Literati

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This article by Flora Davis was prepared for the May 12, 2004

issue of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.

Maggi Johnson at Princeton Public Library

Layers of fine mesh cascade from long rods. They form a wall hanging

that appears to be a deep rose color when seen from a distance. Caught

in the gauzy depths is the pale ghost of an open book.

Margaret Kennard Johnson, an internationally recognized artist who

lives in Princeton, created this multi-dimensional hanging to

symbolize the way readers are drawn deeper and deeper into a book. The

work was commissioned by the Princeton Public Library and has been

installed in the first-floor "quiet room" of the new building.

Library director Leslie Burger says that Maggi Johnson’s name kept

coming up when the library was considering what art works to acquire

for permanent display. Her work can be found in museums and galleries

in the U.S., Japan, and Europe, including the British Museum, and she

taught for 23 years at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. She is

best known for handmade paper work and intaglio prints that have a

serene, elegant simplicity.

Johnson’s wall hanging is perfect for the quiet room, says Burger.

This space, on the second floor of the three-story building, is set

aside for people to sit and read, meditate, or just enjoy the silence

at the heart of the busy building. It has tables and comfortable

chairs, maple paneling, and lots of light spilling in through windows

along two walls.

Since last July, Johnson has been working on the library’s commission

in the basement studio of her Princeton home. The studio is down a

flight of spiral stairs so steep that hand-holds have been mounted on

the walls on both sides. At 86, Johnson takes the stairs nimbly and

appears to thrive on the long workdays she puts in, sometimes with an

assistant, Masako Kubota, an artist who does conceptual installations.

Johnson attributes her spryness and stamina to regular exercise: she

walks a lot and works out at the New York Sports Club twice a week.

Up close, the wall hanging’s elements are both amazingly simple and

incredibly complex in the way they interact. In front of a white

canvas backing, six panels of fine mesh are mounted, one in front of

the other, each flowing from a rod that is almost five feet long. The

panels are mostly black or white, but one is blue and another is

magenta. From a distance they add up to a rippling, deep rose moir‚.

As you walk around in front of the hanging, the relationships between

the layers of fabric change and the moir‚ effect moves and changes.

Some panels have a large rectangle cut out of the center; others have

mesh rectangles added, handsewn into place exactly where they need to

be in relation to the cutouts so that, from a distance, they create

the three-dimensional illusion of an open book.

The daughter of an art teacher and a scientist, Johnson grew up in

Wooster, Ohio, a college town. Her older brother became a scientist

like his father, while young Maggi followed in her mother’s footsteps,

earning a BFA from Pratt Institute and an MA of Design from the

University of Michigan School of Architecture and Design.

"The best education I had, though, was at Black Mountain College in

North Carolina," Johnson recalls. She went there in 1944 for the

college’s first summer program. Black Mountain had taken in a number

of refugee scholars from Europe. As a result, she was able to study

with Josef Albers, who had taught at the Bauhaus, Germany’s avant

garde art and design school that was closed by the Nazis in 1933.

Albers taught her relativity: that in any composition or design,

everything is influenced by everything else around it. All shapes and

colors are interdependent, and the blue in your ink pot may become a

blue-green when you commit it to paper alongside other colors.

"Nothing is absolute," said Johnson. "That applies in life, too."

In the years after Black Mountain, Johnson developed a reputation in

the art world for her prints. However, in 1975 her life reached a

turning point artistically when she and her husband moved to Japan,

where for eight years he was the director of RCA’s research lab

outside Tokyo. "I became fascinated by Japanese culture, by its formal

tea ceremonies, its pregnant spaces, its silences," she said.

Eventually, she co-authored a book called Japanese Prints Today:

Tradition with Innovation.

Before long, Johnson’s own work began to look too complicated to her.

She experienced "a year of failures," she says ruefully, until finally

she began to do simple things — and that’s what she’s been doing ever

since. Reporting on a recent Tokyo art show that included Johnson’s

prints, writer Sarah Thompson-Copsey observed that Johnson’s work

"uses space and color in a way where little is actually depicted and

much of the image is simply suggested. The result is a feeling of

peace and serenity that suffuses her work." Simple is hard, Johnson

says, because every element must be exactly right.

She begins each work of art with a journey of discovery, inspired by

the material she’s chosen. In the course of that journey, she may use

the material in a new way or invent a whole new technique. She noted

that the men in her family — her father, brother, and husband — were

all involved in research. So is she, as she investigates the

possibilities inherent in handmade paper, for example: the way it can

shrink or expand, twist or wrinkle, the way it interacts with other

materials, such as rusted wire or vellum, that can be embedded in it.

"I am moved by the materials and they influence the imagery," she

says.

Recently, Johnson has been making prints by using overlapping layers

of fine mesh to create a rippling, moire effect. A print is

one-dimensional, and she began to think about what might happen if she

could use actual spaces between the layers of mesh. She thought,

"Wouldn’t it be interesting to do something three-dimensional?" She

achieved that with the library’s wall hanging.

The library commission is just one of Johnson’s current projects. In

fact, she has never had so much going on. Normally, there is so much

art stored in her guest bedroom that there is little room for guests.

Now, so many pieces are out on exhibit that she had lots of room.

This spring 18 of Johnson’s works were in a two-person show at the

Atelier Fine Art Gallery in Frenchtown, where they interacted with the

work of minimalist sculptor Barry Snyder. An exhibit at the

Printmaking Council of New Jersey in Somerville had eight of her

prints and handmade paper works, and her work was also on exhibit at a

three-day printmaking conference at Rutgers and at the Marsha Child

gallery in Princeton. In addition, she was submitting a print to CWAJ

(the College Women’s Association of Japan) for its annual, juried

print show in Tokyo, a major event for contemporary Japanese artists

that includes works by a few non-Japanese printmakers, as well.

Johnson quoted General Douglas MacArthur’s famous remark: "Old

soldiers never die; they just fade away." It would seem that perhaps

she should start fading, she says, but she’s much too busy.

— Flora Davis

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Literati

Grand Opening, Princeton Public Library, 65

Witherspoon Street, 609-924-9529. "Let’s Go to the New Library,"

festivities to celebrate the Grand Opening of the new Princeton Public

Library. Following a short dedication ceremony, the library will host

activities for all ages, including author readings, music, dance,

tours, demonstrations and more. John McPhee, Princeton author of "The

Pine Barrens," the One Book New Jersey selection, is featured guest at

11 a.m. Free. 9:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m.

Morning events begin at 9:30 a.m. with Princeton High School

Studio Band’s jazz combo followed by Floyd Phox. Ribbon cutting,

library dedication, and Chinese Dance begin at 10 a.m.

Family events include book signing by children’s author Herman

Parish, 10:30 a.m.; meet the artist and children’s author, Faith

Ringgold, 11:30 a.m.; book signing by children’s author Ann M.

Martin, Noon; storytelling by Susan Danoff, 12:30

p.m.; Build It project for children ages 9 to 12, 1:30 p.m.; Fairy

Tales of the Brothers Grimy" puppet show, 2 p.m.; children’s authors,

Margery Cuyler and Ann Beneduce, 2:30 p.m.; and the Princeton

Storytelling Circle, 3 p.m.

Meet the authors including John McPhee, 11 a.m.; Joyce Carol

Oates, 1:30

p.m.; illustrator Gennady Spirin, 2:30 p.m.; Emily Mann and Nilo Cruz,

2:30 p.m.; and architect Nicholas Garrison, 4 p.m.

Meet artists Mary Taylor, 1 p.m.; Tom Nussbaum, 1:30 p.m.;

Armando Sosa, 2 p.m.; Katherine Hackl, 2:30 p.m.; and Margaret K.

Johnson, 4 p.m.

Music activities include Mariachi Real de Mexico, 11 a.m.; a

cappella singers, The Princeton Katzenjammers, Noon; Italian melodies

by guitarist Enrico Granafei, 2:30 p.m. ; a capella

music by Princeton High School’s Cat’s Meow, Around Eight, and the

Testosterones, 2:30 p.m.; and rock jam band Sage, 3:30 p.m.


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