Charles Baudelaire in nineteenth century Paris called for “the painter of modern life.” Lester Johnson in New York in the 20th century answered the call. He found a way of painting the people of the city, black and brown suits and hats, walking, parading, across the canvas, girls in dresses colored like the banners of Siena. Very far from illustration, his work had a Leger-like simplicity and strength; something of Balla’s futurist movement. Lester Johnson was one of the first post-war painters, raised in “modernism,” to paint the figure. It was human content he said, that he was after.
Lester Johnson came to New York from Minneapolis in 1947. He had studied there with Cameron Booth, an alumnus of the Hofmann school in Munich. Lester had been a conscientious objector during the war; a man of principle and honor. His work always had a spiritual dimension.
His first studio was a loft on Second Avenue that he shared with Larry Rivers and Jim Fosberg—also from Minnesota. In 1948 he met Jo. They were married until his death. They had two children, who are here this evening.
Lester’s first pictures were small and dark; mostly interiors, Vuillard-like, different from the powerful black figures that made his reputation in the 1960s. In time, his crowds grew larger; his women sleeker and less gritty; grander and in my opinion more beautiful.
Lester Johnson was short and compact, good-looking, Scandinavian, midwestern, simple and direct. Here are a couple of things he told students in a drawing class (he taught at Yale for 30 years): “Don’t say form, say hand,” and “Fluff up the hair a bit.”
When Lester was elected to this Academy in 2004, he sent three great city pictures to the exhibition: one green, one black, and one red. They hung on the east wall of the gallery upstairs, splendid and unforgettable.