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Lester Johnson (1919–2010)

Lester Johnson, an admired artist whose expressionist brushwork lent vigor and force to the human figure—isolated and embattled, or alive with the joy of movement in crowds—died on May 30, according to the New York Times. He was ninety-one.

The Times’s William Grimes writes that Johnson, a maverick associate of the Abstract Expressionists in New York, found his subject matter in the joys and sorrows of ordinary people on the street. His boxy figures of the 1960s, somberly painted in thick impasto, their features often scratched into the surface, faced the viewer squarely with an air of stoicism or grim defiance.

Some were self-portraits. Others, like Bowery Patriarch, 1963, and Three Men Sitting, 1969, enlisted the stumbling, broken men he saw on the Bowery from his second-floor studio window.

“If there is such as thing as the poetry of congestion, Johnson invented it,” John Russell wrote in the New York Times in 1977. “The people in his painting just love company. They can’t get enough of it. No matter how he packs them in we feel that both he and they would gladly find room for someone else.”

In 1964, Jack Tworkov, the chairman of the graduate art department at Yale, recommended Johnson for a job. He taught figure drawing at Yale until his retirement in 1989, and from 1969 to 1974 was the director of studies for the graduate painting program.

The James Goodman Gallery in Manhattan surveyed his work in 2004 in the exhibition “Lester Johnson: Four Decades of Painting.” In 2005, the University of Connecticut in Storrs mounted a fifty-year retrospective of his work, “People Passing By: Paintings, Drawings, and Prints by Lester Johnson,” at the William Benton Museum of Art.

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