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Exhibition honors Ellen Johnson, who championed modern and contemporary art at Oberlin

The Allen Memorial Art Museum's centennial exhibition "This Is Your Art: The Legacy of Ellen Johnson" features works by artists who were friends with the Oberlin College art history professor, including Sol LeWitt, Frank Stella, Jim Dine, Claes Oldenburg, Roy Lichtenstein, and Andy Warhol. Photo by John Seyfried

OBERLIN, OH.- On the occasion of its centennial, the Allen Memorial Art Museum pays homage to Ellen Johnson (1910–1992), an Oberlin College professor of art history who—in large part through her friendships with emerging artists of the 20th century—helped to build the museum’s formidable collection of modern and contemporary art. On view through May 27, 2018, This Is Your Art: The Legacy of Ellen Johnson features more than 50 modern and contemporary works that owe their presence in the Allen’s collection to Johnson’s tenacity, prescience, and generosity. Curated by Andrea Gyorody, the Ellen Johnson ’33 Assistant Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art, with assistance from Emma Laube ’17, the exhibition celebrates Johnson’s enduring impact on the institution where she worked for nearly 40 years. It is the first exhibition centered on Johnson’s legacy since The Living Object in 1992, mounted just before her passing.

Johnson graduated from Oberlin College in 1933 and went on to earn her master’s in art history from the college in 1935. She then studied abroad and worked briefly at the Toldeo Museum of Art before returning to Oberlin as an art librarian in 1939. She discovered a love of teaching when she substituted for a professor on leave, and wound up regularly instructing ad-hoc modern art courses for a decade before finally assuming a full professorship. Johnson remained at Oberlin until her retirement in 1977, when she was honored with the first teaching award granted by the College Art Association. The title of the exhibition echoes Johnson’s oft-repeated edict to her students: “This is your art,” she would tell them, insisting that they lay claim to the artistic practices of their own time before they could be digested and interpreted by critics and historians.

During her tenure at Oberlin, Johnson was a fervent advocate and astute critic of modern and contemporary art both curator and collections adviser at the Allen. This Is Your Art highlights works that entered the museum collection through the expansive scope of Johnson’s influence and vision. They include works that she advocated for purchase; those donated in her honor; acquisitions made possible through a fund established by her friend and classmate, Ruth C. Roush (OC ’34); works by artists who participated in the exhibition series Three Young Americans, which ran from 1951 to 1990 and brought innovative art by relatively unknown artists to the Allen; and works from Johnson’s personal collection, which she bequeathed to the museum. The exhibition also encompasses works accessioned into the museum’s permanent collection from the Art Rental Collection that Johnson founded in 1940. The program allows Oberlin College students to borrow pieces of art for an entire semester, and remains one of the most visible hallmarks of Johnson’s legacy on the Oberlin campus.

The works in This Is Your Art display the breadth of Johnson’s interests and expertise, running the gamut from 19th century Post-Impressionist works like Paul Cézanne’s Viaduct at L’Estaque (1882)—a landscape that inspired Johnson to embark on several odysseys to France in the 1950s and ’60s in search of the exact spot where it was painted—to audacious Post-Minimalist sculptures like Eva Hesse’s Laocoön (1966), which the Allen purchased in 1970, marking the first museum acquisition of a Hesse sculpture. Sol LeWitt’s floor-bound work 49 Three-Part Variations on Three Different Kinds of Cubes (1967-71), generated according to the artist’s preordained algorithm, shares the gallery floor with Laocoön. Both works are accompanied by drawings, photographs, and letters that document their friendship, all drawn from the Eva Hesse Archives housed at the Allen.

The exhibition further highlights timely acquisitions made possible through Johnson’s personal relationships with influential artists, including Andy Warhol, Jim Dine, Eva Hesse, Roy Lichtenstein, and Claes Oldenburg. Works by Oldenburg, for example, range from a plaster advertisement for oranges from his 1961 installation The Store to the 1964 Soft Toaster, which was displayed for many years in Johnson’s living room at the Usonian-style Frank Lloyd Wright house in Oberlin that she bought, restored, and eventually gave to the college.

The exhibition also offers intimate glimpses of Johnson’s life in art, beginning with a full-length portrait of Johnson by painter Alice Neel. A green plastic tie given to Johnson by Andy Warhol at an exhibition opening is featured alongside Ree Morton’s Flag for Ellen, as well as photographs and one of Johnson’s guest books—signed by Oldenburg, John Cage, Mel Bochner, Lucy Lippard, and many others—on loan from the Oberlin College Archives. Also on view are two sculptures by Athena Tacha, a former student of Johnson’s who became her colleague and friend, serving as curator of modern art at the Allen for more than a decade. Through the objects on view and anecdotes woven throughout the exhibition’s didactic texts, the show conjures a rich picture of a woman once described by the New York Times as “a powerful force in the promotion of contemporary art.”

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