Analysis and Foreword by Henry Adams, Ph.D.

By Henry Adams, Ph.D., Professor of American Art, Case Western Reserve University

The letters on the plate glass window are in reverse so it is hard to make them out at first: Dr. John Drake. We’re clearly in the doctor’s waiting room, and from the magazines on the table, such as Look and The Saturday Evening Post, it appears that we’ve been magically transported back to the 1950s.

Public Square from Dr. John Drake's Office, 1955 (c) The Artist's Eye, by Janis Johnson

We’re looking out at the town square, with benches and parking meters and leafy trees, in autumnal golden colors. Across the way is a group of brick storefronts, with shoppers energetically striding past them, and in the center of the square rests a Civil War monument, with a soldier standing atop a somewhat strangely shaped Corinthian column. The scene might be the beginning of a movie, not unlike Hitchcock’s Rear Window, but more benign in feeling. For a moment we’ve been brought back half a century in time and are voyeurs into the life of a small American city.

I’m describing a watercolor, of course: Vernon Johnson’s Public Square from Dr. John Drake’s Office, 1955. One might think of it as the entryway into Vernon Johnson’s world, and of the watercolors celebrated in this book: the world of Mount Vernon, Ohio. It’s almost too cute that Vernon, the name of the artist, was also the name of the town — but also metaphorically appropriate, for what’s striking about this body of work is the sense of a world where everything ties in with everything else, where everything fits.

The 1950s was the epoch of Jackson Pollock, of action painting, and of angst of a sort that had rarely been expressed in art with such violence and wildness. It’s work of this anguished sort that’s generally celebrated in histories of art. But there’s little of this sense of anxiety in Vernon Johnson’s watercolors: he was entirely comfortable in his time and place. Indeed, it’s curious that today figures such as Vernon Johnson are less well known than figures such as Pollock, when in fact their art and viewpoint were more in line with the general “spirit of the time” in which they lived. One of the pleasures of this book is that it fills in a chapter that has been missing from most of the art history that’s been written of this period.

Professor Adams writes a compelling narrative of the context and the highlights of American Art in the 1950s in the Foreword to the book….You’ll have your own armchair view of the era in The Artist’s Eye…

Henry Adams, Ph.D., professor of American Art at Case Western Reserve University, is the award-winning author of more than 200 scholarly and popular articles, ranging over the American field from the 17th century to the present, as well as numerous books, among them Eakins Revealed, which the painter Andrew Wyeth described as “the most extraordinary biography I have ever read on an artist.” He has served as curator of Fine Arts at the Carnegie Museum of Art in Pittsburgh, as curator of American Art at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City, and as curator of American Art at the Cleveland Museum of Art. In 1989, in partnership with film maker Ken Burns, Adams produced a PBS documentary on Thomas Hart Benton. His most

2 Responses to Analysis and Foreword by Henry Adams, Ph.D.

  1. John T. Drake says:

    I glanced at the table beneath the window and once again laughed out loud at the humor of Vern Johnson. You’ll notice between the Saturday Evening Post and Look magazines is an issue of a fictional magazine “Oops” based on a well known publication whose founder’s nickname can be found on the cover, “Heff”.

    I had forgotten the laughs that mom and dad had when they noticed it. Of all the magazines in his office and home “Playboy” was not among them, except for an issue or two hidden in my bedroom.

    This painting represents two things that I remember fondly about Vernon Johnson. First, of course, is his artistic talent. The second is his subtle humor. One other memory I have is the absolute pall that was cast over Mount Vernon when it was learned that the Johnson family was leaving. I know now that he never really left. His two watercolors hanging in our home are testament to that.

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