Raymond Jonson created visual harmony from instinct and intuition.
His eyebrows dancing like feathered caterpillars, he believed that art could transform and uplift the world.
The transcendentalist painter, a professor at the University of New Mexico and founder of the closed Raymond Jonson Gallery, created works on multiple canvases because he believed that a single painting could not capture vast subjects like the Grand Canyon .
The University of New Mexico Art Museum features the findings in “Visionary Modern: Raymond Jonson Trilogies, Cycles, and Portraits” through November 24.
The Iowa-born painter moved often during his childhood, initiating his formal training at the Portland Art Museum School in Oregon, according to the Smithsonian American Art Museum. In 1910 he moved to Chicago to study at the Academy of Fine Arts and the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. He experimented with scenography at the Chicago Little Theater. He was deeply influenced by the Chicago Armory Show of 1913 and the work of Russian-born non-objective painter Wassily Kandinsky.
But Jonson expressed a love-hate relationship with the cities, said Mary Statzer, curator of the UNM Art Museum.
After visiting Arizona, Colorado and New Mexico, he settled permanently in Santa Fe in 1924.
After the move, he wrote hundreds of sketches of the hills, mesas and landscapes to become spiritually familiar with the shapes, shapes and rhythms of the terrain. There he produced increasingly abstract landscapes until he developed a characteristic geometric style.
âThey’re abstract, but they still refer to things in the world like the Grand Canyon,â Statzer said. âHe saw all these European movements. He was also interested in the ideas of modern music and this influenced his painting. He was less interested in portraying the world and more in portraying more esoteric things. “
In his 1930 triptych (Jonson called them trilogies) “Time Cycle”, the artist captured the rising and setting sun in biomorphic shapes and rhythms in an increasingly dark palette.
âHe was a very experimental person,â Statzer said. âIt was one of the first airbrush adapters. He adopted acrylic painting very early on.
In 1938, Jonson founded the Transcendentalist Painting Group with Emil Bisttram and Agnes Pelton.
In their manifesto, the artists embraced a common goal of trying to portray the world beyond physical sight and overlap with mystical and spiritual ideas.
In 1934, supported by a grant from the Works Progress Administration, Jonson painted six large frescoes for UNM and began teaching there part-time.
Jonson’s early portraits of his wife Vera (in 1918) and a friend in “The Sailor” (1919) reveal both his technical abilities and his theatrical background.
âThere’s this strong upward light and these flat backgrounds that look like wallpaper,â Statzer said.
Light became more prominent in his work in the 1960s with “Light – A Trilogy (Polymer No. 11.)”
âThey feel influenced by the light and space movement (a minimalist group from Southern California) of the 1960s,â Statzer said. “It stands up to the work of much younger artists of the time.”
Jonson began teaching at the University of New Mexico full time in 1950, living in the Jonson Gallery, a studio, residence, and exhibition space that had been specially built on campus for him. He became professor emeritus of art at the university in 1954 but remained director of the gallery. Jonson continued to paint and exhibit widely in the United States until his death in 1982.
The UNM Art Museum has some 600 paintings by the artist; the Jonson Gallery collection moved there in 2010.
âWe have to be the biggest collector of Jonson paintings in the country,â Statzer said.
âJonson was a proponent of modernism and abstraction,â she continued. âHe was well respected and the students really liked him. He is not as well known as he should be because he is a wonderful painter. These paintings really hold up.