Corrections or additions?
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
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
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.
Studio Band’s jazz combo followed by Floyd Phox. Ribbon cutting,
library dedication, and Chinese Dance begin at 10 a.m.
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.
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.
Armando Sosa, 2 p.m.; Katherine Hackl, 2:30 p.m.; and Margaret K.
Johnson, 4 p.m.
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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