In the late 1950s, Johnson moved with his wife Marjorie and their new born son from Berkeley California to Painseville, Ohio. There, Johnson threw himself completely into Abstract Expressionism creating works that evolved directly from his earlier still-life paintings and his emotional struggle with his past. Born in 1925, his father abandoned his family when Johnson was around the age of five. He continued to have a distant and tumultuous relationship with his mother and stepfather who showed preference to his stepbrother. Johnson lied about his age in order to join the Navy and leave behind a fractured family life. At seventeen he found himself on a mine sweeper in the Mediterranean Sea during World War II. His ship had a close call after hitting a mine, however it did not detonate and the crew passed safely. The experience left an impact on him that he would continue to contemplate
throughout his life.
After the war, Johnson returned to New York City in 1949 and enrolled at the Art Students League where he studied under Reginald Marsh. While Marsh instilled a sense of Social realism into Johnson’s work, his studio was located next to that of Jackson Pollock. Soon, Johnson enrolled at the University of Illinois where he met Richard Diebenkorn. The influence Diebenkorn had on Johnson’s ideas and paintings was profound. He soon began to abstract his still life arrangements in multiple works that each became more abstract and reductive.
However, Johnson grew frustrated with his professors and their particular views on art. He left the program and moved with Marjorie to Berkeley, California in 1953. Diebenkorn would stop by during visits to the area and continue to discuss the development of Abstract Expressionist concepts. Johnson continued to work in a realist style but further explored abstraction in oils. Francis Carmody noted in an interview that there appeared to be an aspect of violence in the work. Johnson acknowledged the observation,“What I may be destroying at this particular time is something that is much more of myself than the thing that I leave is of Braque or Matisse or Picasso, but these great men exist and it’s my problem to overcome whatever influence they have in a destructive and creative manner.” Through hastily drawn lines that alluded to this sense of violence, Johnson would feel both the work and himself calm to a point in which the completed painting expressed a sense of serenity.
Johnson was well read on art theory, and particularly the writings of Hans Hoffman. He interpreted and adapted what he had read into the work he created by placing quickly executed multi-layered calligraphic structures of paint in red, blue, yellow, and olive with thick textured coats of black and grey. The complex layers of paint were covered over and reduced with the use of black paint in a similar way in which he removed objects in his still life paintings. Johnson makes use of sgraffito, scratching into the paint surface, as well as splattering paint in drips of motion finding in the experience of painting a relationship between the surface and an inner mental landscape. He spoke of his method that,“painting is an organic process which feeds on plastic memories and the excitement of an adventurous accident solidified in the final state of decision.”
After the move to Nor theast Ohio, Johnson found that proximity of Painesville to Cleveland gave him access to a variety of galleries. He soon made connections with Howard Wise, owner of the Howard Wise Gallery of Present Day Art. Unlike many other local artists, Johnson was already working fully in the style having come out of the New York School, and then being surrounded by the San Francisco Bay area Abstract Expressionists. This gave Johnson the advantage of authenticity and a sense of belonging to the movement that other artists often struggled with. Impressed by Johnson’s new paintings, Wise decided gave him a one-man show of grey monotone compositions in 1959. The Cleveland Plain Dealer art critic Paul B. Metzler wrote that the work “recalled some of the greatest Chinese pictorials,” and that they reflected the influences of de Kooning, Franz Kline, and Clyford Still.
Johnson’s reputation as a painter grew in Northeast Ohio, and soon the artist’s abstractions became looser and more vibrant with the limited palette consisting of large sections in black, white, and red. However, an unrest stirred within him. In 1962, he abruptly left his wife and children to return to New York City. After the move, Johnson increasingly became less involved with his work. He began to feel less satisfaction in painting, and his output slowed as he started thinking and talking about his children and his own father’s abandonment more often. He started working on paintings that were void of all color. Large black masses crowded out the white of the canvas barely able to peek through. Collectors of his work from Painesville traveled to New York for a studio visit, but did not respond to the new pieces. shortly after, Johnson ceased painting altogether.
In November of 1963, Johnson began to work on new paintings that were smaller and alluded to a continuous movement off the edges of the canvas. On the brink of an artistic breakthrough, Johnson’s life was cut short on December 9th at the age of 37 in a tragic accident while riding his motorcycle — not even a full month after actualizing the new work.