JOHN WOOD. (POLAROID PROJECT IV)

POLAROID PROJECT IV. JOHN WOOD.

For more info, Contact William Johnson or Tate Shaw

The following is an excerpt from an essay on John Wood, written by Susie Cohen as part of the collaborative “Polaroid Project” that John participated in with Robert Frank, Dave Heath, Robert Heinecken, and Susie and me in the early 1980s. (Search this site for “Polaroid Project” for more information about this project.)

THE KNUTE ROCKNE OASIS NEWSLETTER & JOURNAL OF CRITICAL OPINION

Vol 1: no. 1 (Sept. 1983)

Editorial Statement

Hi. Susie and I decided to go ahead with the idea that we half-humorously advanced before: to write and xerox a “newsletter” to the folks who are participating in “The Project”. The Knute Rockne Oasis Newsletter will be uncertain in format and irregular in publication. Its purpose is mostly to spread information around to everyone and to keep everyone reminded that the Project advances.

The first piece of information is that the Knute Rockne Oasis is a comfort stop along the Indiana Turnpike and it shows up on the horizon when you need some comfort.

The major item in this issue is Susie’s “letter” to Eelco Wolf. This “letter” is a fictional device that we have adopted to allow us to collect our thoughts during various phases of this event. It might be placed somewhere between a diary entry and a very rough draft of preliminary research. This device allows us a private, even personal “voice” which is frowned on in more scholarly circles. (It will probably become quickly apparent that Susie’s “private voice” is much more elegant than mine).

Let me close this inaugural “editorial statement” with a plea common to editors down through generations… If anyone wants to participate in the Knute Rockne Oasis Newsletter, please jump in.

William Johnson

NEWS & COMMENT

Robert Heinecken and Joyce Neimanas’ new address is: 407 E. Florence Blvd. Englewood, CA. 90301. (213)-672-1561. They apparently survived the move from Chicago.

Susie and my new address is: 123 White St., Belmont, Mass. 02178, (617)-484-3784. We apparently survived the move from Connecticut.

Dave Heath will be spending the week of Sept. 26-30 teaching at the Rhode Island School of Design. He will be showing his latest slide-tape performance to the public, on the 27th. There is a concurrent 40 print exhibition of his most recent work (made since everyone got together in Rochester last April).

Susie and I are gathering copy slides of John Wood’s work to send or show to everyone, which we will do soon. We fell in love with the new Polaroid instant 35mm slides which demonstrate once again that photography is alchemy and thus close to magic. John was also intrigued and has started “experimenting” with them. If anyone else would like to try some out let me know.

August 23, 1983. Dear Eelco,

Bill and I visited John Wood for the first time last week. We spent two days at his home in Alfred, New York as the guests of John and his very charming and hospitable wife, Suzanne. For over twenty years the Woods have lived in an old farmhouse that overlooks the town of Alfred through overgrown and cultivated fields. There is some relatively recent college architecture visible on the slope back into town, and a few neighbors further on up the road; the fields and woods have the atmosphere of quiet that places unmastered by neon possess. Mrs. Wood returned to school when her children were grown, and is now a librarian for the Agricultural and Technical College at Alfred. They are by no means isolated: though physically situated away from the center of town and its cluster of universities, driving (or; in John’s case, biking) into town seems a daily activity. What one senses at their house is not seclusion, but self-sufficiency that they have evolved as a couple. While the house bears evidence of family activity and outgoing hospitality: lawn and gardens, dining areas, childrens’ books, there is also evidence that they live actively for their own interests; Suzanne’s loom, her weavings, and balls of yarn in hand made pots and baskets; the study with books and papers; the potting room; tiny paper animal cut-outs that have found themselves on window sills.

In its attention to detail and its overall eclectic evolution, the house reveals elements of chance, practical elegance, craftsmanship and wide-ranging inquiry that are also elements of John’s art and character. The house is not a “work” however, as these elements are found there as separate solutions or as the unplanned evolutions that emerge from living in one place for a long time. Bill spotted the element of chance in the volunteer strawberry plants growing in cracks of the cement stairs that lead to the front porch. On the porch itself, a post has been hung to support the roof, but the post is 3″ short of its goal, supported in turn by an oval rock. John explained that this is a technique used by Japanese builders to prevent a post from rotting. I don’t really think we noticed it until John, experimenting with the instant slide film we’d brought, made two pictures of it. The slides (we looked at them right after breakfast because it had been too dark the evening we arrived to use the film) showed the upright (half in light, half in shadow, edge highlighted) contrasting the continuously shaded round rock. Simple, lovely. Inside, in the staircase leading from the ground floor to the upstairs bedrooms, the banister is a long, tapered branch, glowing from the handholds of countless passers. The bathroom towel rack is also a branch, rounded and polished in use.

I would not pretend to know them well after so brief a visit, but would suggest that the Woods’ graciousness is a habit not so much of special treatment for guests, but of absorbing the visitors within their full lives. We were obviously an interruption of some routines, yet we felt that there was “room” for our presence and our ideas.

For many years John had used various spaces within the large house as studio space, but several years ago he and his daughter constructed a building in the field just across the road from the house. Though the field is harvested casually by a neighbor for hay, the studio building itself sits in a wild growth of tall grass and flowers visited by birds and butterflies, Chicory, hawkweed, butter-and-eggs and Queen Anne’s Lace grow along the path from the road to the studio. It was idyllic when we were there, but John warned us that Alfred is dismal in the winter, which hangs on in low gray wet skies until April.

John’s studio: one large ground floor room, an el shape, with a small darkroom; storage loft above. Well-lighted with windows and a sky-light. Most of the furniture is old cabinets and work tables, a desk with telephone in one corner. A woodstove, drafting table, one hard-wood chair, a stool, a director’s chair. The stairs to the loft are narrow pyramids set on end to a slanting board.

Books: Miro, Sears catalogue, geometry, stencil patterns, Theodore Roethke; on printmaking and bookbinding. On the walls and window sills: paper stencils, hand made paper birds, shells, stones, pottery, folded paper. On the tables: papers, string, jars of ink. crayons, pencils, color swatches, rulers, fixative, clothespins, magazines, cans. On a beam; jars of tint for making crayons. On one table: a low flat heat box that John uses to make wax color drawings (he built it fearing to use the wood stove for this purpose).

John claims to be an disorganized person, and it is true that the studio is a clutter of tables, piles, paper, bottles, brushes, finished work and work in progress. Yet the ongoing work – in this case, collages on Japanese paper photographically printed in cyan – was spacially and visually distinct. As John began to bring out older work for us to see, he did so from drawers and solander boxes that though heaped with more current materials, were carefully closed and protected. John wraps and handles the work with precise movements made of equal parts of physical and emotional respect for it. I noticed particularly that John’s body arcs around an “area of interest” (whether its the work or a newspaper or an implement) and thus he defines a special and intense enclosure for himself and the onlooker.

In earlier interviews, and to us, John stated that while working, he is often “distracted” from one direction to another by the glimpse of an object or the glimmer of an idea. And we could see that the jars, colors, textures, and shapes of things were casually situated to be suggestive to an open mind. Though our acquaintance is brief, I would like to stress this: that the “disorganization” is a provocation of possibilities, an endless store of manipulable source material. The clutter is a screen in the negative sense only to the extent that it may bother John personally. I suspect, however, that John is himself a screen, and that he instinctively adjusts the mesh to allow through, to see, what it is he needs to work. John is not directionless but multi-directioned. His purpose is less to make than to feel the making, less to finish that to experience. His works, both ongoing and finished, are visually and psychologically forceful expressions for finely distincted feelings and for a variety of forms for them.

John is expert at photography, printmaking, papermaking, painting, drawing, and bookbinding, and these in pure states and in combinations. He often creates or recreates the tools and processes he uses. The most apt term for him would be image-maker. (He feels that “photography” is the silver print, that what he does is closer to “printmaking” in traditional terms. He is worried, and curious, at the categories in which his work has been placed and discussed). At this point in our acquaintance, I would concur with John’s assessment that his training at the Institute of Design is responsible for his openness to and facility with materials, processes and ideas. This training is at least what gave discipline to the creative intentions that were intriguing him and then lured him to the Institute in 1950.

I’m not sufficiently aware of the chronology or diversity of John’s work to describe it well. From what I saw, however, which included ingeniously bound books, black and white and color pencil drawings, paintings, sculpture of sticks and paper, straight silver photographs, collages of photographs and drawings, collages of photographs, collages with words, stencils, etc, I have a preliminary sense of what makes John’s work his.

First, as I mentioned, there is an air of respect about finished works that is not only an attitude of John’s, but emanates as well from the work. Each series, or piece (regardless of its sketch-like quality or polish) is made with an assured hand, the hand of an experienced and careful craftsman. Even the most “experimental” or protean work proceeds from a clarity that demonstrates purpose -even if the ultimate “meaning” is not yet known.

Secondly, there is the fact of the diversity itself. Any material, and surface is a potential “light modulator” (in Moholy’s words). And I think that John’s encompassing attitude toward the potential significance of any scrap of material or ray of light parallels his attitude toward feelings: that there is none too insignificant among human states not worthy of exploration and visual form. It seems that John can evoke “tenderness” as well from three sticks joined in an open pyramid as from moonlight; “terror” from the outline of a gun as well as from the depiction of natural forces; and the exuberance of human motion from the abstract markings of his hand as well as from the literal depiction of the moving figure. Unlike Moholy’s fierce idealism, which projected the camera as the transmitter of modern experience, John’s work is filled with a gentler, but also an uncompromising social purpose. He does not believe that his art, or any art, can change the world directly, especially through specific, cause-related imagery. Yet he has faith that his art, and all art, in the long run, elicits a non-violent, positive response from the sensitive viewer. Though some of his images depict recognizable events or situations (such as the Vietnam war) his art his non-narrative, non-propagandistic. He calls them “quiet protests.” Others of his pieces refer to environmental and other current political concerns such as the preservation of whales and nuclear disarmament. Where Heinecken’s commentary is biting, John’s is fantastical, due to the use of animal shapes and the surrealism of the collage technique. Yet they are penetrating and memorable because of the purity of form and the richness of form combinations. Some of the work, such as the pencil “systems drawings”, some watercolors and paintings, and handmade paper shapes, are pure abstractions. Like the abstract works of Hartley, Marin and O’Keeffe, however, they derive ultimately from the observation of nature rather than from abstract intellect. In the “systems drawings” for instance, the thickness of marks and the layering of tone strongly evoke the careful but pleasurable movement of the hand. The patterning devices are a control, and these were stimulated from an interest in Mimbres pottery.

Another group of abstractions is a series of small watercolors, each the size of a folio account sheet cut in half from a blank “banker’s book” John found. John made a special, cloth-covered box to hold the series. The overall design of each is an open, geometric mesh, constructed with short, bright strokes. Again, the formality of the design is played against the thin/thickness of the outlining strokes and fill-in color. Though John has training as an architecture engineer and can make very precise renderings, these watercolors (and others of his drawings)’show a deliberate skew from mechanical rigidity. He made the brushes for this series from dried yucca stalks. The brushes, still tinted, sit in a clay pot on a window sill.

Although it may be hasty at this point, or even irrelevant, I want to try to categorize John’s work beyond “multi-media humanist”. I’m guessing that there is some central belief at the heart of it: faith not in a hierarchical ordering but faith that there isn’t disorder in the universe. That change observed or made is mysterious but meaningful; that perception of alteration or the proclivity to alter is the human gift.

John is averse to mechanical (photographic) order for its own sake. He has said on several occasions that making his work isn’t meaningful for him unless it incorporates the feelings he has for the people (objects, motion, color) in this work. He is equally shy of the sort of stylized belief that Minor White (whom he knew) developed around photography. Certainly the content of John’s photographs are seen “for what else they are” but John does not use, or advocate the use, of photographs for self-teaching or meditation.

John consistently uses symbolic imagery: stars, whales, guns, tree images of himself and of his friends: certain pastel hues, layered space and photographic puns are repeated formal devices; the marks of his hand with pencil, with paint and in sand are both form and content, John goes to galleries, judges contests, oversees students and is well-versed in art history- But like his house, when he works he is self-sufficient: inventing and borrowing as he needs. He neither follows trends nor cares if he leads them. His work refers occasionally to pictographs, surrealism and popular media. But all of this: symbols, references, forms are only the letters of an alphabet and I haven’t yet grasped whether they make novels or poems or prayers.

John didn’t work much during our visit. We had brought the 4×5 film he requested and stayed awake late one night to try it out and took our portraits with it before we left. The surprise was his response to the Polaroid instant slide film. We had brought it to make record slides but John was intrigued with the quickness of it and with the magic processing box. He liked the cellular quality of the color, and the platinum-like tonal range of the black & white. We left the processor and some film with him. Another “distraction”? I hope so. More soon,

SUSIE.

Two acknowledged interests of John’s were Buckminster Fuller and the concrete poetry movement, and he referenced both in many images throughout his career.

At one time John often frequented a local beach, where the waves deposited a layer of white sand over a layer of dark sand, which was erased and reconstituted with each wave, a natural process creating a tabula rasa for the “mark making” that John so loved to do.

The following images are several pages from my informal records of the “retrospective” portion of the exhibition, indicating choices and positioning of that portion of the project. John’s early conceptual sequences, created years before other, better-known artists in California, were a pioneering effort in shifting the paradigm of “creative photography” away from the single print modernist aesthetic, which was one of the criteria we considered when we asked the four artists to participate in the project.

First meeting as a group, held at Joan & Nathan Lyon’s house in Rochester, NY.

John was one of the participants who accepted the offer to use the Polaroid 20 x 24” camera in the studio at the School of the Boston Museum of Fine Arts. On this visit John chose to experiment with the color and scale of the large camera, as the last stage in his continuously evolving process of segueing an image through a variety of media and processes to finally reach the completed image. It is entirely possible that some portion of the final collages shown on the studio walls began as the 35mm Polaroid slide film that is described in Susie’s comments on our first visit to his house in 1983.

Copy of the layout of the images that John created for his 16 page signature that each artist made for the project. The final image is a portrait of one of his grandchildren. For me this sequence was one of John’s “quiet protests,” a poetically visual and subtly unsettling statement about the potential dangers of unconsidered nationalism and unbridled patriotism in the nuclear age.

Susie and I visited John again in 1991, where he surprised us with a gift of this lovely book. John created the book out of his copy of the maquette that he had put together for the 16-page signature for the project. The covers and binding were designed by John, who included bookmaking among his many skills.

POLAROID PROJECT IV. JOHN WOOD.

The following is an excerpt from an essay on John Wood, written by Susie Cohen as part of the collaborative “Polaroid Project” that John participated in with Robert Frank, Dave Heath, Robert Heinecken, and Susie and me in the early 1980s. (Search this site for “Polaroid Project” for more information about this project.)

THE KNUTE ROCKNE OASIS NEWSLETTER & JOURNAL OF CRITICAL OPINION

Vol 1: no. 1 (Sept. 1983)

Editorial Statement

Hi. Susie and I decided to go ahead with the idea that we half-humorously advanced before: to write and xerox a “newsletter” to the folks who are participating in “The Project”. The Knute Rockne Oasis Newsletter will be uncertain in format and irregular in publication. Its purpose is mostly to spread information around to everyone and to keep everyone reminded that the Project advances.

The first piece of information is that the Knute Rockne Oasis is a comfort stop along the Indiana Turnpike and it shows up on the horizon when you need some comfort.

The major item in this issue is Susie’s “letter” to Eelco Wolf. This “letter” is a fictional device that we have adopted to allow us to collect our thoughts during various phases of this event. It might be placed somewhere between a diary entry and a very rough draft of preliminary research. This device allows us a private, even personal “voice” which is frowned on in more scholarly circles. (It will probably become quickly apparent that Susie’s “private voice” is much more elegant than mine).

Let me close this inaugural “editorial statement” with a plea common to editors down through generations… If anyone wants to participate in the Knute Rockne Oasis Newsletter, please jump in.

William Johnson

NEWS & COMMENT

Robert Heinecken and Joyce Neimanas’ new address is: 407 E. Florence Blvd. Englewood, CA. 90301. (213)-672-1561. They apparently survived the move from Chicago.

Susie and my new address is: 123 White St., Belmont, Mass. 02178, (617)-484-3784. We apparently survived the move from Connecticut.

Dave Heath will be spending the week of Sept. 26-30 teaching at the Rhode Island School of Design. He will be showing his latest slide-tape performance to the public, on the 27th. There is a concurrent 40 print exhibition of his most recent work (made since everyone got together in Rochester last April).

Susie and I are gathering copy slides of John Wood’s work to send or show to everyone, which we will do soon. We fell in love with the new Polaroid instant 35mm slides which demonstrate once again that photography is alchemy and thus close to magic. John was also intrigued and has started “experimenting” with them. If anyone else would like to try some out let me know.

August 23, 1983. Dear Eelco,

Bill and I visited John Wood for the first time last week. We spent two days at his home in Alfred, New York as the guests of John and his very charming and hospitable wife, Suzanne. For over twenty years the Woods have lived in an old farmhouse that overlooks the town of Alfred through overgrown and cultivated fields. There is some relatively recent college architecture visible on the slope back into town, and a few neighbors further on up the road; the fields and woods have the atmosphere of quiet that places unmastered by neon possess. Mrs. Wood returned to school when her children were grown, and is now a librarian for the Agricultural and Technical College at Alfred. They are by no means isolated: though physically situated away from the center of town and its cluster of universities, driving (or; in John’s case, biking) into town seems a daily activity. What one senses at their house is not seclusion, but self-sufficiency that they have evolved as a couple. While the house bears evidence of family activity and outgoing hospitality: lawn and gardens, dining areas, childrens’ books, there is also evidence that they live actively for their own interests; Suzanne’s loom, her weavings, and balls of yarn in hand made pots and baskets; the study with books and papers; the potting room; tiny paper animal cut-outs that have found themselves on window sills.

In its attention to detail and its overall eclectic evolution, the house reveals elements of chance, practical elegance, craftsmanship and wide-ranging inquiry that are also elements of John’s art and character. The house is not a “work” however, as these elements are found there as separate solutions or as the unplanned evolutions that emerge from living in one place for a long time. Bill spotted the element of chance in the volunteer strawberry plants growing in cracks of the cement stairs that lead to the front porch. On the porch itself, a post has been hung to support the roof, but the post is 3″ short of its goal, supported in turn by an oval rock. John explained that this is a technique used by Japanese builders to prevent a post from rotting. I don’t really think we noticed it until John, experimenting with the instant slide film we’d brought, made two pictures of it. The slides (we looked at them right after breakfast because it had been too dark the evening we arrived to use the film) showed the upright (half in light, half in shadow, edge highlighted) contrasting the continuously shaded round rock. Simple, lovely. Inside, in the staircase leading from the ground floor to the upstairs bedrooms, the banister is a long, tapered branch, glowing from the handholds of countless passers. The bathroom towel rack is also a branch, rounded and polished in use.

I would not pretend to know them well after so brief a visit, but would suggest that the Woods’ graciousness is a habit not so much of special treatment for guests, but of absorbing the visitors within their full lives. We were obviously an interruption of some routines, yet we felt that there was “room” for our presence and our ideas.

For many years John had used various spaces within the large house as studio space, but several years ago he and his daughter constructed a building in the field just across the road from the house. Though the field is harvested casually by a neighbor for hay, the studio building itself sits in a wild growth of tall grass and flowers visited by birds and butterflies, Chicory, hawkweed, butter-and-eggs and Queen Anne’s Lace grow along the path from the road to the studio. It was idyllic when we were there, but John warned us that Alfred is dismal in the winter, which hangs on in low gray wet skies until April.

John’s studio: one large ground floor room, an el shape, with a small darkroom; storage loft above. Well-lighted with windows and a sky-light. Most of the furniture is old cabinets and work tables, a desk with telephone in one corner. A woodstove, drafting table, one hard-wood chair, a stool, a director’s chair. The stairs to the loft are narrow pyramids set on end to a slanting board.

Books: Miro, Sears catalogue, geometry, stencil patterns, Theodore Roethke; on printmaking and bookbinding. On the walls and window sills: paper stencils, hand made paper birds, shells, stones, pottery, folded paper. On the tables: papers, string, jars of ink. crayons, pencils, color swatches, rulers, fixative, clothespins, magazines, cans. On a beam; jars of tint for making crayons. On one table: a low flat heat box that John uses to make wax color drawings (he built it fearing to use the wood stove for this purpose).

John claims to be an disorganized person, and it is true that the studio is a clutter of tables, piles, paper, bottles, brushes, finished work and work in progress. Yet the ongoing work – in this case, collages on Japanese paper photographically printed in cyan – was spacially and visually distinct. As John began to bring out older work for us to see, he did so from drawers and solander boxes that though heaped with more current materials, were carefully closed and protected. John wraps and handles the work with precise movements made of equal parts of physical and emotional respect for it. I noticed particularly that John’s body arcs around an “area of interest” (whether its the work or a newspaper or an implement) and thus he defines a special and intense enclosure for himself and the onlooker.

In earlier interviews, and to us, John stated that while working, he is often “distracted” from one direction to another by the glimpse of an object or the glimmer of an idea. And we could see that the jars, colors, textures, and shapes of things were casually situated to be suggestive to an open mind. Though our acquaintance is brief, I would like to stress this: that the “disorganization” is a provocation of possibilities, an endless store of manipulable source material. The clutter is a screen in the negative sense only to the extent that it may bother John personally. I suspect, however, that John is himself a screen, and that he instinctively adjusts the mesh to allow through, to see, what it is he needs to work. John is not directionless but multi-directioned. His purpose is less to make than to feel the making, less to finish that to experience. His works, both ongoing and finished, are visually and psychologically forceful expressions for finely distincted feelings and for a variety of forms for them.

John is expert at photography, printmaking, papermaking, painting, drawing, and bookbinding, and these in pure states and in combinations. He often creates or recreates the tools and processes he uses. The most apt term for him would be image-maker. (He feels that “photography” is the silver print, that what he does is closer to “printmaking” in traditional terms. He is worried, and curious, at the categories in which his work has been placed and discussed). At this point in our acquaintance, I would concur with John’s assessment that his training at the Institute of Design is responsible for his openness to and facility with materials, processes and ideas. This training is at least what gave discipline to the creative intentions that were intriguing him and then lured him to the Institute in 1950.

I’m not sufficiently aware of the chronology or diversity of John’s work to describe it well. From what I saw, however, which included ingeniously bound books, black and white and color pencil drawings, paintings, sculpture of sticks and paper, straight silver photographs, collages of photographs and drawings, collages of photographs, collages with words, stencils, etc, I have a preliminary sense of what makes John’s work his.

First, as I mentioned, there is an air of respect about finished works that is not only an attitude of John’s, but emanates as well from the work. Each series, or piece (regardless of its sketch-like quality or polish) is made with an assured hand, the hand of an experienced and careful craftsman. Even the most “experimental” or protean work proceeds from a clarity that demonstrates purpose -even if the ultimate “meaning” is not yet known.

Secondly, there is the fact of the diversity itself. Any material, and surface is a potential “light modulator” (in Moholy’s words). And I think that John’s encompassing attitude toward the potential significance of any scrap of material or ray of light parallels his attitude toward feelings: that there is none too insignificant among human states not worthy of exploration and visual form. It seems that John can evoke “tenderness” as well from three sticks joined in an open pyramid as from moonlight; “terror” from the outline of a gun as well as from the depiction of natural forces; and the exuberance of human motion from the abstract markings of his hand as well as from the literal depiction of the moving figure. Unlike Moholy’s fierce idealism, which projected the camera as the transmitter of modern experience, John’s work is filled with a gentler, but also an uncompromising social purpose. He does not believe that his art, or any art, can change the world directly, especially through specific, cause-related imagery. Yet he has faith that his art, and all art, in the long run, elicits a non-violent, positive response from the sensitive viewer. Though some of his images depict recognizable events or situations (such as the Vietnam war) his art his non-narrative, non-propagandistic. He calls them “quiet protests.” Others of his pieces refer to environmental and other current political concerns such as the preservation of whales and nuclear disarmament. Where Heinecken’s commentary is biting, John’s is fantastical, due to the use of animal shapes and the surrealism of the collage technique. Yet they are penetrating and memorable because of the purity of form and the richness of form combinations. Some of the work, such as the pencil “systems drawings”, some watercolors and paintings, and handmade paper shapes, are pure abstractions. Like the abstract works of Hartley, Marin and O’Keeffe, however, they derive ultimately from the observation of nature rather than from abstract intellect. In the “systems drawings” for instance, the thickness of marks and the layering of tone strongly evoke the careful but pleasurable movement of the hand. The patterning devices are a control, and these were stimulated from an interest in Mimbres pottery.

Another group of abstractions is a series of small watercolors, each the size of a folio account sheet cut in half from a blank “banker’s book” John found. John made a special, cloth-covered box to hold the series. The overall design of each is an open, geometric mesh, constructed with short, bright strokes. Again, the formality of the design is played against the thin/thickness of the outlining strokes and fill-in color. Though John has training as an architecture engineer and can make very precise renderings, these watercolors (and others of his drawings)’show a deliberate skew from mechanical rigidity. He made the brushes for this series from dried yucca stalks. The brushes, still tinted, sit in a clay pot on a window sill.

Although it may be hasty at this point, or even irrelevant, I want to try to categorize John’s work beyond “multi-media humanist”. I’m guessing that there is some central belief at the heart of it: faith not in a hierarchical ordering but faith that there isn’t disorder in the universe. That change observed or made is mysterious but meaningful; that perception of alteration or the proclivity to alter is the human gift.

John is averse to mechanical (photographic) order for its own sake. He has said on several occasions that making his work isn’t meaningful for him unless it incorporates the feelings he has for the people (objects, motion, color) in this work. He is equally shy of the sort of stylized belief that Minor White (whom he knew) developed around photography. Certainly the content of John’s photographs are seen “for what else they are” but John does not use, or advocate the use, of photographs for self-teaching or meditation.

John consistently uses symbolic imagery: stars, whales, guns, tree images of himself and of his friends: certain pastel hues, layered space and photographic puns are repeated formal devices; the marks of his hand with pencil, with paint and in sand are both form and content, John goes to galleries, judges contests, oversees students and is well-versed in art history- But like his house, when he works he is self-sufficient: inventing and borrowing as he needs. He neither follows trends nor cares if he leads them. His work refers occasionally to pictographs, surrealism and popular media. But all of this: symbols, references, forms are only the letters of an alphabet and I haven’t yet grasped whether they make novels or poems or prayers.

John didn’t work much during our visit. We had brought the 4×5 film he requested and stayed awake late one night to try it out and took our portraits with it before we left. The surprise was his response to the Polaroid instant slide film. We had brought it to make record slides but John was intrigued with the quickness of it and with the magic processing box. He liked the cellular quality of the color, and the platinum-like tonal range of the black & white. We left the processor and some film with him. Another “distraction”? I hope so. More soon,

SUSIE.

For more info, Contact William Johnson or Tate Shaw

Two acknowledged interests of John’s were Buckminster Fuller and the concrete poetry movement, and he referenced both in many images throughout his career.

For more info, Contact William Johnson or Tate Shaw

At one time John often frequented a local beach, where the waves deposited a layer of white sand over a layer of dark sand, which was erased and reconstituted with each wave, a natural process creating a tabula rasa for the “mark making” that John so loved to do.

The following images are several pages from my informal records of the “retrospective” portion of the exhibition, indicating choices and positioning of that portion of the project. John’s early conceptual sequences, created years before other, better-known artists in California, were a pioneering effort in shifting the paradigm of “creative photography” away from the single print modernist aesthetic, which was one of the criteria we considered when we asked the four artists to participate in the project.

For more info, Contact William Johnson or Tate Shaw

For more info, Contact William Johnson or Tate Shaw

For more info, Contact William Johnson or Tate Shaw

For more info, Contact William Johnson or Tate Shaw

First meeting as a group, held at Joan & Nathan Lyon’s house in Rochester, NY.

For more info, Contact William Johnson or Tate Shaw

John was one of the participants who accepted the offer to use the Polaroid 20 x 24” camera in the studio at the School of the Boston Museum of Fine Arts. On this visit John chose to experiment with the color and scale of the large camera, as the last stage in his continuously evolving process of segueing an image through a variety of media and processes to finally reach the completed image. It is entirely possible that some portion of the final collages shown on the studio walls began as the 35mm Polaroid slide film that is described in Susie’s comments on our first visit to his house in 1983.

For more info, Contact William Johnson or Tate Shaw

Copy of the layout of the images that John created for his 16 page signature that each artist made for the project. The final image is a portrait of one of his grandchildren. For me this sequence was one of John’s “quiet protests,” a poetically visual and subtly unsettling statement about the potential dangers of unconsidered nationalism and unbridled patriotism in the nuclear age.

Susie and I visited John again in 1991, where he surprised us with a gift of this lovely book. John created the book out of his copy of the maquette that he had put together for the 16-page signature for the project. The covers and binding were designed by John, who included bookmaking among his many skills.

For more info, Contact William Johnson or Tate Shaw

For more info, Contact William Johnson or Tate Shaw

For more info, Contact William Johnson or Tate Shaw

For more info, Contact William Johnson or Tate Shaw

For more info, Contact William Johnson or Tate Shaw

For more info, Contact William Johnson or Tate Shaw

For more info, Contact William Johnson or Tate Shaw

For more info, Contact William Johnson or Tate Shaw

For more info, Contact William Johnson or Tate Shaw

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