Peter Frank 2014


A foolish consistency, advised Ralph Waldo Emerson, is the hobgoblin of little minds. The dictum too often gets repeated without the foolish, and yet that word, that concept, is at least as significant to Emerson’s sentiment as “consistency” itself. Consistency of thought and process, Emerson was saying, need not be limiting. It need not be a prison for the creative mind, but rather a springboard. The oeuvre of Stephen Robert Johns, now spanning over four decades, proves Emerson’s point: entirely consistent in its devotion to a geometric formal language and a high-keyed palette, Johns’ painting has evolved, taken detours, and brought in factors and sources that might have seemed unlikely any earlier in Johns’ career.

Clearly, Johns derives from, and considers himself part of, the legacy of geometric abstraction that ran through artistic practice throughout the previous century. Less obviously – but logically, when you stop to re-examine his painting and consider his background and education – Johns has responded from the beginning of his mature work to the meta-optical approach favored by so many of his fellow southern California artists. The “perceptualism” of light-and-space artists such as Robert Irwin and James Turrell and of finish/fetish artists like John McCracken and DeWain Valentine proved a telling starting point for Johns – even though he did not begin with any great awareness of their work. Rather, he came to the same realizations about form, color, objecthood, and perception they did in much the same way they did – through exposure first to the possibilities of abstraction itself, then to a growing awareness of the visual conditions in which he was living his quotidian life. As Johns attests, it took his transfer from a traditional school like Chouinard, where he gained the rudiments of artistic practice, to an experimental one like Cal Arts, where he was introduced to new concepts in science, mathematics, architecture, and sculpture to give him the permission, and the formal and conceptual equipment, to develop a rationally composed but not-so-rationally perceived style.

From there, Johns was exposed to like-minded artists, already prominent on the Southern California scene, and then to the geometric modernists who had preceded them in Europe. This set the conditions for Johns’ own quasi-minimalist approach. What it left to him was a universe of decisions: what forms to paint, what colors to paint them in, what formats and materials to employ, and so forth. A neo-modernist among post-modernists, Johns enjoyed a rare freedom to evolve and even play within a clearly defined practice. It was almost as if the history of geometric art, and that of minimalism and perceptualism, has provided Johns the rules of a game within which he is encouraged to improvise.

To be sure, the pared-down language that defined (and still defines) his chosen path would not seem to allow Johns much latitude. But in fact, like any language, it is capable of a breadth of expression and displays its own poetic inflections – quite evidently, at least to those familiar with its diction. Johns, like Tony De Lap and Craig Kauffman before him – and like Auguste Herbin and Piet Mondrian before them – found a vocabulary (or, if you would, a visual identity) at a certain point and has developed it ever since.

Early on, Johns’ forms and colors served a more purely retinal investigation, serving to comprise close-hued patterns whose shifts were at once subtle and startling. His reversion to more complex, patterned images encouraged Johns to broaden his palette. He went back and forth between structures engaging many elements and those engaging just a few, until his “discovery,” at the beginning of the last decade, of the perceived world outside the frame. Johns’ exposure to Central America’s ecologies and cultures blew open his formal and coloristic range, and prompted him for the first time to approximate the conditions of landscape in his painting – without breaking stride as a geometric painter.

Geometry, and its attendant vibrant color, is the consistent factor that has dominated Stephen Robert Johns’ work from its point of emergence. But within such practice he has allowed himself great variation in form and color and even meaning. As pared down as his work can be, Johns has never allowed himself to generate easily manufactured, easily branded work; there has always been an element of experiment, even surprise, in even his most restricted paintings. Like his geometric and perceptualist predecessors, no matter how consistent Johns’ thinking has been, there has been nothing “foolish” to it.


Peter Frank,
Los Angeles, CA
July 2014

Stephen Robert Johns: No Mere Consistency
PETER FRANK is a New York born, Los Angeles based art critic and curator. Associate Editor of Fabrik magazine and art critic for the Huffington Post, Frank has served as Editor of THE magazine Los Angeles and Visions Art Quarterly, and as art critic for the LA Weekly, Village Voice and SoHo Weekly News. He has organized exhibitions for Documenta in Kassel, the Museo Reina Sofia in Madrid, and New York’s Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, among other venues, and served as Senior Curator at the Riverside Art Museum in California. He has written extensively for books and periodicals around the world.