Raymond Johnson was born in Chariton, Iowa, the son of a poor Baptist minister who led an itinerant life before settling in Portland, Oregon. In 1909 Jonson enrolled in the newly established Museum Art School of the Portland Art Association, where he studied with a former student of the noted teacher Arthur Wesley Dow (1857-1922). The following year he moved to Chicago and entered the Chicago Academy of Fine Arts. Shortly thereafter Jonson attended the Art Institute of Chicago
, where the B.J.O. Nordfeldt (1878-1955) introduced him to modernism. Between 1912 and 1917 Jonson worked as the lighting, stage set, costume and graphics designer for the experimental Chicago Little Theatre, and gained an international reputation for his minimalist stage designs and dramatic lighting effects.
Jonson spent the summer of 1922 in Santa Fe, New Mexico and settled there permanently two years later. He devoted himself entirely to painting, and tirelessly advocated modernism through teaching and organizing exhibitions. In 1938 he began to teach part-time at the University of New Mexico at Albuquerque, and founded the Transcendental Painting Group of abstract artists. Johnson began to teach at the University of New Mexico full-time in 1950, and lived in the Jonson Gallery, a studio, residence, and exhibition area that had been specially built on campus for him (it is now part of the University Art Museum
of The University of New Mexico). He became emeritus professor of art at the university in 1954, but remained director of the gallery. Jonson was a highly individualistic artist and important pioneer in the history American abstract painting.
The standard biography of Jonson is Ed Garman, The Art of Raymond Jonson, Painter
(Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1976); useful discussions of him are Virginia M. Mecklenburg, The Patricia and Phillip Frost Collection: American Abstraction, 1930-1945 (Washington, DC: National Museum of American Art and Smithsonian Institution Press, 1989), pp. 115-117, and
Gail Levin and Marianne Lorenz, Theme & Improvisation: Kandinsky & the American Avant-Garde, 1912-1950
[exh. cat. Dayton Art Institute] (Ohio, 1992), pp. 91-116.
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