ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — To look at the work of Ynez Johnston and Leonard Edmondson is to enter a whimsical galaxy of symbols, shapes and forms.
Johnston’s dreamlike figures, plants and animals create an imaginary world both ancient and modern.
Best known for his abstract works on paper, Edmondson was a master of intaglio printmaking using delicate lines and atmospheric space.
The works of these lifelong friends are on view at Santa Fe’s LewAllen Galleries and at lewallengalleries.com through Jan. 23.
Each artist created work bridging the personal with the universal, rooted in their mutual inspirations, the surrealist squiggles of artist Paul Klee and his cohorts.
Johnston painted joyful, colorful and fantastical landscapes, like an idiosyncratic embroidery gone wild. Edmondson produced softly-toned and veiled ambiguous shapes within a liquid space in works on paper.
The pair would eventually develop their own unique visual language as American modernists.
Scholars recognize Edmondson (1916-2002) as one of the masters of intaglio printmaking, a technique where the artist cuts into a surface and the incised line or sunken area holds the ink. He eventually rose to chair the print department at California State University, Los Angeles. Printmakers still use Edmondson’s reference book “Etching” today.
“The relationship between the two very good friends is amazing,” said Louis Newman, LewAllen’s director of modernism. “He taught Ynez how to do printmaking. Each had their own vision. ”
Johnston (1920-2019) conjured mythical landscapes with dreamlike figures and shapes echoing representationalism without copying it. With their fine lines and delicate construction, some of the pieces are reminiscent of embroidery.
“I knew Ynez,” Newman said. “She was a very unassuming, humble person. I think her way of making the art was to dig inside herself, into her interior world and put it out there.”
At times that world was child-like, but never childish. Her quiet demeanor hid a universe of imagination in a borderline between abstraction, pattern and figure. She cited Persian, Tibetan, Indian, Mexican, early Christian and Byzantine art influences, as well as European modernists like Matisse, Miró, Picasso and Klee.
In 1950, the Museum of Modern Art awarded Johnston an exhibition when she was just 30. After college, she received a travel grant she thought would take her to Europe’s art centers.
But World War II interrupted her plans and she headed to Mexico, which she visited regularly over the next three years.
She said these excursions formed the cornerstone of her imagery for the rest of her career.
Edmondson believed that he could create a universal sensibility through his nonobjective imagery.
The two met in the late 1930s while they were both attending the University of California, Berkeley. Johnston rented a room from the sister of Edmondson’s future wife. She augmented her rent with drawings.
The two were explorers navigating the uncharted world of their dreams and subconscious. Neither artist was a follower. Both resist easy classification. They proved serious art making could be both personal and fun.
Both artists earned substantial accolades; Johnston won a Guggenheim Fellowship and a National Endowment for the Arts grant; Edmondson also received a Guggenheim, as well as two Tiffany Fellowships.
Edmondson’s work hangs in more than 40 public collections, including the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris, the National Gallery of Art and The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Johnston’s work also hangs in more than 40 museum collections, including The Metropolitan Museum of Art, the National Museum of Art and the Whitney Museum of American Art.
Johnston wrote, “Painting is for me like a voyage into oceans known and unknown, depths and distances ultimately unfathomable. The end of the voyage is never what one might have anticipated.”