This Is Your Art:  The Legacy of Ellen Johnson


Ellen Johnson Gallery
August 15, 2017 - May 27, 2018

Ellen Johnson (OC 1933) often told students in her contemporary art course, “This is your art,” insisting that they investigate the sometimes obtuse (and frustrating) art of their own time before it had been digested and normalized by art history. For nearly 40 years, from 1939 until her retirement in 1977, Johnson championed modern and contemporary art at Oberlin, first as an art librarian, and later as a professor, unofficial curator, and prolific writer. Paying homage to Johnson’s immense legacy, This Is Your Art will feature—in the gallery named for her—more than 50 paintings, sculptures, objects, and works on paper that found their way into the Allen’s permanent collection through Johnson’s prescience, intelligence, persistence, and generosity, as well as through the admiration and magnanimity she engendered in artists and patrons who knew her.  

The exhibition, which opens with a portrait of Johnson by Alice Neel, includes numerous highlights of modern painting that Johnson advocated for purchase, including Pablo Picasso’s Analytic Cubist still life Glass of Absinthe and Paul Cézanne’s Viaduct at L’Estaque; works that were given in honor of Johnson, including Adolph Gottlieb’s The Rape of Persephone and Mark Rothko's, The Syrian Bull; and many objects bequeathed from Johnson’s personal collection, ranging from intimate works like Christo’s Wrapped Roses to one of Robert Morris’s first sculptures made from industrial felt, all of which once occupied the Frank Lloyd Wright house she lovingly restored and passed on to Oberlin College after her death.   

This Is Your Art also spotlights works, such as Eva Hesse’s freestanding sculpture Laocoön, purchased through the Ruth C. Roush (OC 1934) Contemporary Art Fund, which Johnson helped to establish, in addition to works that derive from the long-running exhibition series Three Young Americans, which provided an early platform at Oberlin for many artists who went on to enjoy outstanding careers, including Claes Oldenburg, Frank Stella, and Robert Rauschenberg. Finally, the exhibition features a number of works on paper that have been accessioned from the Art Rental Program, which Johnson inaugurated with a handful of reproductions in 1940 and quickly developed into a self-sustaining collection of original works that students could rent for a few dollars each semester—a tradition, like many Johnson conceived, that continues to the present day, giving students the opportunity to live with, and be changed by, works of art and the artists who made them. 

This exhibition was organized by Andrea Gyorody, Ellen Johnson ’33 Assistant Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art, with assistance from Emma Laube (OC 2017).

Image:  Portrait of Ellen Johnson, 1976, by Alice Neel. R. T. Miller Jr. Fund, and gift of the artist in honor of Ellen Johnson on the occasion of her retirement, 1977.39