New York

Floyd Johnson

Downtown Gallery

Floyd Johnson is showing in New York for the first time since his exhibits of 1950–52 at the Downtown Gallery. His large, unstretched, bannerlike canvases are stained in luscious, high-keyed purples, reds, and earth colors. Swirling, organic spills of paint surround and overlap geometric patternings—discs arranged in large circles or in the manner of shingles or scales. The geometry points more to Tantric art than to Constructivism, and indeed Johnson has claimed for his works the function of meditational objects. This claim has been accepted uncritically in the comments that his show has so far elicited. The trouble is that meditation is not a part of the modernist repertoire, either in criticism or in the production of art. A premodern discipline and a chic variant of modernist abstraction have combined to form a hybrid. Two things must be determined: first, whether criticism alone has hybridized itself in response to this work, or if the paintings themselves are implicated; and next whether it makes any difference. In answering the first question it has to be noted that Johnson’s current paintings are the result of development that began for him in 1967, almost exactly the time when the general trend toward lyrical abstraction began. I’m not suggesting a pattern of direct influences, only that these works share in the recent development toward painterly abstraction—see Richard Pettet, Carl Glicko, and others. From the standpoint of current criticism it could be said that Johnson accepts Ronnie Landfield’s combination of geometry and lyrical effusion, merely substituting a Tantric look and intention for the Constructivist equivalent. In other words, a hybrid critical response to his painting has a mimetic accuracy, if not much self-consciousness. As to the import of Johnson’s “innovation”—everyone is, of course, free to juggle traditions in any manner he chooses. My only qualm in Johnson’s case is occasioned by the fact that one must rely on information external to the paintings in order to view them as other than new variants of painterly abstraction. Any object can be the starting point for meditation. A meditational object is one that specifically and on its own invites that response: Johnson’s paintings do not do this.

Carter Ratcliff