141 Lester Johnson

Born Detroit, 1937 / BFA, MFA, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor / Lives in Detroit

It takes the village to raise a child, as the proverb goes, but what about a work of art? 

Western art history hands us two over-convenient grab bags: one is crammed full of solitary geniuses, laboring alone in their studios, while the other contains a jumble of movements and manifestos clotted by collectivist élan. Generally lost in the shuffle are the simple but profound processes of interpersonal give and take that inform individual artists’ development, as well as the acts of productive exchange that can propel them, via conduits of communication and collaboration, from one mode of making to another. 

This conception of the art world as a sprawling site of generative transfer is a helpful lens through which to look at the lively, multiform art of Lester Johnson, a master craftsman and inveterate community member. Over six decades, Johnson has created a capacious body of work in a dazzling diversity of forms, and he has done so in large part by embracing opportunities to step outside himself, to expand his expressive capabilities through germinal creative collisions.

Johnson trained as a painter and printmaker, and some of his early works hint at a mind already hungry for multiplicity and contact. In paintings like Total Eclipse (1970, exhibited in 1972’s Whitney Annual) and prints like One for Gladys Knight (1974) insistent geometric forms bump up against each other in a kind of controlled, maximalist revelry; the simple shapes and judiciously selected colors seem to delight in each other’s difference as much as in their relatedness. 

With Continuum, a now-lost 1974 mural that Johnson designed for the westside neighborhood he grew up in, this sense of purpose (or strength, or unity) through association transcended his images to take form in the social space of an emergent collaborative practice. Continuum was actually executed by professional sign painters under Johnson’s supervision, giving the artist an opportunity to enter into a dialogue about color choice and other fine points of composition, “so that the outcome,” as he puts it, “became a sort of unified effort, a partnership.”

In the early 1980s, inspired by an exhibition of work on handmade paper by the pioneering Detroit painter Alvin Loving, Johnson pursued a more overt partnership, with the New York paper artist Lynn Forgach. Arriving at her studio with design concepts in mind and raw materials in hand (including cast-off styrofoam lifted from the dumpster of a local boat dealership), Johnson worked with Forgach to produce pieces like Expression (1986), which walk the line between painting and sculpture as they advance his perennial concern with pattern, form, and color.

The effect of this creative exchange on Johnson’s practice was transformative, opening a conduit to works like Passione (1986), in which his serialist sensibility is notably complemented by looser, freer, more organic textures. In Passione‘s row of colorful cylindrical forms, Johnson hit on a totemic motif that would recur in his work thereafter, and in which he has found ample opportunity to explore and express his African-American and Native American heritage. Johnson’s teeming, collaboratively-created totems—including the Thelonious Monk-inspired Bemsha Swing (1991) and A Garland of Praise Songs for Rosa Parks (2014, permanently installed at Wayne State University’s Damon J. Keith Center for Civil Rights)—celebrate ancestral legacy while vigorously affirming the experience of living and looking in real time.

Every once in a while, these days, Johnson sits down at his easel, alone, and makes a painting. When he does, the resulting works can be almost startling in their clarity and control. They are also instructive; look at Never Too Much (2005), part of a series influenced by the colors of buildings in Salvador, Bahia in Brazil, and you can catch a sly glimpse of how Johnson’s totem forms have been of a piece, all along, with the strong geometries of his earlier work.     

But more often than not, he prefers to give up some control and act in concert (like the musicians who inspire him) since, as he sees it, that’s where learning starts, and from learning, new growth. To realize his Tribute to Nelson Mandela (2009), Johnson made several maquettes and connected with Kevin Davidson, Director of Design and Fabrication Services at the Charles H. Wright Museum of African-American History. Davidson coordinated the acquisition of the traditional korhogo cloth fabric from Ghana, and the craftwork by seamstress Wonner Lawson, that brought the piece out of Johnson’s mind and into the material world.

“There are things you can do on your own,” Johnson says, “but to me, it’s a lot more satisfying when you can look at the finished work and recognize how many other people actually had a hand in making it happen.” 

Matthew Piper, June 2020

Copyright Essay’d 2020