Raymond Jonson co-founded the Transcendental Painting Group (TPG) and shared an interest in the principles of Theosophy

“The function of the artist is to create or present something that is a statement of the finest qualities conceivable in the human mind and emotions.”[2]Born Carl Raymond Johnson in Chariton, Iowa to Swedish immigrants Gustav and Josephine, Raymond Jonson grew up in Portland, Oregon, under the strong influence of his father, a Baptist minister who instilled a profound appreciation of art and spirituality in his son. In 1909, Jonson enrolled in classes at the newly established Portland Art School, which was affiliated with the Portland Museum of Art. In 1911, he left Oregon for Chicago to study illustration at the Art Institute and the Academy of Fine Arts with painter B.J.O. Nordfeldt. However, a trip to the Chicago Armory Show in 1913 exposed him to cubism and futurism for the first time and inspired him to start painting. In 1912, he became the art director for the avant-garde Chicago Little Theater, a position he held for five years. In Chicago, Jonson met and worked with the Russian “painter, mystic, and fellow set and costume designer, Nicholas Roerich, who instilled in Jonson the belief that all of the arts—painting, theater, dance, and music—were but facets of the single spiritual truth underlying all phenomena. With Roerich, Jonson organized the Chicago group Cor Ardens (Flaming Heart) around the idea that all the arts together constituted a ‘universal medium of expression and an evidence of life.’”[3]


Influenced by his experiences in Chicago as well as Wassily Kandinky’s theories concerning the relationship between art and spirituality, Jonson began to move away from representational paintings towards greater abstraction. In 1924, he moved to Santa Fe, New Mexico, where he painted and exhibited extensively for the next decade. In 1934, Jonson joined the mural division of the Federal Art Project of the WPA, ultimately creating six murals under its auspices, including The Cycle of Sciences at the University of New Mexico Library. That same year, he also began a long teaching career at the university. In 1938, as part of his desire to connect the spiritual and the abstract, Jonson co-founded the Transcendental Painting Group (TPG). This group of artists, which included Emil Bisttram, Florence Miller Pierce, and Stuart Walker, shared an interest in the principles of Theosophy advanced by Madame Blavatsky, and they also drew inspiration from Zen Buddhism, which would gain influence among American abstract artists in the decades to follow. Aesthetically, the TPG artists followed Jay Hambridge’s theory of dynamic symmetry, which claimed that artistic perfection could be arrived through mathematical principles that were based on the symmetry of human and plant forms. Although TPG members were committed to a shared set of philosophical concepts and ideals, each artist developed his or her own artistic language and sought a unique path “to carry painting beyond the appearance of the physical world, through new concepts of space, color, light, and design.” For Jonson, this path involved a variety of abstractions that nonetheless share a clarity of line and lucidity of composition. Striving to fulfill its mission to “widen the horizon of art,” the TPG organized lectures, published articles, and mounted exhibitions. With them, Jonson participated in several landmark exhibitions including the 1939 Golden Gate International Exposition in San Francisco, the 1939 New York World’s Fair, and a 1940 group exhibition at the Museum of Non-Objective Painting (now the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum) in New York City.
In 1941, the United States entered World War II just as the group was gaining momentum, which caused the TPG artists to disperse. Jonson continued to work and teach in Santa Fe, and in 1950, he established the Jonson Gallery at the University of New Mexico, Albuquerque, where he had reached the rank of professor emeritus. “The gallery served as an example of the complete life of an artist, with an upstairs living quarters and downstairs gallery, studio, office, storage rooms and conference space.”[4] Jonson retired in 1954 but maintained close ties with the university and continued to grow as an artist. In 1957, Jonson experimented with a new form of acrylic paint and instantly adopted it as his preferred medium. “Completely free from technical worries and in full control of the medium, he could invent shapes in seemingly inexhaustible varieties, be as elaborate or austere as he wished, and revel in color from the mildest tonality to a crashing brilliance.”[5] Jonson died in 1982, leaving an extensive art collection and archive to the University of New Mexico. His work has benefitted from a resurgent interest in the TPG, and in recent decades, he has been the subject of solo exhibitions in New York, Santa Fe, and Los Angeles.

[1] Elaine de Kooning, quoted in Robert Ware, “Raymond Johnson,” Biography on the website for the Jonson Gallery, University of New Mexico. http://www.unm.edu/~artmuse/Jonson_biography.html (Accessed November 2012).

[2] Raymond Jonson, quoted in Paul Ré, “Review: The Art of Raymond Jonson by Ed Garman,” Leonardo, v.16, n.1 (Winter, 1983), 72.

[3] R. Ware, “Raymond Johnson.”

[4] Chip Ware, “Jonson Gallery at UNM.” http://www.collectorsguide.com/ab/abfa20.shtml. (Accessed November 2012).

[5] “Raymond Jonson,” Owings Gallery website. http://www.owingsgallery.com/artists/raymond-jonson/ (Accessed November 2012).

Transcendental painting group
Definition and background:
New Mexico artists dedicated to educating a resistant public to abstract and non-objective art, they were active with exhibitions between 1938 and 1942. Organizing members were Raymond Jonson, Emil Bisttram, Lawren Harris, Ed Garman, Robert Gribbroek, William Lumpkins, Agnes Pelton, Florence Miller Pierce, Horace Towner Pierce and Stuart Walker. Dane Rudhyar and Alfred Morang may have been members, but scholars are debating their status. Rudhyar began painting seriously in the TPG modernist style somewhat later than the others, and Morang was active with the foundation but conflicting references exist about his TPG status. Their stated purpose in their manifesto was “to carry painting beyond the appearance of the physical world through new concepts of space, color, light and design, to imaginative realms that are idealistic and spiritual.” They formed the American Foundation for Transcendental Painting, which expanded facilitating tasks to persons beyond the TPG painters and resulted in systematic collection methods and permanent location for exhibitions and collections. The TPG, influenced by Wassily Kandinsky and Piet Mondrian, reflected a movement towards abstraction in other parts of the country that came to ascendancy from the mid 20th Century. Although the Transcendental Painting Group had long-term stylistic influence on Southwest artists, it terminated as a formal entity with World War II. The Jonson Gallery of the University of New Mexico Art Museums, opened in 1950, houses work by Transcendental painters and is named for TPG leader, Raymond Jonson. Source: Tiska Blankenship, “Vision and Spirit: The Transcendental Painting Group”, exhibition catalogue, Jonson Gallery, May 27-August 15, 1997. Courtesy, Paul Parker (LPD)
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