Raymond Jonson was a leader of the Transcendental Painting Group, an organization of artists formed in New Mexico in 1938. Devoted to nonrepresentational painting, the group aspired "to stimulate in others, through deep and spontaneous emotional experiences of form and color, a more intense participation in the life of the spirit."(1) The search for an artistic approach that went beyond descriptive realism concerned Jonson for most of his life. His early training, first at the school of the Portland, Oregon, art museum in 1909, and during the following three years at the Academy of Fine Arts in Chicago, provided a solid technical foundation from which he began more experimental work. When the 1913 Armory Show opened in Chicago, Jonson was especially impressed with Wassily Kandinsky's paintings. Kandinsky's book, On the Spiritual in Art, later provided a framework for Jonson's own ideas about the spiritual purpose of painting.(2)
Between 1913 and 1920, Jonson worked as the graphic art director of the experimental Chicago Little Theater and taught at the Chicago Academy of Fine Arts.(3) In 1919, he received a fellowship to the MacDowell Colony in New Hampshire, which for the first time in his life allowed him to concentrate his full energies on painting for four months. The real turning point in his career, however, came three years later, during a summer visit to Santa Fe. Fascinated with the land and with American Indian design, he resolved to return, and in 1924, moved permanently to New Mexico.
Even before he left Chicago, Jonson had begun a series of paintings entitled Earth Rhythms, based on drawings done during his trip. In these paintings he explored the geologic structures of the Southwest in distinctly modernist terms. After his move, he did hundreds of sketches of the hills, mesas, and the eroded landscape, to acquaint himself spiritually with the forms, shapes, and rhythms of New Mexico.(4) His subsequent paintings reflect a dual commitment to the spiritual fulfillment he found in the land and to formal pictorial concerns: "I have always felt that there should be a governing sense of arrangement, that is, that a composition usually should have order and most often a simple basic motif of spaces, an interesting variety of shapes and spaces, a balance of line direction."(5) In the Earth Rhythms series, as well as in paintings of cliff dwellings, the Grand Canyon, and other Southwest landscape motifs, Jonson transformed nature's elements into highly geometric, rhythmic harmonies.
In 1931, Jonson began a series of abstractions based on letters of the alphabet which he called Variations ona Rhythm. "In only a few of them," he wrote, "is there any connection with the so called natural. They are entirely different from the Earth Rhythms. Most of them are entirely abstract except in that they do carry on an established rhythm indicated by the particular letter. . . . A – H – I are entirely independent of landscape."(6) InVariations on a Rhythm—H, which he selected to illustrate the brochure for his 1932 exhibition at the Studio Gallery in Chicago, hard edged, architectonic forms exist in illusionistic space. Despite Jonson's contention that the painting was independent of the landscape, vegetal forms in the lower right corner are residual reminders of Jonson's deeply felt connection to the land.
Late in 1931, Jonson made an extended trip to New York where he exhibited at the Delphic Studios. Afterward, he remarked not on the Gallatin Collection, or on the move by younger artists toward abstraction, but on paintings by Arthur Dove, Georgia O'Keeffe, and John Marin, whose landscape based abstractions seemed consonant with his own feelings.(7)
In 1934, Jonson began teaching at the University of New Mexico. With Willard Nash, he did a series of murals under the auspices of the Public Works of Art Project, and later became one of the artists not on relief employed by the WPA.
With the formation of the Transcendental Painting Group in 1938, Jonson was in the company of artists who shared similar views about the universal significance of art. They recognized the validity of various stylistic approaches as long as the work was nonrepresentational. In a statement of purpose, they commented that some members achieved the transcendental through "more occult and metaphysical" means, while others painted from "an intuitive emotional awareness," or even a more "scientific or intellectual balancing of elements." Whatever their personal inclinations, each sought an art that was "vitally rooted in the spiritual need of these times. . .," one that expressed "most truly creative, fundamental and permanent impulses emerging in the American continent."(8) Throughout his life, Jonson sought order and unity in his work. Whether abstracted from nature or entirely nonobjective, his paintings, he said, were "contrasts to the environment in which they exist." He continued, "Around us we have realism, strife, pain and greed. I wish to present the other side of life, namely the feeling of order, joy and freedom. By setting up my own plastic means I can at least thrill to the attempt of establishing some fundamental principles that are universal and enduring."(9)
1. "Statement of Purpose, Transcendental Painting Group, 1938, in Raymond Jonson Papers, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C. I am grateful to Margaret Morse, National Museum of American Art 1988 intern, for her thorough research on Raymond Jonson.
2. In 1932, Jonson wrote to his brother Arthur that Kandinsky "is one of if not the foremost worker in the abstract. . . . If I could buy a modern work and had my choice of all I would, I believe, choose a Kandinsky"; letter dated 5 December 1932, Jonson Papers, Archives of American Art. Jonson also explored the idea put forth by Kandinsky and others that colors could have symbolic meaning. In the Digits series, begun in 1929, each color represented a specific emotion: violet suggested the spiritual, red the physical, etc. See Van Deren Coke, "An Interview with Raymond Jonson," in Raymond Jonson: A Retrospective Exhibition (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1964), p. 9.
3. Van Deren Coke, "An Interview with Raymond Jonson," in Raymond Jonson: A Retrospective Exhibition Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1964), p. 8. B. J. O. Nordfelt was also an important influence for Jonson. They first met about 1911 in Chicago, and resumed their friendship after Jonson moved to Santa Fe. Although they developed very different approaches to art, Nordfelt's experimental outlook and understanding of modernist art expanded Jonson's own ideas.
4. Kay Aiken Reeve, Santa Fe and Taos, 1898?1942: An American Cultural Center (El Paso: Texas Western Press, 1982), p.10.
5. Diary entry, 9 January 1923, quoted in Raymond Jonson: Abstract Landscape, 1922–1947 (Albuquerque, N.M.: Jonson Gallery of the University Art Museum, 1988).
6. Raymond Jonson, letter to Arthur Jonson, 29 August 1935, Jonson Papers, Archives of American Art, roll RJ1: 453.
7. In January 1933, Jonson recommended Arthur Dove, Georgia O'Keeffe, John Marin, and Willard Nash for an exhibition at the California Palace of the Legion of Honor. He wrote to Agnes Pelton (26 September 1933) that the exhibition of Arthur Dove's work he had seen at Alfred Stieglitz's gallery during his New York trip "remains one of the high spots for me. I sort of see them as a fine addition to ourselves. . . .," Jonson Papers, Archives of American Art, roll RJ4: 2568–2569.
8. Statement of Purpose, Transcendental Painting Group, 1938, in Raymond Jonson Papers, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C.
9. Van Deren Coke, An Interview with Raymond Jonson, in Raymond Jonson: A Retrospective Exhibition (Albuquerque: University of NewMexico Press, 1964), p. 10.
Virginia M. Mecklenburg The Patricia and Phillip Frost Collection: American Abstraction 1930–1945 (Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press for the National Museum of American Art, 1989)