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Modern Art and the Object: A Century of Changing Attitudes Book by Ellen H. Johnson; Icon Editions, 1995
Preface to the Revised Edition
It is a bittersweet task to make posthumous additions to a dear colleague's book, since the pleasure of seeing Modern Art and the Object back in print, and expanded, is inevitably compromised by my doubts in deciding which new articles Ellen Johnson herself would have included. My dilemma is lessened somewhat because, as Ellen Johnson's former student and longtime friend, and as an ex-professional art historian myself, I actually advised her extensively in the organization of the first edition of this collection of her essays. Moreover, I shared many of her views, whether on art or nature, and our sensibilities about contemporary art often overlapped.
Therefore, I presumably am qualified, faute de mieux, to select the additions to her book, with the very helpful advice of her publisher, Cass Canfield, Jr. Ellen Johnson had one of those extraordinary minds that, illnesses notwithstanding, can remain fully alert and active to the very end. In spite of multiple serious accidents and operations over the course of her last twenty-two years, she followed developments in contemporary art with indefatigable energy and interest, reading art magazines and the latest books diligently and critically, and photographing exhibitions and artists' studios right up to a year before her death, on March 23, 1992, from a second attack of cancer. After her retirement from Oberlin College in 1977, she continued to lecture extensively and to write, concluding a productive career with her touching and witty art 'memoirs', Fragments: Recalled at 80, composed during her last two years (Gallerie Publications, Vancouver, B.C., Canada, 1993). From her articles that appeared after the first edition of this book, in 1976, Cass Canfield and I selected five essays that I feel fit the preexisting subheadings of her main theme-namely, the dialogue between art and reality as it developed in Western culture during the last hundred years. What Ellen Johnson meant by 'object' was actually everything outside the 'subject' : that is, all reality beyond the boundaries of one's body or self-not only our fabricated environment, but nature as well. Such 'outer' reality was for her not inanimate or alien to human beings. In fact, I would say that she was, in this regard, the very opposite of Robbe-Grillet (whom she nonetheless admired): she felt in communion with her surroundings-not only with her house and plants, but with rocks, pebbles, water, the entire universe. This was not through reasoning (for example, 'How can we be different from the rest of the world, since we all are made of the same particles and energies?'), but through an intuitive grasp of cosmic union, which was one of her greatest innate gifts. It is in this sense that, unexpectedly yet meaningfully, she could group under a single heading, Modern Art and the Object, essays as seemingly disparate as those on Czanne's landscapes and on George Segal's figures. To her, human beings simply were one with nature, and art was an extension of that same reality. I feel that her empathetic relationship with the 'object', her unquestioned linking of the live and the inert, justify including among the additions to this book her article on Alice Neel's penetrating portraits.
In order to respect the thematic divisions of the first edition-Ellen Johnson never made such decisions lightly-the five recent articles were grouped as a new section at the end. A further advantage to this arrangement is that it highlights the not-coincidental fact that all these essays are on women. Though Ellen Johnson did not become actively involved with the women's movement (she always had been a very strong, determined, and independent woman), late in her career she felt the need to shift her critical attention and support to women artists who had not received the recognition they deserved. The most famous of them, Eva Hesse, Ellen Johnson actually encouraged from very early on (1968) by buying one of her drawings for Oberlin College's rental collection, and later by organizing a retrospective of her drawings. It hence seemed appropriate that the new cover of this book should bear Hesse's Laocon, which entered the Oberlin art museum partly thanks to Ellen Johnson's keen eye and uncanny instinct for the best in contemporary art. The final essay in the new section was actually a lecture, the keynote address at the 1984 annual meeting of the College Art Association of America, delivered when Ellen Johnson was seventy-four years old and Sherrie Levine was barely known as an artist. I feel that it serves as a wonderfully fitting conclusion to a lifetime of distinguished writing on art by a critic-historian, for it demonstrates so well that Ellen Johnson still wanted to grapple with the hardest of issues in present art, appropriation and originality, yet place them within the context of history. Indeed, this lecture truly embodies the legacy she left during her thirty-four years of teaching to thousands of students, and to everyone interested in probing the meanings of contemporary art through her insightful writings...