Raymond Jonson spun visual harmony from instinct and intuition.
His eyebrows dancing like feathered caterpillars, he believed art could transform and uplift the world.
The Transcendentalist painter, University of New Mexico professor and founder of the shuttered Raymond Jonson Gallery created multi-canvas works because he believed a single painting could not capture vast subjects like the Grand Canyon.
The University of New Mexico Art Museum is showcasing the results in “Visionary Modern: Raymond Jonson Trilogies, Cycles, and Portraits” through Nov. 24.
The Iowa-born painter moved often during childhood, launching his formal training at Oregon’s Portland Art Museum School, 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 stage design at the Chicago Little Theater. He was deeply influenced by the Chicago Armory Show of 1913 and the work of the Russian-born non-objective painter Wassily Kandinsky.
But Jonson voiced a love-hate relationship with cities, UNM Art Museum curator Mary Statzer said.
After visiting Arizona, Colorado and New Mexico, he moved permanently to Santa Fe in 1924.
After the move, he penned hundreds of sketches of the hills, mesas and landscapes to spiritually acquaint himself with the forms, shapes and rhythms of the terrain. He produced increasingly abstract landscapes here until he developed a signature geometric style.
“They’re abstract, but they still refer to things in the world like the Grand Canyon,” Statzer said. “He was seeing all these European movements. He was also interested in ideas of modern music and that influenced his painting. He was less interested in depicting the world and more interested in depicting things that were more esoteric.”
In his 1930 triptych (Jonson called them trilogies) “Time Cycle,” the artist captured the rising and setting sun in biomorphic shapes and rhythms in a steadily darkening palette.
“He was a very experimental person,” Statzer said. “He was an early adapter of the airbrush. He embraced acrylic paint 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 attempting to portray the world beyond physical sight and to overlap mystical and spiritual ideas.
In 1934, supported by a Works Progress Administration grant, Jonson painted six large murals 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 ability as well as his theatrical background.
“There’s this strong uplighting and these flat backgrounds that look like wallpaper,” Statzer said.
Light grew more prominent in his work by the 1960s with “Light – A Trilogy (Polymer No. 11.)”
“They feel influenced by the light and space movement (a minimalist group originating in Southern California) of the 1960s,” Statzer said. “It holds up against work by much younger artists of the time.”
Jonson began to teach 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 emeritus professor of art at the university in 1954 but remained director of the gallery. Jonson continued to paint and exhibit widely throughout the United States until his death in 1982.
The UNM Art Museum possesses some 600 paintings by the artist; the Jonson Gallery’s collection moved there in 2010.
“We have to be the largest collector of Jonson’s paintings in the country,” Statzer said.
“Jonson was a proponent of modernism and abstraction,” she continued. “He was very well-respected and the students really loved him. He’s not as well-known as he should be because he’s such a wonderful painter. These paintings really hold up.”