BUFFIE JOHNSON AT WWW.BUFFIEJOHNSON.COM

THE OFFICIAL WEBSITE OF THE ARTIST’S WORK AND LIFE

© 2006-2017 BY JENNY JOHNSON SYKES

 

All images and text HEREIN published are under Copyright protection and may not be copied or reproduced in any form whatsoever without the prior written permission of the Copyright holder(s).

“FROM THE VERY BEGINNING . . .”

BY TRACY BOYD © 2008


An Introduction by Tracy Boyd

with Statements by Buffie Johnson & Others

About Her Work


Buffie Johnson’s painting career spanned more than seventy years.  Over a lifetime of ninety-four years her work took on many permutations – as did her life.  But there was an underlying theme which informed all of the work that she created.

   

    “From the very beginning, from the first pictures that I painted as a young

    child, my work has been inspired by the mysterious forces of the natural

    world.  For me, that world has always incorporated both the visible and

    the invisible realms.

       

    My attempt, at the age of eight, to capture the Spirits of the Sun, the Moon,

    the Stars, the Winds, Sky, and Earth in a series of forty water-colors, was

    a serious endeavor whose purpose was to show the unity of those realities. 

    Each of these Spirits was represented in female form, their long flowing

    hair and robes swirling in and out of space in undulating waves.(1)

She was an avid reader of Andrew Lang’s Fairy books.  These earliest artistic endeavors were inspired by H. J. Ford’s glorious illustrations of all manner of maiden and beast who enlivened the pages of those wonder-filled stories.  “Goodie” Johnson, as she was known throughout her childhood, had studied them very closely.  Her favorite was The Grey Fairy Book, many of whose images she spent hours coloring by hand with her usual meticulous care.   


The watercolors of the “Spirits”, which most unfortunately, are now lost, were remarkable not only for their extraordinary artistic skill and professional presentation, but for their ability to convey exactly the atmospheric mood that each of these realms engenders in the imagination.  The commanding power of the female figures, these goddesses or spirits, was magnified by the “undulating waves” of swirling hair and flowing robes which the artist describes.  There was such a presence to them that one was immediately swept up into their world – as a child is swept away into the world of faerie.

But even without these marvelous cosmic goddesses, there is a direct line of influence from the original source, namely the Romantic pre-Raphaelite-inspired illustrations of the Cambridge Classicist, Henry Justice Ford, to her very “Romantic” representational work of the early 1940s.  The artist was always clear about her love affair with the faerie realm and equally unambiguous about her debt to this artist whose work graced the pages of her beloved Fairy Books.

“Udea Found Lifeless by Her Seven Brothers,” which she had diligently hand-colored at the age of seven.  The pose is about as close as one can get to exact, but there all comparisons end.  While there is a faint air of sensuousness that lingers about Ford’s heroines, they are rarely, if ever, erotic.  Buffie Johnson, whose bare-breasted Ariadne lies languish-ing in a Thomas Hardyesque landscape, takes that vague je ne sais quoi which surrounds these fairy-tale women and turns it into a palpably erotic scene of seduction using the identical pose.  Of course, there is the underlying compositional iconography of Edouard Manet’s The Dead Toreador in the diagonal thrust of both works, but that is a matter for another discourse.

Buffie Johnson, Ariadne: Danger of Contemplation, 1942.

oil on canvas 10” X 13”  Inscribed on reverse: “merci a Max

In her 1942 painting, Ariadne: Danger of Contemplation, which is typical of much of the “dreamy” work that she produced in that period, Buffie Johnson inscribes her gratitude to Max Ernst (“merci a Max”) on the reverse, but pays silent homage to H. J. Ford’s illustration of

In 1940, Buffie Johnson had begun her studies of esoteric symbolism and mythology in New York with the Egyptologist Natacha Rambova, who was to have a life-altering influence on the way she viewed the universe from that point onward.  Everything came together for her under Rambova’s tutelage.  All that she had intuited began to unfold into a meaningful whole.  It was a profound awakening.


    “It was not until the mid 1940s, however, after I had begun to study esoteric

    symbolism and mythology and Jung’s theories of the archetypes of the uncon-

    scious, that I became aware of the enormous significance of my “Spirits” of

    childhood.  I had uncovered the very source and foundation of my life’s work. 

    From that point forward, I always held an image in my mind that each of my

    paintings was to be an altarpiece to the Great Goddess.  Although my painting

    styles have changed considerably over the years, this conscious intention has

    remained true throughout.(3)

Buffie Johnson met Carl G. Jung in 1954 in Ascona, Switzerland while she was pursuing the task that Rambova had set for her in 1943 – to collect cross-cultural images of the ancient Great Goddess and her sacred animals for a proposed book of the same working title.  Earlier that year she had been awarded a joint Bollingen Foundation stipend with the Jungian analyst Dr. Violet de Laszlo to acquire these images.  Dr. Jung was eager to talk to her about her project, which he had heard about through his former pupil, Dr. de Laszlo.  He was also enthusiastic about meeting the man who had written the first reviews of his work in the United States – her husband, the writer and critic, Gerald Sykes.

IN ASCONA, SWITZERLAND 1954.

From left to right: Dr. Carl G. Jung, Buffie Johnson (Sykes),

Jenny Johnson Sykes, Gerald Sykes, Frau Dr. Emma Jung.

Photo: Personal Collection of Jenny Johnson Sykes

The artist had set out on a new path from that decisive moment in 1943 when she had found the very core of her being through her studies of Jung’s archetypes.  Everything changed for her.  It was the period in her life, between the ages of about 28 to 30 or so, which astrologers describe as the first Saturn Return.  For one thing, she tells us that “from the mid-forties until 1968, except for the many portraits that I painted during that time, my work was strictly abstract.(4)

This same largeness of seeing is evident in all of the periods that follow: the “Astor Mural” period and beyond, from 1947 to 1959; the astronomical inspirations of the Spirals and Serpents, Bulls, Scorpions, Suns and Moons of 1961 to 1968; and in the artist’s final propulsion into outer space with the purist abstractions of her Numbering Series from 1989 until she could no longer see to paint.  In a very different way, the very down-to-earth muted renderings of the monumental single-image plant forms painstakingly created from 1968 until the artist embarked on her return to the heavens with Tantric-inspired numbers, are overwhelming in their effect.  One is humbled by them.

For a very brief time from 1946 to 1947, Buffie Johnson experimented with spiraling semi-abstractions that incorporated bits and pieces of exquisitely rendered tiny creatures from the world of nature. (5) There would appear to be a distinct relationship between those very tentative early works – “impermanent” is the word that the artist herself used to describe them – and much of what came after.  These few seemingly inconsequential works encapsulated in micro-cosmic miniature, what was to evolve into an expansiveness of vision that incorporated the starry skies of the whole firmament.

BUFFIE JOHNSON, VORTEX, 1947.

(OIL ON PANEL) 24” X 32.5”

BUFFIE JOHNSON, HIEROS GAMOS PHASE FIFTEEN, 1961. 

oil on linen 40” X 68”

BUFFIE JOHNSON,

LADY MURASAKI, 1972.

oil on linen 75” X 57”

Many of the critics who have reviewed Buffie Johnson’s work over the years have had similar reactions regardless of the period or style under consideration.  Her inspiration “by the mysterious forces of the natural world” (6) shines through.  In his statement for the artist’s brochure for her first solo show at Betty Parson’s Gallery in 1950, the poet and critic Alan Tate said, “Miss Johnson’s beautiful woodcuts are “abstractions,” but the abstract structure is not geometrical: it is organic.  These pictures have contingency, action, and mystery.” (7)

The artist defers to the critic Parker Tyler to describe the experience of her murals that filled the Astor Theatre with an archetypal presence which few could put into words.  She tells us that:


    “The work that led up to and culminated in the 1959 murals for the Astor Theatre

    in New York is, perhaps, best described by an art critic who reviewed the

    theater’s murals.  He compared the experience of the vast, continuous abstract

    images of a“New York Summer Night” that appeared to float on the curved

    theater walls, to the caves at Lascaux and Altamira.(8)


Of her next period, Buffie Johnson herself said that:

    The abstract periods that followed this celestially-scaled experience were

    characterized by an energy of movement, bold sweeping brushstrokes, glowing

    suns and moons, ancient glyphic sigils symbolic of the Goddess’s powers, spirals

    and serpents, bulls and scorpions.(9)

In a lengthy review of an exhibition of this period of expansive power, movement, and symbols, George Albert Perret, former Director of The Parrish Art Museum in Southampton, New York, wrote that:


    “The artist has a profound emotional propensity for conveying her psyche in terms

    of ‘painterly quality’ – that is, in texture, color, line and development of abstract

    forms.  Her symbolism, which incorporates the Freudian statements, is more

    basically grounded in Jungian terms.  The paintings evoke and recall primitive

    racial myths.  Early abstract highly cultivated primitive art forms occur again and

    again.  The autochthonous Druid spiral forms develop new significance in her work. 

    They seem to protest loss of basic human values in our contemporary world of

    automated voyeurism, and demonstrate an aboriginal quality which insists on

    the performance of the ‘rites of spring’: those rites which involved the demonstration

    of the fecundity process for the edification of the Gods themselves.” (10)

BUFFIE JOHNSON,

THE ETERNAL PRESENT II, 1963.

oil on canvas 36” X 42”

BUFFIE JOHNSON,

THE VIEW FROM STONEHENGE, 1965.

oil on canvas 20” X 24” [N/A]

It had taken some time for these works to catch on.  The literary critic and poet Horace Gregory “got” them immediately and told the world about Buffie Johnson’s “primary and vital forms” in Art International in 1965 with his usual rhapsodic eloquence:


    “The paintings that followed The Astor Theatre mural are yet to be rediscovered by

    New York critics, the latest evolutions of her visions in space which have progressed in

    a variety of growing forms, the canvas suggesting outer space, the thick strokes of

    color reminding one of upreaching blades of lily and iris plants, then of clustered leaves,

    then, of drifts of flower petals, and then, in this progress, symbols drawn from ancient and

    far eastern sources, from the “Book of Changes”, as well as from the circle containing the

    two principles of yang and yin, and from the elder world of the Zodiac.  As I see them these

    symbols (or rather they are symbols that have been converted into transcendental images)

    have not been placed on canvas to “tell a story”.  To me they have their origins in natural

    forms, forms that we may rediscover on the borders of designs on Greek vases, in the

    illuminations of the Irish Book of Kells, in the waves, foliage and creatures that we so

    often find woven into Oriental rugs.  As in Buffie Johnson’s paintings the recreations of

    these primary and vital forms are never crudely primitive; they presuppose the existence of

    a sensitive and highly civilized personality behind them.  The evolution of her painting is

    by a process of associations rather than of academic intentions and design – for her work,

    if visionary (as it certainly is), is also intuitive: and at its best, it seems to “come in        

    flashes”. (11)

BUFFIE JOHNSON,

PASIPHAE,1977.

oil on linen 38” X 48”

Private Collection

BUFFIE JOHNSON,

PITTHEA, 1974.

oil on linen 93” X 78”

Private Collection.

BUFFIE JOHNSON,

NEW GRANGE, HER TEMPLE, 1949-59.

oil on canvas 37” X 66”

A few short years after this glowing essay appeared, another change came for this artist of the sublime.  It was a transformation of great magnitude, not only in her art but in her life as well.  She and her family gave up life in the country to return to the fast pace of the city, leaving behind the house that Stanford White had designed for a mural painter in 1900 and that Buffie Johnson had saved from rack and ruin fifty years later, turning it into a sumptu-ously beautiful masterpiece with floors of “Chinese lacquer yellows and peacock blues.” (12)


With this life-change, Buffie Johnson abandoned abstraction entirely, except that her great sweeping abstractionist brushstrokes could still be seen in the ground of her new subjects.  She never entirely lost her feel for the movement of these painterly gestures and never gave them up – ever.  They were so much a part of the rhythm of her painterly dance, of her Being at its “still point”. (13)

As she explained the transformation, it seemed quite a natural progression.  In her view, there

was nothing earth-shaking or cataclysmic about it at all.  It was a change that she wholeheartedly embraced.


    “As my work gradually evolved into metaphors for the cyclical mystery of life, I

    felt compelled to speak more directly of this mystery and so abandoned

    abstraction to return to a realistic style.


    The single image frontal plant forms that I painted for the next twenty years

    were very large-scale monumental icons to the Goddess.  The large,

    botanically-detailed images dwarfed the viewer, putting things in proper    

    perspective.  They demonstrated the overwhelming majesty and power of the

    cycles of life and death that are so immediately visible in the flower, the fruit,

    and the dying pod filled with seeds for the next generation.(14)

BUFFIE JOHNSON,

KWAN YIN, 1977.

oil on linen 60” X 72”

Private Collection.

Buffie Johnson was very content in the presence of these paintings.  They were all around her, these breathtaking “icons to the Goddess,” and they seemed to have a life of their own, wanting only the occasional watering, in a splendidly remodeled townhouse that served as a kind of shrine for their awe-inspiring monumentality.  Their backdrop was not to last – the artist and her husband were soon to divorce and she would, in a few years, take up residence in an up and coming vibrant art center that came to be known as SoHo – but these paintings were to sustain her for the next twenty years through thick and through thin.  And they were to bring her more fame and honor than she had ever dreamed possible, for the Women’s Art Movement was about to take off with a vengeance, and everyone, it seemed, wanted “a Buffie Johnson.”


One of the roles of the artist is to make visible that which is unseen – the “invisible realms(15) that “we look for beyond seeing.” (16) These overpowering images have an immediacy about them which allows the deepest rumblings of the spirit to come through.  They speak to us from a place we have been but which we cannot identify with any real certainty.


    The language of symbols is the language of the spirit.  My imagery is rooted

    in the world of the spirit which manifests itself through ritual, myth and symbol. 

    The monolithic single-image plant forms which I began painting in 1968, are

    potent symbols of the ancient Great Goddess in Her aspect as “Lady of the

    Plants” who, as the source of all life, has been worshipped under a thousand

    names since the beginnings of prehistory.


    The plant was revered as sacred throughout the ancient world.  A similar feeling

    of reverence has inspired these silent icons which are meant to evoke a myste-

    rious and magical experience.  They are metaphors for the cyclical mystery of

    life; religious celebrations of the Feminine. (17)

When Buffie Johnson began to lose her eyesight, she was guided to a new style of painting by a recurring vision of numbers that refused to go away.  As she would be the first to admit, numbers were definitely not her thing.  She tried to ignore these numerical images that floated before her eyes, but in vain.  Their persistence was a blessing in disguise.


    “When my eyesight began to fail and I could no longer see the minute detail of

    my subjects, I returned to abstraction.  This was to be my final period, which I

    called ‘The Numbering Series’.  The apparent minimal austerity of the im-

    agery emulates the geometric simplicity of sacred Tantric art whose meanings

    are complex.  The red and black cosmic orbs that float on a very excited ground

    of blue are intended to show the power that arises from zero, or Chaos, at

    the beginning of creation.  A drama of the sexes is played out between the black,

    which symbolizes the ancient feminine wisdom, and the red, which stands for

    the masculine driving power that plants the seed.  The paintings are numbered

    from zero to twenty-two, a reflection of the cards in the major arcana of the

    Tarot deck, which is said to contain all of the wisdom of the world.(18)

BUFFIE JOHNSON,

FOUR, 1993.

oil on linen 84” X 108”

  1. (1)   Buffie Johnson, From the artist’s Archives courtesy of Jenny Johnson Sykes.  The full Artist’s Statement appears in its entirety at the end of these Notes.  It is also scheduled to be published in Marika Herskovic, Editor.  American Abstract and Figurative Expressionism: Style Is Timely Art is Timeless. An Illiustrated Survey with Artists’ Statements, Artwork and Biographies. New York, New Jersey: New York School Press, 2009.  [Editor’s Note: Now available at <www.nyschoolpress.com>]

  2. (2)   Statement from the artist’s Archives courtesy of Jenny Johnson Sykes.

  3. (3)   Statement from the artist’s Archives courtesy of Jenny Johnson Sykes.  This last statement regarding altarpieces to the Great Goddess, was made originally in May of 1980 at a panel discussion at the A.I.R. Gallery in NYC hosted by Cynthia Navaretta.  It was the inspiration, also, for the title of Alexandra de Lallier’s article, “Buffie Johnson: Icons and Altarpieces to the Goddess,” Woman’s Art Journal, Vol. 3, No. 1, Spring-Summer, 1982, pp. 29-34

  4. (4)   Statement from the artist’s Archives courtesy of Jenny Johnson Sykes.

  5. (5)   These are discussed briefly with additional images under the heading: “The Continuing Influence of “Inconsequential” Early Work” at the end of “Spirals and Serpents, Bulls, Scorpions, Suns and Moons Period 1961-1968” on this website.

  6. (6)   Statement from the artist’s Archives courtesy of Jenny Johnson Sykes.

  7. (7)   Tate, Alan. Betty Parsons Gallery brochure “Recent Works by Buffie Johnson” March 27 to April 15, 1950.

  8. (8)    Statement from the artist’s Archives courtesy of Jenny Johnson Sykes.

  9. (9)   Statement from the artist’s Archives courtesy of Jenny Johnson Sykes.

  10. (10) Perret, George Albert. “Johnson and Blanc: The Medium Is Mystic For These 2 Painters,” Art News and Reviews of Suffolk Sun, Friday, April 18, 1969.

  11. (11) Gregory, Horace. “The Transcendentalism of Buffie Johnson” in Art International, Vol. IX, No. 8, November 20, 1965, page 14.

  12. (12) The description of this house on Briar Patch Road on Georgica Pond in East Hampton is to be found in Horace Gregory’s article, “The Transcendentalism of Buffie Johnson,” Art International, Vol. IX, No. 8, November 20, 1965, pages 13-14, and is quoted extensively in the article, “The Artist’s Houses: A Brief Remembrance” by Tracy Boyd © 2009 on this website.

  13. (13) “At the still point of the turning world where “the dance is” – from T. S. Eliot, Four Quartets, “Burnt Norton”  II. 62.

  14. (14) Statement from the artist’s Archives courtesy of Jenny Johnson Sykes.

  15. (15) Statement from the artist’s Archives courtesy of Jenny Johnson Sykes.

  16. (16) From Chapter 14 of Lao-tzu’s Tao Te Ching, as translated in The Way of Life According to Laotzu, An American Version by Witter Bynner. (New York: The John Day Company, 1944), #14, p. 32.  This Chapter is quoted in its entirety by Tracy Boyd, “Wind Over Water: The Breath of Creation” © 2004, at <www.sacredthreads.net>

  17. (17) Artist’s Statement for “The Language of Symbols” at Landmark Gallery, NYC, 1980.

  18. (18) Statement from the artist’s Archives courtesy of Jenny Johnson Sykes.

NOTES: FROM THE VERY BEGINNING . . .

BY TRACY BOYD © 2006

An Introduction by Tracy Boyd

with Statements by Buffie Johnson & Others

About Her Work

BUFFIE JOHNSON

ARTIST’S STATEMENT

From the Artist’s Archives

© 2006 by Jenny Johnson Sykes



From the very beginning, from the first pictures that I painted as a young child, my work has been inspired by the mysterious forces of the natural world.  For me, that world has always incorporated both the visible and the invisible realms. 


My attempt, at the age of eight, to capture the “Spirits” of the Sun, the Moon, the Stars, the Winds, Sky, and Earth in a series of forty watercolors, was a serious endeavor whose purpose was to show the unity of those realities.  Each of these “Spirits” was represented in female form, their long flowing hair and robes swirling in and out of space in undulating waves.


The dreamy aura that envelops many of the female figures in some of my early representational paintings owes much to these cosmic goddesses.  It was not until the mid 1940s, however, when I began to study esoteric symbolism and mythology and Jung’s theories of the archetypes of the unconscious, that I became aware of the enormous significance of my “Spirits” of childhood.  I had uncovered the very source and foundation of my life’s work.  From that point forward, I always held an image in my mind that each of my paintings was to be an altarpiece to the Great Goddess.  Although my painting styles have changed considerably over the years, this conscious intention has remained true throughout.


From the mid-forties until 1968, except for the many portraits that I painted during that time, my work was strictly abstract.  The work that led up to and culminated in the 1959 murals for the Astor Theatre in New York, is, perhaps, best described by an art critic who reviewed the theater’s murals.  He compared the experience of the vast, continuous abstract images of a “New York Summer Night” that appeared to float on the curved theater walls, to the caves at Lascaux and Altamira.


The abstract periods that followed this celestially-scaled experience were characterized by an energy of movement, bold sweeping brushstrokes, glowing suns and moons, ancient glyphic sigils symbolic of the Goddess’s powers, spirals and serpents, bulls and scorpions.  As my work gradually evolved into metaphors for the cyclical mystery of life, I felt compelled to speak more directly of this mystery and so abandoned abstraction to return to a realistic style.


The single image frontal plant forms that I painted for the next twenty years were very large-scale monumental icons to the Goddess.  The large, botanically-detailed images dwarfed the viewer, putting things in proper perspective.  They demonstrated the overwhelming majesty and power of the cycles of life and death that are so immediately visible in the flower, the fruit, and the dying pod filled with seeds for the next generation.


When my eyesight began to fail and I could no longer see the minute detail of my subjects, I returned to abstraction.  This was to be my final period, which I called “The Numbering Series”.  The apparent minimal austerity of the imagery emulates the geometric simplicity of sacred Tantric art whose meanings are complex.  The red and black cosmic orbs that float on a very excited ground of blue are intended to show the power that arises from zero, or Chaos, at the beginning of creation.  A drama of the sexes is played out between the black, which symbolizes the ancient feminine wisdom, and the red, which stands for the masculine driving power that plants the seed.  The paintings are numbered from zero to twenty-two, a reflection of the cards in the major arcana of the Tarot deck, which is said to contain all of the wisdom of the world.


[The full Artist’s Statement © 2006 by Jenny Johnson Sykes that appears here is also scheduled to be published in its entirety in Marika Herskovic, Editor.  American Abstract and Figurative Expressionism: Style Is Timely Art is Timeless. An Illiustrated Survey with Artists’ Statements, Artwork and Biographies.  New York, New Jersey: New York School Press, 2009. [Editor’s Note: Now available at <www.nyschoolpress.com>]

  1. H.J. Ford, “Now the Three Princesses Were Lost.”

From: The Story of Bensurdatu in The Grey Fairy Book. Edited by Andrew Lang with numerous illustrations by H. J. Ford. (New York, London, Bombay and Calcutta: Longman, Green, and Co., 1914.)  Hand-colored by “Goodie” Johnson, age 7, about one year prior to her “Spirits of . . .” Series.

    “The dreamy aura that envelops many of the female figures in some of my

    early representational paintings owes much to these cosmic goddesses.(2)

H. J. Ford, “Udes Found Lifeless by Her Seven Brothers.” From: Udea and Her Seven Brothers in The Grey Fairy Book. Edited by Andrew Lang, with numerous illustrations by H. J. Ford.  (New York, London, Bombay and Calcutta: Longman, Green, and Co., 1914.)  Hand-colored by “Goodie” Johnson, age 7, about one year prior to her “Spirits of . . .” Series.