The Artist, Reimagined: 60 Minutes with LeRoi Johnson

Colorful symbolism, modernism, pan-Africanism, geometric forms -- and many careers.

Only the real artist can decide what makes work that is authentic to their vision, spirit and talent.

I’ve been thinking a great deal lately about arts professionals who work and teach in higher education, and how seductive it is to believe that there’s only one way to embrace one’s destiny as an artist. You likely don’t need me to tell you what it looks like: you attend this school to get that degree; then maybe you earn that degree on top of this one; you make these types of connections along the way; then you build a reliable network of supporters. And so forth. You play the game, and let’s be honest: if it didn’t have plenty to recommend it, it wouldn’t be played.

But in a society that still — I hope — can find room to accommodate and to celebrate the individualist, I was treated to a thought-provoking hour about a week ago with 69-year-old artist LeRoi Johnson — whose work is being shown as part of Frieze Week at Superfine!, a terrific art fair located at 459 W. 14th St., under the High Line in Manhattan’s Meatpacking District. No one, save perhaps the creators of the fair, Alex Mitow and James Miille, can know the complete artistic journey of all 75 of the international exhibitors showing at Superfine!. But I learned much about Johnson’s fascinating life, and at least to me the lesson feels clear: the process of an artist seeking validation for their work need not always begin with an arts degree. Rather, it merely demands you just do your work. Johnson, who is accomplished in many professional areas, embodies this idea. I joined the call already an admirer of his work, which explores Afrocentric themes, some of them deeply charged. I came away from the call admiring the attitude, the soul, of the man himself.

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In researching stories and watching videos on Johnson for this article, I noted how often he is asked about his brother, the late pop singer Rick James, who he managed for many years. It must be tiring; even a cursory glance at Johnson’s biography indicates that his years as the manager of a major global celebrity doesn’t so much comprise the title of his biography as a good chapter. Johnson told me that, growing up in Buffalo, NY, he’d “always been in art from the beginning — always doing something related to art. It started off with just drawings, then watercolors, then architectural design and drafting for a year. In college, I had a liberal arts background and then I decided to do more architecture in my last year. All that time, I was still painting.”

“Bubblehead III,” from 2015

But for reasons familiar to the member of any family driven toward economic upward mobility, there were influences to gently nudge Johnson toward his first career: working in the law. “I had a number of reasons I became an attorney,” he explained. “But the main reason was that two of my cousins were attorneys; I remember when I was 10 going to the opening of their law firm in Cleveland.” Johnson earned his B.A. from Canisius College, in Buffalo, then earned his J.D. from Georgetown University Law Center, in 1974. He was, as he put it, largely in entertainment, and “did a lot of work around merchandise” — a convenient skill if your brother is set to be a superstar.

But Johnson’s visual and artistic vocabulary never flagged — you can see it in his earliest work, which embraces vivid color and forms. For his first 20 or so years as an artist, he added, he represented himself. “But if you’re a high-profile lawyer, just like if you’re a high-profile artist, you can miss a lot, you can get too bogged down,” he said. “You need someone to be your curator, to be your rep, to do your marketing.” So he built up a law practice, and even he tracks his brother’s success, he also kept painting.

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An untitled piece from 2016.

But Johnson and James were 11 months apart — and close. “We did a lot of things together while he developed his skill,” he recalled. “I’d visit him in Toronto and promote his shows, that kind of thing. It reached a point where he knew that he couldn’t handle what he was doing and needed someone he could trust. I had a successful career in Washington, DC, but he enticed me to come with him. I went with him from 1981 and stayed to about 1992, then I went back to my practice.”

During this period, Johnson’s art arguably took a backseat to the logistics of life as a manager on the road for most weeks of the year. I would argue, though, that Johnson, like many artists, was in a period of reflection and of gestation, slowly determining what kind of voice, style and approach would feel most right when the time came to return, in earnest, to his work. “No matter what city we were in, four things were in my routine: I had to find a restaurant that I liked, I had to find a place to work out, and I had to find galleries and I had to find museums. Whatever that city was famous for, I wanted to see it. I got a chance to see every major city and every major gallery or museum in the US.”

By 1994, Johnson was back to the law and, having absorbed so much work by other artists, committed to his own work anew. By 1996, he had a solo exhibit in Buffalo and soon began to draw greater attention from the field. In the 20-plus years since then, he has both shown solo as well as participated in group shows (like Superfine!) literally around the world — from NYC to Brazil, from Texas to Florence (Italy), from Miami to Toronto.

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I asked Johnson why, in some marketing copy that I came across, he described himself as “almost completely self-taught.” Indeed, in 2013, as part of a 40-year retrospective called “Electric Primitive,” he published a statement that is all at once self-aware and humble:

His early bright colorful work is implicitly autobiographical in theme. Among his influences are his training in commercial art and his sophisticated African Art Collection of thirty years. He successfully fuses geometric abstraction with both his personal experiences and African themes. Lately his style has altered; it has become less geometric and more representational of his human experience, especially as an African American. He is now less personal and more antidotal.

The Arrival, 2012.

In response, Johnson described a painting of his called The ArrivalImages of it weren’t easy to locate, but his description served as a powerful motivator.

“I usually start out with a complete thought about what I want a painting to represent, the colors to represent it,” he explained. “It comes as a dream or vision, and once I start doing that, other things that I may think about will either enhance or tell more of the story that I add in. The central story, though, is there when I do my sketch. In ‘The Arrival,’ it’s a large ship made out of bodies, nothing but bodies — it’s a slave ship. And the earth around them is bodies; everything is bodies; bodies in the sky who are the spirits of the dead; bodies in the ocean who are those thrown in the sea.”

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Look at the image of “The Arrival,” above. I dare you not to be startled by its fearlessness and formidable density. Johnson is too humble as to suggest that he might have channeled the whole of the African diaspora into a single work, but who would doubt that “The Arrival” is driven by the monumental emotion it must evoke?

A necktie derived from Johnson’s 2011 painting “Unification Series III.”

“I like to work on stories — they’re never exactly what you think they are,” he said. “I don’t mind if you want me to engage in a discussion and even possibly in an argument about what I mean about my paintings. It doesn’t bother me that people will look and say, for example, that some figures look like androgynous beings; I’ve thought about that many times, too.” But what he’s rather less sanguine about, understandably, is ignorance and arrogance as applied to his product. “Someone at Yale once said to me, ‘Your work is primitive.’ You think I don’t know? What I also know is that they are really trying to say ‘It’s not sophisticated’; ‘It’s not schooled’; ‘It’s not work I’m used to’; ‘It’s not supposed to be this.'”

“I’ve kind of been doing the same work for a long time, and it grows in gradations — adding things, subtracting things,” Johnson concludes. “Right now I’m waiting for a new epiphany and the only way for me to do that is to show — that’s where I draw my energy to create. My work is only political in the sense that I talk about my life and that politics are around my life, being a Black person in America. But this question, if a person asks it, always tells you a lot: Is a person’s work political just because they’re Black? If my work is Afrocentric, does that make it political? You wouldn’t ever say something is Eurocentric because Napoleon is sitting on a horse. You wouldn’t say that the Mona Lisa is political. But it is; and they are. Unless you’re painting landscapes, everybody’s painting has something political.”