An Action Painter, Lester Johnson Beat Own Facility

Facility, which in painting is usually taken to mean both ease of expression and a mastery of the medium, is commonly regarded as an enviable gift, yet it can also have a downside. In certain cases (think of Boldini, Sargent, the Swedish painter Anders Zorn and—at a lower level—Andy Warhol), facility of execution is seen to signify something shallow and superficial. When applied to portrait painting, as in the above examples, facility may also suggest an overeagerness to please the subject as well as the viewer with a studied display of virtuosity.

It’s for this reason that some painters have made it a fundamental tenet of their art to resist the temptations of their own facility. Rather than aiming for ease of expression, they deliberately cultivate certain obstacles to it, either through distortion in draftsmanship or by creating a facture that eschews suavity in favor of a distressed painterly surface. Figurative painters who came of age in the heyday of the Abstract Expressionist aesthetic were especially likely to play a role in this effort to undermine the effects of facility.

We can trace a version of this scenario of resistance to facility—as well as an eventual surrender to it—in Lester Johnson: Four Decades of Painting, an exhibition at the James Goodman Gallery. Mr. Johnson belongs to the generation of American artists that launched itself as followers of abstraction but quickly found its true métier in a highly expressionist variety of figurative painting. According to Dore Ashton, writing in the catalog of the current show, it was Mr. Johnson’s encounter with Alberto Giacometti’s exhibition at the Pierre Matisse Gallery in 1948 that precipitated this fateful change of course.

What Mr. Johnson seems to have gotten from this encounter with Giacometti wasn’t a borrowed style, but something more profound—an attitude of interrogation and anxiety in dealing with the figure. It’s an attitude that has left him free to depart from Giacometti’s example in every other respect. Thus, whereas Giacometti’s figures are notoriouslyskinnyand elongated, almost wraith-like in the delicacy of their slender mass, Mr. Johnson’s are weighty, boxy and robust. Giacometti figures typically occupy a lonely pictorial space — a symbol, perhaps, of their existential isolation from their society, while Mr. Johnson’s exist in a community of bodies as well as a community of feeling.AndwhileGiacometti’s figures tend to be stationary—even his walking figures are firmlyattachedtothe ground they trod—many of Mr. Johnson’s tend to be in a state of untiring activity: walking, dancing or otherwise engaged in some headlong pursuit. If Giacometti’s figures often strike us as casualties of some unidentified catastrophe, Mr. Johnson’s rather revel in the sheer physicality of their existence.

Moreover, the physicality of Mr. Johnson’s subjects is everywhere reflected in the heavyweight character of his painted surfaces, which at times—in Bowery Patriarch (1963), for example, and Three Evening Figures (1964)—all but swamp the visibility of the figures themselves.

Still, if the heaviness of the facture in these early paintings is meant to serve as a brake against painterly facility, in the later paintings, especially Twilight Bathers (1988) and People Passing (1989), the artist exploits the benefits of his own facility with dazzling success. In between, there’s a middle period in which the paintings are crowded with ditzy dames and their somewhat befuddled male consorts, and with a series of group portraits, in one of which James Joyce makes an appearance. The group portraits are immensely theatrical, often amusing and beautifully painted. It’s in the most recent paintings, however, that every element, from the drawing of the figures to the command of color and light, acquires an elegance and a fluency that are not to be seen in the earlier pictures.

About his own work, Lester Johnson has said: “There is no balance in my paintings because balance seems to me to be static. Life, which I try to reflect in my paintings, is dynamic …. To me, my paintings are action paintings—paintings that moveacrossthe canvases, paintings thatdonotget stuck, but flow like time.” Never mind that “action painting” was a term that was coined to describe Abstract Expressionism; what we see in the “flow” of Mr. Johnson’s developmentis—alongwith much else—an extended farewell to the last traces of the AbstractExpressionistaesthetic. For that matter, some of his best group portraits can indeed be said to be static, or at least stationary. But artists are not under oath when they talk about their own work, and if it pleases Mr. Johnson to claim an absence of “balance” in his painting, the paintings tell us a different story.

Lester Johnson: Four Decades of Painting remains on view at the James Goodman Gallery, 41 East 57th Street, through Oct. 30.