Ellen H. Johnson, Author and Professor, Oberlin College, 1910–1992
1977 SPECIAL CITATION FOR DISTINGUISHED SERVICE TO THE ARTS
“You won’t like this portrait,"
the painter Alice Neel told her subject, Oberlin College art history
professor Ellen Johnson, “because I’m making you look a little askew.
But you are a little askew.”
Not done yet, she added, “You certainly aren’t square.”
No, no one would ever accuse Johnson of being square.
champion of contemporary artists long before they became well-known
art-world names, Johnson, a scholar, collector and important influence
on the collection of Oberlin’s Allen Memorial Art Museum, was “one of
the first academics to teach and acquire contemporary art seriously,”
according to the Dictionary of Art Historians. The New York Times called her a "powerful force in the promotion of contemporary art” on a national level.
in 1910 in Warren, Pennsylvania, to Swedish immigrants, Johnson earned
her bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Oberlin in the early 1930s
and, after additional studies (including at the Sorbonne) and a stint
at the Toledo Museum of Art, returned to the college as art librarian
and part-time instructor, eventually rising to full professor.
in the 1950s, Johnson began organizing biennial shows at the Allen
known as the Young Americans exhibitions, which featured over the years
such now-celebrated artists as Claes Oldenburg, Larry Poons, Jackie
Winsor, Joan Mitchell and Frank Stella. In time she turned the Allen
into one of the mightiest museums of its size by collecting superb
contemporary art while larger, more established institutions expressed
little interest in such cutting-edge work. While her activism kept
the Allen in the forefront, it also kept a number of emerging artists
from starving. Johnson provided important support at important times in
their careers, and they repaid her with devotion and loyalty that
translated into even greater acquisitions for the museum. Among
them are Eva Hesse’s Laocoon of 1966 and Oldenburg’s first site-specific sculpture, Giant Three-Way Plug, in 1970.
it came time to build an addition to the Cass Gilbert-designed museum
building, she was instrumental in choosing the firm of Robert Venturi,
Rauch and Scott Brown, which built what is considered to be one of
the earliest examples of postmodern architecture in the United States.
The addition, which opened in 1977, contains the Ellen Johnson Gallery
of Modern and Contemporary Art. Johnson’s contribution to the region’s
architectural heritage also has a personal aspect: She bought and
restored—and bequeathed to Oberlin College—an original Frank Lloyd
Wright Usonian house.
into her life (she died in 1992 at the age of 81) she continued to
champion underappreciated artists. A 1995 edition of her book of essays, Modern Art and the Object, published
posthumously under the direction of her friend and colleague Athena
Tacha, includes five additional essays about artists, all of whom
happen to be women, including a lecture 74-year old Johnson had
delivered on then little-known Sherrie Levine.
influence extendedwell beyond northern Ohio in the form of the
thousands of students with whom she shared her enthusiasm for art,
particularly contemporary painting and sculpture.
belief in the transformative power of art is nowhere better illustrated
than with the program she initiated more than 60 years ago that allowed
Oberlin students the opportunity to rent for the semester original
works of art by the likes of Picasso, Chagall, Pollock, Renoir and
Warhol. Although the price has risen over the years—it’s now five bucks
per work—the program is still going strong.
with art, she passionately believed, “would develop the aesthetic
sensibilities of students and encourage ordered thinking and
discrimination in other areas of their lives.”