In memoriam: George Johanson

Remembering an artistic life well and truly lived: The Northwest artist died in October of 2022; his memorial service is June 11 at the World Forestry Center.

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George Johanson, Umbrellas (Red), 2014, reduction linocut. Image courtesy of the artist’s estate

In 2014, at 86 years of age, George Johanson decided to take up reduction linocuts. At first blush, this may not seem like a shocking decision: Johanson was, after all, an accomplished printmaker. He was the head of the printmaking department at the Museum School between 1965 and 1980, studied at the famous Atelier 17 in New York, and worked in the same London printshop as David Hockney. These credentials, however, don’t diminish the audacity of this undertaking. 

Umbrellas (Red) takes a theme that Johanson had explored in paintings many times: a crowd, arranged on a curb, potentially waiting for a parade; and reduced it to an amalgamation of umbrellas, haunting printed shapes – the umbrellas becoming outlines in the distance, above a swath of diagonals and squiggles indicating the impetus for all those umbrellas. The sunset-hued spareness of the crowd contrasts with the articulation of the umbrellas. Johanson didn’t just take up reduction linocuts at 86, he ran with them, used them to distill themes that he had been exploring in art his entire career. 

Choosing this medium was a pointed, and poignant, choice. Reduction linocut was a solution to image-making devised by Pablo Picasso in 1958, when he was 78 years old. Frustrated with the time and resources required to make multi-color relief prints by registering colors individually on separate blocks, Picasso decided to print colors successively using the same block by carving away each previously rendered section. Each remnant becomes the starting point for the new matrix, as each is destroyed from one stage to the next.  

Relief print always requires conceptualizing the finished image in reverse and in terms of its negative space. Reduction relief print adds another several layers of complication: Not only does the block have to reverse the finished image, the block has to anticipate each layer of color, reversed, with no possibility for revision. As Johanson explained to curator and writer Prudence Roberts in 2015: “If you’re three colors in and you’ve made a wrong cut or chosen the wrong color, then you have to scrap it. There are no U-turns.”

George Johanson (wearing apron) with students in the print studio at the Museum School (now Pacific Northwest College of Art) in 1971. Image courtesy of the artist’s estate

As a lifelong admirer of Picasso, Johanson was surely familiar with the reduction linocuts. But Johanson’s long-time gallerist at Augen Gallery, Bob Kochs, explained that Johanson was spurred to this experiment after seeing the works in person in his gallery in 2010 or 2011. Kochs recalled George’s delight in revealing his endeavor during a studio visit, showing off his printing device and talking through how the process required him to conceive of image-making in an “upside down, backwards kind of way.” Kochs compared Johanson’s later-in-life experimentation to Picasso’s, noting that Johanson was at least 10 or 12 years older than Picasso had been. While some are brightly colored, many of Picasso’s reduction linocuts use a limited palette, many only two-toned. Johanson’s, in contrast, are awash with color. 

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Johanson died in October of 2022, from heart failure. A memorial service will be held on Sunday, June 11, in Miller Hall at the World Forestry Center in Portland (4033 SW Canyon Road). The presentation starts at 2 p.m. with a coffee reception to follow at 3:30. All are welcome to attend. 

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I start this essay about George Johnson’s life and contributions to the Portland art community with the story above because it encapsulates two elements that will reprise several times over the course of this essay: Johanson’s insatiable enthusiasm for image-making, and his intertwining with the traditional standard-bearers of 20th-century art history. A third strand threads through, as well: George’s ebullient presence in the Portland art community.

In 2018 Johanson wrote an autobiography, My Life as George Johanson. Many of the stories recounted here are from that telling. Others were gleaned from art historian Roger Hull’s catalog essay from the 2007 retrospective at the Hallie Ford Museum of Art, George Johanson: Image and Idea. Others are from interviews with his son, Aaron Johanson, and many friends and former students. 

George Johanson, Night and Fire, 1981, acrylic on canvas, painting used as the cover of the artist’s 2018 biography, My Life as George Johanson. Image courtesy of the artist’s estate

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George Johanson was born in Seattle in 1928. Interested in drawing and image-making from a young age, he arrived in Portland in 1946 at age 17 with a scholarship to attend the Museum Art School (now the Pacific Northwest College of Art). There, he studied under several celebrated Northwest artists: Louis Bunce, Bill Givler, Mike Russo, and Jack McLarty. He met his lifelong friend, the sculptor Manuel Izquierdo, at the beginning of his second year. Many of his instructors became lifelong friends as well. 

Johanson left the Museum Art School after three years to move to New York City. It was 1950, and New York was the center of the post-war art world. He studied printmaking at Atelier 17 and hung out after hours at the Cedar Bar with many artists who were on the verge of art world notoriety: Willem DeKooning, Franz Kline, Adolph Gottlieb. He crossed paths with Jackson Pollock, but Pollock was drunk at the time and known to be cantankerous with those who identified as artists. Johanson and friends told Pollock that they were shoemakers from Chicago. 

In New York, Johanson supported himself with several different jobs: He worked for an inexpensive frame shop, and then an elite frame shop that made custom frames for the Museum of Modern Art. His 1952 painting Frame Maker commemorates this venture. 

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George Johanson, Frame Maker, 1952, oil on canvas. Image courtesy of the artist’s estate

A less glamorous gig was a stint in a kosher slaughterhouse. Johanson made several paintings inspired by this job as well. In a sign of the times, he was fired from the slaughterhouse job for being an alleged Communist. He also continued to make prints, but after leaving Atelier 17 he concentrated on woodcuts since the medium doesn’t require a press. Woman in Furs (1951) is a standout example – the varied textures and voluminous tufts of fur set off from the grained background. 

George Johanson, Woman in Furs, 1951, woodcut. Image courtesy of the artist’s estate

In response to many conversations with his teacher and friend from Portland, Jack McLarty, Johanson had applied for and received Conscientious Objector status in 1947, which meant that he was not drafted during the Korean War and was able to do alternative service at a Quaker work camp in Mexico.

It was in Mexico that Johanson met his future wife, Phyllis. In a telling episode, one of their first dates was cleaning tar off of a mistreated kitten (the pair were life-long animal lovers, and particularly fond of cats). They decided to get married two weeks after meeting. 

Upon returning to Portland, George was tapped by Dean William (Bill) Givler to teach at the Museum School. In 1956, he had a solo show at the Morrison Street Gallery, establishing himself as a key player in the city’s emerging Modernist art scene. Whereas the paintings Johanson made during his New York sojourn retained clear subjects, upon his return to Portland he leaned abstract. Titles offer hints of what to look for – Junk Yard, for example – but gestural whorls and glyphs take precedence over representation. 

George and Phyllis Johanson with Dr. Francis Newton at a gala at the Portland Art Museum, 1958. The couples’ outfits were purchased for a combined total of 4 dollars at Goodwill. Image courtesy of the artist’s estate

An art scene developed and then coalesced in Portland in the late 1950s and early 1960s. The first commercial art galleries – Jack and Barbara McLarty’s Image Gallery and Arlene Schnitzer’s Fountain Gallery – opened in 1961. There seem to have been a lot of wild parties – a swing-suspended-from-the-ceiling and people-bathing-in-punchbowls sorts of parties. Interest in Dada cropped up emphatically in the late 1950s. In 1951, Robert Motherwell edited a text The Dada Painters and Poets, and interest in the Dada mindset, perhaps encouraged by all the party punch but more realistically by the recognition of kindred spirits and the almost messianic influence of John Cage, increased in art communities across the United States. 

Johanson recalls that the first Portland Dada Ball, in 1961, was the brainchild of Jack McLarty. Johanson helped organize, and all of the artists made plaster masks of their own faces to display on the mantle. George kept his own mask and that of Louis Bunce in his studio for the next six decades. 

Plaster masks of George Johanson and Louis Bunce from the 1961 Dada Ball. Image courtesy of the artist’s estate

The next major leap in Johanson’s career was a sabbatical in London in 1965. Phyllis, George, and their young son Aaron moved into a two-room apartment. London facilitated two major shifts in Johanson’s painting career, both driven by immediate practical concerns but with longer-term consequences. The flat’s two rooms had to serve multiple purposes. Aaron slept in the kitchen and the other room served as both studio and the couple’s bedroom. Recognizing that oil-turpentine fumes weren’t slumber-friendly, Johanson switched to acrylic paints. Realizing that any paintings he made in London would need to be shipped back to Portland, he started working on unstretched canvases. This change permitted an increase in scale and the possibility of shaped canvases. 

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To continue his print work, George sought out the only privately-run workshop in London. “The Basement” was run by a Swedish expat named Birgit Skiold. Johanson was in good company. Through a connection through Skiold, he visited David Hockney’s studio and brought his own work for Hockney’s consideration as well. Hockney was making shaped canvases at this moment and probably encouraged George’s own experiments with nontraditional shapes. 

While he had flirted with abstraction in work prior to London, the blush had worn off and Johanson was eager to embrace the figure anew. While in London, he saw the work of Francis Bacon as particularly formative, and of course the work of Hockney as well. Some of the revelations from this first trip to London burned slower but would turn out to be equally transformative and continue to crop up in Johanson’s later work: trips with Aaron to 19th-century swimming halls, or a stint in a judo class, for example.

The family returned to Portland at the end of the year but found themselves again in London for a print project made possible through a group called Art Advocates in 1969. He again worked at The Basement. With Skiold’s help, Johanson gathered together prints by contemporary British printmakers to bring back to Portland, and the show British Prints Today was held at the Portland Art Museum in 1971. 

Johanson returned to teaching at the Museum Art School. He was the head of the printmaking department and made two well-received educational films about printmaking in the early 1970s with collaborator Manson Kennedy (Etching and Color Intaglio, A Close-up of the Medium and Printmaker). 

Film brochure from 1973. Image courtesy of the artist’s estate

He continued to cultivate a circle of friends, still very much at the center of the now more-established art world in Portland, but further afield as well. His memoir tells of encounters with Jack Wilkenson, Lee Krasner, and Willem DeKooning. In 1976, he had a show of large-scale, full-length portrait paintings at the Portland Art Museum. Eighteen sitters were shown in 14 paintings, including Louie Bunce, Jack McLarty, Manuel Izquierdo, and Rachael Griffin.  

Johanson, along with many artists, lost a number of works in a 1977 fire at the Fountain Gallery. Among them was a painting based on an Edward Muybridge photograph of a nude woman tossing a bucket of water. Johanson would return to the theme many times, even reproducing a lost painting of the subject from a slide. The subject took on new significance given the futility of the gesture in immediate experience.

In 1980, after 25 years of teaching, Johanson retired from the Museum School, in the same week that Mount St. Helens exploded: He joked that he had asked God for a sign and God delivered. The local volcano became a favored subject for Johanson and figured prominently in the 1981 lithograph Night and Fire

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George Johanson, Night and Fire, 1981, lithograph. Image courtesy of the artist’s estate

Johanson had extensive experience with all forms of printmaking, but seldom published lithographs, tending toward intaglio or relief printing. This particular work was made with the fledgling local print venture, North Light Editions. The master printer, Myrna Burks, had trained at June Wayne’s now-famous Tamarind Institute. Night Fire brings together several of Johanson’s favorite themes. The Portland vista is loosely inspired by the view from his home deck, with the Vista and Fremont bridges creating compositional arcs. A black-and-white cat cleans itself in the right foreground, with another feline silhouette balancing on a rail below. Three plumes of smoke – including Mount St. Helens’ at the top left – explain the title. A canvas of reclining lovers rests against a post behind the cats. 

Retirement meant more time in the studio but also time for new hobbies, most notably rowing. George’s memoir says that it was Phyllis who was “always interested in trying new things,” but he was an enthusiastic adopter, and the couple rowed together into their 80s. The presence of sculls, rowers, and oars in many of his works confirms Johanson’s charmed devotion to the sport. 

In 1992, Johanson received the Governor’s Award for the Arts for his contributions to the arts in Oregon. At the award ceremony in Newport, Johanson’s acceptance speech contained the following wisdom: “The thing that is sometimes overlooked about art is what a communal thing it is. We think of the artist alone in his studio with his struggles, and this is certainly part of the reality. But artists also work in conjunction with all of the art that is done by others … We borrow ideas from each other. And in whatever way, great or small, each working artist contributes to the whole, marvelous language that is art.” Along with his mother and father, George also thanks Pablo Picasso and Henri Matisse for “all of the help and inspiration they have given me over the years.”

George Johanson’s tile mural at the Peninsula Park Community Center, 2005. Image courtesy of the artist’s estate

A passion for image-making drove Johanson’s practice in new directions. When Oregon’s Percent for Art law went into effect in the 1980s and there was a high demand for public murals, Johanson dove into creating tile murals. He describes difficulty, at first, “trying to control the medium” – so much so that when his friend and celebrated ceramic artist Connie Kiener saw his first results she suggested that he “stick to painting.” But George persisted, bought a kiln, made test tiles, and kept notes on the test tiles until he found a process that worked for him. Public murals at The Portland Building (1988), Bremerton High School (1989), Portland Community College Rock Creek (2007), among others, followed. The Peninsula Park Community Center mural was made for the pool deck, and reprises the bathers theme that Johanson had first become smitten with while taking his son to pools in London in the mid-1960s.

In 1999, Johanson started work on his ambitious Equivalents project: 80 portraits of fellow artists, each undertaken after a single hour-long drawing session with the sitter. He may have worked on the drawings later, but constrained observation to what was set down in these life sessions. Refusing to use photographs added both challenge and immediacy to the portraits. The project, exhibited in full at the Portland Art Museum in 2002, is a showcase of the breadth of the Portland art scene. Each sitter was a working artist, some close friends of Johanson’s and some known only by reputation. As Prudence Roberts explained in the catalog essay: “Equivalents is rooted in the idea that an art community is, at its core, shaped by artists: that the history of this community lies in their works, interactions, and dialogue.” Stalwarts of the Museum School and fixtures of the Portland art community, Dean William Givler and Gordon Gilkey, are both included in Equivalents. Both passed away in late 2000, making the portraits particularly poignant. 

George Johanson, portrait of Gordon Gilkey from the Equivalents project, 2000. Image courtesy of the artist’s estate

In 2007, the Hallie Ford Museum of Art organized a large retrospective of Johanson’s work. Celebrated art historian of Northwest artists, Roger Hull, wrote a handsome catalog for the occasion, emphasizing Johanson’s connections to the larger arc of 20th-century Modernism. For example, Abstract Expressionism presented a challenge for Johanson because of his commitment to figurative representation. Johanson’s encounter with DeKooning’s now infamous Woman paintings at the opening of that show at the Stable Gallery in 1951 was revelatory, because it offered a potential loophole to absolute figural abstention. 

The overarching premise of the bulk of Hull’s essay is that Johanson’s work shifted and changed in response to each new trend; each artist’s work that he encountered and admired would be assimilated into Johanson’s prodigious skill set and, sooner or later, he’d produce some work that matched up, an ongoing proliferation of pairings as Johanson’s artistic circle of influence expanded. The argument is compelling, particularly to an art historian, and highlights Johanson’s intertwining with the standard-bearers of traditional 20th-century art history. 

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In the conclusion to his essay, Hull qualifies this – considering Johanson’s approach to art not as one of unidirectional “influence” but instead as a process of accumulation or finding artists that he admired and then, “imaginatively or in fact, he adopts each one as a confrere … he is not the passive receiver but the active taker … Johanson’s art is not characterized by the passivity implied in the concept of influence but by the agency of the vigorous explorer who seeks, locates, takes, and transforms what the world has to offer.”  

George Johanson, The Deluge, After Paolo Uccello, 1993, acrylic on canvas. Image courtesy of the artist’s estate

In 2010, the successor to George’s alma mater and teaching home (and where I also teach), Pacific Northwest College of Art, hosted its own show of George’s work: George Johanson: Seven Decades of Painting. Barry Pelzner, a former student of George’s and faculty member at PNCA, interviewed George and asked about this idea of influence. Perhaps because it was at an art school, or perhaps because the interviewer was a former student, or perhaps because it was just his nature, Johanson was frank about his drive to make images and his development as an artist.

In talking with Pelzner, Johanson presented the idea not so much as an evolution in painting but rather as an “accumulation of more and more tools of expression to add to an arsenal.” Image-making wasn’t so much a profession as a raison d’etre. In Johanson’s words, “art is basic to being a human being and the more we have of it the better off we are … art is the most important thing in the world … [it’s] what we’re really here for, to be creative. To make something and look at the world and to interpret through art is the highest activity of human beings.”

This unshakeable faith in the human-ness of image-making led George to an interest in prehistoric art, particularly to the painted caves of southern France. Along with Phyllis and his lifelong friend Don Normark, he visited several caves, including Pech Merle and Rouffignac, in 2011. Johanson felt an affinity with the artists who put down the lines in those caves to create animals, and with the viewers who were in awe of “something created from nothing,” as Johanson explained it. 

George Johanson, Chauvet 5, 2007, monotype. Image courtesy of the artist’s estate

Johanson mused, “as a picture maker myself, I feel a direct affinity to those first artists.” There may have been 35,000 years of separation between his lifetime and that of the person scrawling on the cave walls, but both were engaged in making images. Johanson’s last show at Augen Gallery in June of 2022 included 13 monotypes inspired by Chauvet cave from 2007: anthropomorphic forms, many with curved horns, silhouetted or articulated with white lines against mottled darkness.

The communal aspect of art is one that Johanson embraced wholeheartedly. Over the course of researching this essay, I spoke to many colleagues, friends, and former students who all sang praise of George’s kindness, generosity of spirit, mentorship, and joie de vivre. I went another direction, but this could have been a very short essay: “George Johanson was an artist, and everyone loved him.” 

Although he retired from teaching in 1980, he continued to support his former students for the next forty years, attending shows and generously sharing his time. Barry Pelzner credits George with shaping the way he approached teaching and looking at fellow artists’ work. He recalled one of Johanson’s enduring gifts was that he took time to look at student work, and always looked at it with care: “It afforded the student, me, the sense that he cared about what he was looking at, and that he owed it a good look. He was probably searching for something gracious to say about it that would be constructive. It took a long time, but he was willing to devote all the time necessary. It was so different from every other teacher I’ve ever had. It was such a gift, incomparable.”

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Georgiana Nehl was George’s student in the late 1970s. She recalls him as a “generous and gentle teacher.” He followed her work for the next 40 years, even making a point to come to her April 2022 show at Nine Gallery. As he had so many times before, George asked thoughtful questions about her work, her process, and how she approached art. Nehl was flattered to be included in the 2000 Equivalents project and remembers the live session in George’s studio fondly. 

Just as Johanson had forged lifelong friendships with so many of his former teachers, his students became lifelong friends as well. Sherrie Wolf remembers needing to title works for an upcoming show with Melinda Thorsnes several years after they had been his students, and asking George to help. The three tackled the task with aplomb and a bottle of wine. Wolf recalls how significant it was for George to tell her, as a student, that she made interesting work. She went on to get an MFA in London, inspired by George’s recommendation of the city and its art community. Wolf has several works by Johanson in her home, including a 2022 drawing of fighting zebras. 

George Johanson, Zebras Fighting, 2022, drawing. Image courtesy of Augen Gallery

George opened his studio to many over the years, students of students or colleagues still working at the area art schools. He provided an endowment for a scholarship for painting students at Pacific Northwest College of Art (PNCA) in 2019. Christopher Camcam, recipient of the Phyllis and George Johanson Scholarship in 2019, fondly remembers visiting George’s studio and being impressed by the artist’s genuine love for painting and general enjoyment of life. He was both “surprised and honored” that the artist took the time to attend his senior thesis presentation.

George Johanson with 2019 recipients of the Phyllis and George Johanson Scholarship, Christopher Camcam and Olivia Faith Harwood. Photo courtesy of Christopher Camcam

The word “magnanimous” came up several times – George’s magnanimity and generousness in supporting fellow artists and creating community in Portland. His home was a hub of sorts where artists and others were welcomed and given coffee, tea, often a slice of cake. He organized painting sessions with artists who he thought would enjoy each other’s company. Morgan Walker remembers him as someone who would foster friendship – just call up out of the blue to chat for a while.

Roger Hull used the word “confrere” for all of the artists from whom Johanson assimilated elements. It strikes me though that Johanson’s confraternity was, in fact, much more expansive. It wasn’t just Picasso, DeKooning, and Hockney, but anyone who devotes their time and attention to making art; anyone who looks at the world and is driven to capture or translate what they see, to set down in some way what captivates their attention.

George Johanson playing the piano near St. Johns Bridge, 2022. Photo courtesy of Connie Kiener

George was captivated by many subjects over his 94 years: cats, bathers, crowds, rowing sculls, and portraits among them, but his curiosity was seemingly limitless. During the pandemic, he started tackling the subject of  gorillas and zebras, observing them via YouTube videos. A few weeks before he died he rode in an ambulance and described to his close friend Connie Kiener, with delight, the visual intrigue of seeing the freeway out the back window, with the on-ramps, exits, and cars from a new vantage point. His sense of wonder was intact until the very last.

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I met George Johanson on the same day I found out I was pregnant with my third child. I had taken a home pregnancy test and then gone to the Michael Parsons Gallery to review a print show for ArtsWatch. Johanson had a couple of prints in the show, knew many of the artists, and was preparing to give a gallery talk a few days later. Michael Parsons introduced us and we got to chatting about PNCA. He casually mentioned that he retired from the institution in 1980, the same year I was born. I remember the exchange in part because I was newly pregnant – me somewhere drifting in the middle of life, George with a life full of experience, the embryo inside of me just a bundle of potential.

In chatting through the prints and my experiences teaching the history of print. I mentioned that I struggle to teach students about reduction prints. The process – with its spatial, logical, sequential intricacies – confounds me (and spatial, logical, sequential reasoning is not my strong suit).

George Johanson, Many Moons, 2015, reduction linocut. Image courtesy of the artist’s estate

About a week after this chance meeting, George mailed a catalog of his reduction prints to my home. It was such a lovely gesture, unexpected. By the time it arrived, though, I was far into the throes of pregnancy, feeling awful, and still trying to keep up with my two other young children. I pored over the catalog but with a new baby life got complicated and I never responded. 

In writing this essay, I have had occasion to reflect on the gravity of that missed opportunity and, I hope, to acknowledge the kindness of the gesture. 

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The closing of Johanson’s 2018 biography compares life to a train: “a big, beautiful, fantastic, messy train. It has been moving inexorably forward on its track for eons of time. You get on it. You do things. Eventually, you get off. The train keeps moving on as powerful and beautiful as ever. Maybe you left something of value on the train. You can hope so.” 

For George Johanson, the answer is a resounding yes. 

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Photo Joe Cantrell

Laurel Reed Pavic is an art historian. Her academic research dealt with painting in 15th and 16th century Dalmatia. After finishing her PhD, she quickly realized that this niche, while fascinating, was rather small and expanded her interests so that she could engage with a wider audience. In addition to topics traditionally associated with art history, she enjoys considering the manipulation and presentation of cultural patrimony and how art and art history entangle with identity. She teaches a variety of courses at Pacific Northwest College of Art including courses on the multiple, the history of printed matter, modernism, and protest art.

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2 Responses

  1. Please amend this article as I am pretty sure George was too old to have been drafted into the Vietnam war. Most likely the writer meant the Korean War as mentioned in the previous sentence.

    1. Thanks, Kim. You are, of course, right, and we’ve updated the story. George did his alternative service in Mexico 1953-55.

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