On September 5, Keyes Gallery at 53 Main Street in Sag Harbor opens “About the Light,” a new exhibition featuring mid-century work by artists Fay Lansner and Lester Johnson.
Both Lansner and Johnson were first and foremost representational painters devoting most of their energies to the rendition of the human form. But beyond that shared goal, their ideas are more like bookends of a much longer bookshelf. Their motivations spar and wrangle with each other, headbutting their way into a messy argument about allegiances spanning from French to American, from Hans Hofmann to Jackson Pollock, and from the heavenly to the earthbound.
By the 1960s many artists in New York City would cross the street rather than engage in the hostilities that had formed around these very clued-in factions. Little did these artists realize that the megalodon of Pop Art was about to swallow them whole.
Fay Lansner was a dreamer with an absolute dedication to painting; a large body of work is a testament to this conviction. Through Hans Hofmann towards her own more personal aesthetic ambitions, Lansner could be ethereal, airy, and confrontational. Lansner’s drawing reads more like ideograms, signs of femaleness are everywhere and often exaggerated. For Lansner, the body carried large amounts of color: vessels intensely punctuating large scale expanses of an interior studio-like backdrop. The precondition is a theatrical force bearing the mark of Hofmann’s belief in the largest divisions possible.
In contrast and early on, Lester Johnson painted the malaise, and his work often reeks of seriousness and weight. Tough-minded, reductive, gritty, and sparse, Johnson resembles London’s own Frank Auerbach cramming an entire city block into one canvas. With an even more puritanical purpose, Johnson’s compression matches the weight and force of a Richard Serra. Lansner’s touch gives way to Johnson’s elbowing his way into the future. Johnson doesn’t make marks but rather creates trajectories that shoulder the burden of depiction. Hans Hofmann, taken to the extreme, Johnson captures the exhilaration of the moment while the world stands still.
The pairing of Lansner and Johnson in a single exhibit is a leap of faith; more importantly, it is the precursor to a more in-depth study of this extraordinary moment in time that happened right next door. Willem de Kooning, Jane Freilicher, Larry Rivers, Fairfield Porter, Elaine de Kooning, and many others collaborated in this part of the world to give the period yet another angle, a fresher look, in particular for the representational painters like Lansner and Johnson. Neither Lansner nor Johnson ever took a short-cut in their painting lives and instead, they slugged it out against all the odds. A pandemic offers pause and even insights into worlds we mostly missed. In this moment of civility we can extend something more than a cursory look at these two remarkable painters because each, in their unique manner, has reached that moment they earned.
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