, aesthetic expression, which he said was the purer, superior act. "Man’s hand," he said, "traced the stick through the mud to make a line before he learned to throw the stick as a javelin." It is therefore more human, from Newman's point of view, to draw a line in aesthetic wonder, as it demonstrates Man's tragic separateness from others in the world through so doing. "In conclusion," he said, "we must get back to the true nature of painting to understand that it involves thought, that it is the expression of intellectual content."

In 1947 these thoughts held a sense of urgency; in the second half of the twentieth century -- the age of Pop, New Realism, Minimalism, Post-Modernism, Gutai, Arte Povera, and so on -- few artists pursued Newman's edicts about the primacy of Idea, Action, and Mark as the sine qua non of pure painting. Newman called his marks -- his vertical lines -- "zips," giving them a new word in the vocabulary of painting; he felt the act was that important.

Lester Johnson also created a unique artistic vocabulary. He occupied an awkward space in mid-twentieth-century art history, the period represented with the "Dark Paintings" at Steven Harvey Fine Arts Projects. Johnson simultaneously rejected and assimilated many of the ideas of the fifties and sixties that circulated through the art world, incorporating them in his work. In his compositions, Johnson took from the Abstract Expressionist movement monumentality and signature brushwork (à la de Kooning more than Pollock). And Hilton Kramer, looking back in 2004, described Johnson's position vis-à-vis Existentialism as "an attitude of interrogation and anxiety in dealing with the figure." From Pop Art and Color Field Painting, Johnson drew from a deep well of differing painterly surfaces, something akin to Ad Reinhardt's black paintings, which is apparent when looking at Three Transparent Heads (1961). The "men in hats" that he often painted are a sly nod to Pop Art via René Magritte. In the end, though, it is his idiosyncratic vocabulary of figures created in paint that remains his significant artistic legacy.

Like Newman, Johnson found a way to speak to a vast audience by focusing on depicting the individual, often himself, as Everyman, much the same as in the writings of John Cheever or Philip Roth at the time. In Dark Self-Portrait (1965), he slathers paint, gouges and scratches the surface, and builds up strata of pigment, creating a push–pull of creation and destruction. Scrawled-in Roman columns in the background playfully assert the timelessness of his struggle, while at the same time point to his ambitions for his work. The head itself, slightly larger than life, echoes the Roman principles of sculpting life-size works slightly larger than exact scale so the viewer might apprehend them as "more realistic." He breathes life into the picture through tactile manipulations of the paint. Harold Rosenberg saw these figures and described them as "Golem-like … hostages to the grim dolls [that] seem to push forward out of a background darkness, which they bring with them to the painting's surface." An apt description of these monumental works about the human condition, stains and all. - Bradley Rubenstein

Stephen Harvey Fine Art Projects is at 208 Forsyth Street, New York, New York 10002.

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Mr. Rubenstein is a painter, story teller, and smart culture aficionado.

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