George Johanson: What a curious profession this is…
George Johanson speaks with his former student and long-time friend, PNCA faculty member Barry Pelzner, about seven decades of painting.
On July 8, 2010, at George Johanson’s studio in Portland, the artist met with his former student and long-time friend, PNCA faculty member Barry Pelzner. They discussed Johanson’s career surveyed in George Johanson: Seven Decades of Painting.
Barry Pelzner Ok, so we’ve started to look at the specific paintings that are going to be in the show. We’re looking at the 1940s; there’s a beach scene and a self-portrait and a portrait of your sister. A thing that strikes me is that both of these portraits, the one of your sister (Marianne) and the one of yourself (Self Portrait), are signed 1948 but they are actually very different in character and they seem to have happened almost simultaneously. And this beach scene (Beach) is also very different from each of the portraits.
George Johanson Yes. For one thing, when you are a student you are looking at all sorts of styles and trying everything. But in another sense, I have been doing that all my life, adapting my approach to what I have to say in a particular painting. The one of my sister was very much influenced by Oscar Kokoschka, whom I just loved and felt very much of a kinship with. Those early Kokoschka portraits, I thought, were just so stunning psychologically and in the kind of verve of the painting and so on. And I did quite a lot of things during my student years that were very Kokoschka-like. But there were other painters whom I loved very much then, too. One was Rouault. And in the self-portrait I think there’s a sense of that very heavy reliance on light-dark patterning that I saw in Rouault. That’s something that I have really loved all my life, chiaroscuro and the patterning of light and dark.
BP So when you see these paintings now do you get into the self who would have created this one, who is a slightly different self than the one who would have created that one?
GJ But I disagree with that. I don’t think it’s a different self. It’s a matter of a certain way of thinking when you’re drawing or painting. For instance, I do a lot of life drawing and when I am drawing from the nude I have only that one subject in front of me. And I will do very gestural drawings for awhile, and then on another page I will do a clean line drawing, and then maybe a little later I’ll do something that looks at the light and dark of it and really gets into that. And each one of these, stylistically, looks different but the psychology of them is all mine. And when I look at these I feel myself in them all. I don’t look back at them and say, well, that was a different person than this person, not at all.
BP Sounds like you view the wide range of your work as representing a kind of toolbox from which you choose according to the task in front of you.
GJ That’s a good way of putting it. As an artist I’ve built up a kind of toolbox where I have control, or some kind of control, of a lot of approaches to my subject. I have never tried to impose a style on my work, but as I look back on what I have done over the years, I find that the work does tend to group itself into different stylistic periods. Well, we probably should look at other work before we get too much into that . . .
BP Yes, let’s add a decade shall we? Did you produce these paintings in New York in the fifties?
GJ Let’s see . . . yes, three of them, Framemaker, Slaughtehouse and Children by the Cross were all done in New York. And then these two, which look very abstract expressionist, were from the very end of the fifties and then as we look at a couple more . . . What happened was that really during that time I got into abstract expressionism in a very big way and . . .
BP They are very abstract, but it also looks like there’s figuration just bursting to get out.
GJ Right. I worked in an abstract expressionist mode for about five or six years and I would say that during all of that time the most abstract stuff still had a sense of figuration. The shapes in this painting have a lot to do with sections of anatomy. Hints at legs and thighs and so on. It’s called Surf 2 and its idea is bathers romping in the waves. This other one called Daub is very much in the vein of the paintings I was doing in those abstract years, and in my mind it related to a still life. You get the wall plane of red back there and the floor plane of light blue-green and then the pillars of the table and a kind of jumble of things on the table. So . . .
BP So, is your impulse to narrate this painting to me as a description of an interior—is that indicative of a feeling you have about what the painting needs to contain?
GJ No, not really. I think I’m saying that simply as information about where the forms came from, because I think the paintings stand on their own as forces of color and movements and senses of volume and so on, without having to pin them down to a subject such as a still life. One of my abstract expressionist paintings might be a forest, or it might be not anything specific. It might be a range of emotions, a statement about emotion.
BP Earlier it seemed to me that you were describing your progress as an artist not as an evolution, but rather as an accumulation of more and more tools of expression to add to your arsenal. Is that correct?
GJ That’s right.
BP So I just want to ask about the tools you acquired with the abstract expressionist paintings. The ones that seem so nearly non-representational. Do you think you could wrap your words around the nature of the tools that you added on when you added on the ability to make these paintings?
GJ I think so. The wonderful thing about painting for me is that it is a sensual expression of the outside world. I’ve always loved juicy paint in one way or another. And, if we look at the early paintings from New York, they all have a sense of the deliciousness of the paint, I think. It’s the sensuousness of paint that compels me, I guess. All of this kind of moved into abstract expressionism.
BP I’m just trying to get at that sense of what you were finding new that you could do in these paintings that you weren’t already doing so wonderfully in the earlier ones. That idea of just relying more on yourself and your relation to the paint sounds like it’s in that direction.
GJ Well, there can be a kind of tyranny in subject matter. And in a sense, when one is dealing with figurative art, I think there is the insistence of the subject on what you’re doing with it and I think that abstract expressionism was a way of getting free of that for a period of time, and getting involved totally in the act of painting and in the emotion of it and in color range and just what all of that could do without the obligation to do something specific with any sort of subject matter. These paintings were all begun pretty much without drawing, which was so different.
BP Which would be radically different.
GJ Radically different, yes. And therefore one was able to develop whatever drawing there was in terms of what the paint was doing and could find the subject matter and the composition in terms of what was already beginning to develop on the canvas. This painting is from 1960; it’s called Seated Figure in a Garden. It’s abstract expressionist too, except there’s a figure in a chair. You can make out legs, and back, and head and so on. So, I think, as much as I was talking about the liberating quality of abstract-expressionism, I was always kind of working the figure into it in some way. But, it was coming in through the back door. It was coming in after the painting was evolving, just totally free and changeable . . .
BP Well, what happened in the next decade?
GJ I got a year off and went to live in London in 1965, and at the same time I was feeling dissatisfied, I think, with abstract expressionism, in that I wanted a more specific way to deal with life around me and with life as I experienced it. And living in London that year brought me more specifically in touch with both David Hockney and Francis Bacon. While they’re very different artists, they both did something for my work that has been meaningful ever since. This painting is called Tea Time for Three Nudes and I think in the kind of broadness of the treatment of the figures, it owes something to Bacon. Also there’s the shaping, the shaped canvas. I think this is the only painting in the show that’s shaped, but I came back from that year with quite a number of paintings that were shaped. That came partly from looking at Hockney, who was doing shaped canvasses at the time. My interest was in the kind of illusion the painting could have. I think of the painting as being a window of some kind that’s looking into a world that has some three-dimensionality in it, either very deep, or sometimes shallow, or sometimes twisted. This expression of space within the painting is a very vital part of my sense of transposing the world as I see it onto this two-dimensional surface. The shaping of the canvas was a way both to emphasize that flatness and also, by the illusion of the canvas itself seeming to be an object seen in perspective, to fool the mind—is this painting flat or is it three-dimensional? This dichotomy goes back and forth—not at all in a fool-the-eye way, but in a fool-the-mind way—making the mind work about what this illusion of space is.
BP Right, and certainly calling the viewer’s attention to the conundrum of the painting as window and as object simultaneously.
GJ That’s right. The other thing about moving to London, and having that year off, was that I began to get back into figurative work. So that the paintings I did then were being, at least to a large extent, planned from the beginning. I might make changes in the painting as I went along, but they were started with a composition about where the figures would be placed and how the space would be structured.
BP Did you want to say a word about the impetus to get back into figurative painting?
GJ Well, I think the figure is really my strong point and it’s the thing that needed to come out all along. Working abstractly was a necessary step along the way, but the figure is really my commitment and, as I say, it was there even when it was submerged in the abstract paintings. So, it was a very deliberate thing of coming back to it and making the figure a very strong element.
BP Was there something about the London situation that enabled you to return to the figure with renewed . . .
GJ . . . with renewed interest?
BP Or with renewed confidence that it was the right thing to do?
GJ Yes, besides Hockney there were a number of painters, some of them minor names that you wouldn’t hear a lot about here, who were working with the figure and kind of strange spaces in painting. And that just interested me a whole lot. So that was part of the basis of this Tea Time for Three Nudes that we’ve just talked about, but there were many other painters I saw who were using notions about space and the figure in a way that was kind of interestingly broken up and calling things into question, which I found very compelling.
BP Contemporary viewers are quite at ease viewing this broken up space in your paintings, but earlier in your career as a painter, was there a portion of your audience that had to be brought along to see the space so confounded? Do you know what I mean?
GJ I think maybe in general the kind of fractured space that has been happening in paintings over the years is now much more acceptable, just as abstraction is much more acceptable than it was in the early years. You know, when I went to art school and in all of those early years, abstraction among the general public was thought to be a Communist plot or something.
BP But you went to art school after World War II, right? So virtually all of Modernism had unfolded by that time.
GJ Well, I think the thing to remember is that the audience for art in 1950 was not very big at all. The people who were interested in and followed art were used to abstraction by 1950, for instance, but the audience for art was very small in Portland. The Museum Art School (PNCA) was a terrific school but no one in town except the artists knew that it was there. And the artists weren’t showing anywhere because there were no galleries and no sales . . . so that tells you that, sure, Modernism had been around for fifty years by that time but it was not yet accepted by the general public. Things have really changed, and a lot of it has to do with university art departments.
BP How so?
GJ Particularly university art departments because a lot of people who were going to university and taking other subjects were also taking some art classes and finding out about art. Art schools were turning out the same people they had been turning out. You know, people who wanted to be artists. But I think university art departments really started up after the Second World War, and that in my mind is what really has changed the whole picture. Because people who were going to become accountants, for example, went through university and got some art training along the way. They became aware that there was something out there that was terribly interesting. And when the galleries came along, those same people could be enticed into looking at art as a serious thing because of what they’d learned along the way. They’d been educated to it.
BP Do you see this as a change for the better?
GJ Oh sure, of course.
BP Well, just thought I’d ask.
GJ Sure, because I think art is basic to being a human being and the more we have of it the better off we are. I mean all of it. Even stuff that doesn’t speak to me. I think we need art and the more art the better. My theme is that art is the most important thing in the world and all the rest of what we do is just maintenance.
BP Well, that’s quite a theme.
GJ I think the rest of what we do, raising families, sure it all has value, but it’s all maintenance. We’re all just maintaining ourselves until we die, amusing ourselves and entertaining ourselves until we die. But art in its broadest terms is what we’re really here for, to be creative. To make something and look at the world and to interpret it through art is the highest activity of human beings. Now argue with that, Barry.
BP No, I don’t want to argue with you, George, but I’m wondering how that belief you have comports with this other development in the world: that what art is has expanded exponentially since you went to art school and also since I went to art school. So that I think now most people in the art world would identify as art—potentially—any made thing. I mean there is the potential for any made thing to be art. So do you experience that as a dilution of art or an enrichment of human potential?
GJ Well, I think that’s entirely an enrichment of potential. Now, what I do think is that when art schools take the emphasis off painting and drawing there is a dilution of what painting can be, and eventually it’s going to impoverish painting. Because unless you have a strong group of people who are really passionate about painting to really get into it and move it, it is in danger of becoming marginalized.
On the other hand, I think that drawing is so basic to human nature that it is not in the same danger. The fact is that tiny kids, if you give them a pencil, will start scratching away with it, and as they get a little more skilled they love it. And they begin to get very excited about the fact that they can replicate something in the world—and what an exciting thing this is, you know. I draw a lot all the time, and when I’m drawing, particularly when I’m drawing from the figure, and something begins to form on the page and it has a certain simplification and it is blooming into a volume, I’m excited.
BP It’s a magic that doesn’t go away, does it?
GJ No! That magic doesn’t diminish one bit. I’m as enthralled with that thing that happens as I was when I was a tiny kid. Take as an example the Paleolithic cave paintings: I’m absolutely convinced that those people were totally enthralled, too. If you think of the fact that they had no images to start with, whereas now we have images everywhere. No images! Nothing! And then there was a group of people, maybe all of them drew in some way, but at least a group of them could make some lines on a cave wall appear to be a buffalo. Wow! And I’m sure that the people who saw Lascaux for the first time got in there and looked, were dumbfounded, totally dumbfounded. They probably fell on their knees.
BP Oh, you mean the first contemporary viewers?
GJ Yes, contemporary viewers. Well, this is to say that I think that drawing, as the extension of your mind through your hand, is such a basic human thing that we will never lose that, whether it’s taught or not taught. Because it’s so basic I think that there’s something there that will keep coming up. You can ignore it as something to teach, but you know it’ll bubble up anyway.
BP Isn’t it interesting that painting would be in a slightly different category?
GJ Than drawing?
BP Than drawing in that regard. I mean, if you’re right, it does need to be cultivated a bit to be enriched and to maintain its vitality.
GJ I think it’s certainly true with me and with most people, that painting takes more time and is more developed. It’s an image that’s developed and thought over and you use your intellect about it and all of that. For me, the idea, the feeling about putting something on two dimensions that is evoking three dimensions is still a very exciting thing.
An idea comes to mind about 3D television and so on and the notion that this is the coming thing and everyone’s now going to be tired of two dimensions. I don’t think so. You know there’s something going on when you look at a Rembrandt or a Velázquez that is not challenged at all by a 3D video, for example.
BP I share your point of view exactly, but I don’t know if that’s true for young people.
GJ Being excited about making a drawing, for instance?
BP Or being excited about being in front of a Velázquez in a way that they are not by being in front of the movie Avatar.
GJ I guess I’ve presumed that someone who’s into the arts at all would appreciate a Velázquez, but you know, now that you mention it, I think that it also takes familiarity with painting, the tradition of painting, with what’s going on, before you can get that, before you can get that excited about it. Yes.
BP Well, the more you can see.
GJ Although, you could get it all, this is the other thing about it that I love, is that you could get it all from just seeing Lascaux. I mean we don’t know anything about the cave people to speak of, but I get why they did it, why they were excited about it, I get that part.
BP I would argue that we probably don’t get it all, but we get plenty enough to make a really rewarding experience. I mean there could be many things that you simply don’t get because you don’t know the circumstances of its creation, you don’t know the iconography or . . .
GJ But, what you do get is the plastic quality of it.
BP That seems almost an innate human experience, doesn’t it?
GJ Universal! How you put this color up against that color, the beauty of line, what makes a strong shape and what happens when you distort a shape. The very first artists were concerned with esthetic qualities and those qualities communicate directly to us when we view what they did. Jack McClarty once made the statement: “I own Rembrant and he owns me.”
BP What did he mean when he said: “he owns me”?
GJ Rembrandt could “own” Jack’s work if he were around to see it. We become part of an artist’s life by being absorbed in his work. I love the idea that I own Rembrandt. I own him as much as any person who’s ever paid to purchase one of his paintings. I completely own Rembrandt and I own Velázquez. Completely, you know.
BP It’s a wonderful idea!
OK, so George, there’s a last question I wanted to ask you. In preparing for today’s conversation I reread Roger Hull’s monograph on you, and I would say the focus of his writing was on the relationship between what you were seeing in each point of your life and what you were making. But I wanted to ask you a question that focuses on something rather different than that, which is just the sheer volume of images that you make, that you have made so far and continue to make. I mean, you don’t seem to be experiencing any diminution of productivity, and I’m wondering, do you see it as a compulsion to make images, or as something else?
GJ Oh boy, that is a good question.
BP I hope so. Now it’s your turn to give a good answer.
GJ I think there are several reasons which we have touched on, about the pleasures that it gives you to make art, but there is also in my own psychology, at least, the sense that I’m building a kind of accumulation of something. It’s kind of like hoarding, I think.
BP That seems like an unnecessarily self-effacing way of describing it.
GJ But it has that quality to it of getting a lot of pennies if you’re collecting pennies. There is something in human nature about acquisitiveness. In my ordinary life I don’t like collecting a lot of things and I feel very good when I throw things out or give them away. But, there is this idea that I’m making things and if pleased with them, then I’ve got some more of those, and I’ve got some more of this and some more of that. It’s kind of an abstraction in a way, but I think it’s part of the pleasure of working. I have a show coming up in November at Augen Gallery and I’m not aiming at this point to do a group of paintings that will look good together, but I do feel that I’ve got enough work that I’m going to be able to pull together a cohesive show.
BP So that’s the benefit of having so many pennies in your jar?
GJ That’s right.
BP But, it’s interesting to me that you describe this pleasure as a kind of receiving, that is of getting . . .
GJ . . . acquisitiveness . . .
BP . . . acquisitiveness, but there’s also the fact that this stuff comes out of you. That is, you had it even before you made it.
BP But is there any part of it that just has to come out? Is there the voice that says, “I’ve got to get it out?”
GJ Yes, this is a really important part of being an artist. I think it’s that you don’t know what else is in there that you can bring out. You don’t know what else there is about you that you’ve got that you can bring out and make a painting out of, and yet it seems to keep coming. And the more you do, the more that one thing leads to another thing, which leads to two more ideas. And the thing that I find about working is that working tends to solve a lot of questions about where you’re going, and what you can do and why you’re doing it. Probably part of being an artist in the 20th and 21st centuries is that there’s a certain amount of angst about the whole purpose of art. For the most part, you’re not commissioned by anyone, and no one cares whether you do it or not.
GJ And what a curious profession this is, that that’s the case. You’re inventing the thing out of pure air, so to speak.