Friday, 22 February 2013

Buffie Johnson, the 31 Women Number Three; her Birthday is 20 February.

Buffie Johnson was born on the 20th February 1912 in New York City.

In the 1950's she was commissioned to paint what was then the world's largest mural, which adorned the interior of the Astor Theatre in Times Square, but today she is undeservedly neglected. When she is mentioned, Buffie Johnson is grouped with the New York School of abstract expressionists, but as with many women artists this only tells a fraction of her story. She was a close friend of Mark Rothko, who can also only loosely be described as an abstract expressionist. The work of both these artists moves well beyond experimentation with abstraction and paint surfaces, and explores the deepest dimensions of the spiritual. Buffie Johnson was a spiritual artist from her childhood and her method of artistic exploration varied throughout her life, she cannot be defined by association with one school.

Buffie Johnson with one of her Numbering Series
canvases (photo from the Brooklyn Museum)
Born in 1912 into a well to do New York City family, Buffie Johnson was one of twins, her sister died at birth. She claimed many years later that a vision of this lost sister had appeared to her in San Francisco. Her parents separated when she was very small and despite a privileged standard of living her childhood was unsettled. She was shunted between her divorced parents, her grand mother and several aunts, then sent to a convent school which she hated. For some time she lived with her mother’s sister, Minnie Griffin and Minnie’s husband Percy, a New York architect.

Seventy years later Buffie still vividly remembered the view from her room in the Griffin's home, of the ships masts and funnels on East River and the illuminated signs in the city. Like all of the 31 Women artists, she drew and painted from early in her childhood. Her uncle Percy encouraged her artistic talent and aged eight, Buffie began painting a series of pictures of the spirits who she felt must exist in animals, the moon and stars and natural forces such as the wind. This interest in the spiritual and transcendental aspects of the natural world was to infuse her art for the whole of her career.

Aged twelve Buffie Johnson was sent to Knox School in Cooperstown, NY, in the Ottasaga Resort hotel - a building designed by her Uncle Percy. On leaving school at 18, she attended UCLA, studying fine art and gaining her BA in fine arts and had her first professional exhibition in Los Angeles, at the Jake Zeitlin gallery. This was a great success and all her work was sold. Back in New York she studied at the Art Students League, she also first met Betty Parsons.
In the early 1930’s Buffie moved to Paris to study at the Academy Julian, a project greatly helped by her success selling her paintings. She showed in a number of small Paris exhibitions and had more success selling her work. Her teachers included Picabia, the ex-Dadaist hell-raiser, who had settled into the scarcely more respectable field of Surrealism. Her friends in Paris including Peggy Guggenheim and British painter Meraud Guevara, who had been a protégé of Picabia. Buffie also studied at Stanley William Hayter’s highly influential Atelier 17, where etching and other traditional forms of printmaking were turned into tools of the twentieth century avant-garde.

 Buffie Johnson returned to New York at the start of WWII and met an old friend, Betty Parsons who exhibited her work at the Wakefield Gallery. In New York Buffie became quietly influential. She certainly suggested an all woman exhibition to Peggy Guggenheim before the Exhibition of 31 Women (though this is always credited to Marcel Duchamp). Buffie was also responsible for Mark Rothko achieving his first solo exhibition at Art of This Century. Buffie also exhibited there, her painting at the Exhibition by 31 Women was 'Dejeuner Sur Mer', a surrealist style seascape with two women clinging to a wreck.

She had a number of other exhibitions in the 1940's including two at Howard Putzel's gallery. However she returned to Europe frequently after the war was over, frustrated at the increasing anti-female bias of the art world in her home city. Before and during the war, the influence of the Surrealists had encouraged many women artists in New York, but the post war boom in macho abstract expressionism side-lined women artists.
More articulate on the position of women than many of her contemporaries, in 1943 Buffie Johnson wrote a highly significant essay, “Women in Art (The Embattled Woman Artist.)” In this carefully researched piece of writing, possibly the first to examine the subject via the viewpoint of a woman artist, she details individual artists from ancient Egypt to modern times and relates their acceptance in the societies where they lived. She concluded that, despite everything, the twentieth century was the best for women artists.
Her optimism did not last as the situation, far from improving, actually deteriorated. She offered her essay to a number of periodicals, who to a man turned it down. It wasn't published until 1997, by a woman, Siobhan Conaty. In the 1950’s, with American contemporary art entrenched in the male ethos of the abstract expressionists, Buffie and the other women associated with the movement found themselves, “surrounded by an anti-female energy… when ‘you paint like a man’ was the biggest compliment one could receive.” (B.J. Women in Art)
Also in the 1940’s Buffie Johnson befriended spiritualist and former ballerina Natacha Rambova who was studying ancient religions. This friendship focussed Buffie's long standing interest in mysticism and goddess worship. She began a long period of research for a book on the theme, a task that would occupy her for thirty years. The result was her book, Lady of the Beasts: Ancient Images of the Goddess and her Sacred Animals, which was published in 1988.
Buffie Johnson was married in 1950 to author Gerald Sykes, a professor of Sociology and their daughter, Jenny was born the same year. Buffie continued to exhibit her work in New York. She and Gerald travelled extensively during their marriage and it was during a research trips in 1954 that she first met Carl Jung, whose philosophy was to have a profound effect on her work.
 Buffie received a commission to create murals for the new Astor Theatre in Times Square, which was almost cancelled when the owners realised that the artist was a woman.  The Astor Murals were an evocation of the New York sky and cityscape on a summer night, perhaps returning to the river view of her childhood. They were the largest abstract expressionist work ever created. In 1968 she also completed the Knox Murals, depicting the four seasons, for her old school.

After her divorce, Buffie set up her studio apartment in Greenwich Village, where she was to live and work for the next 36 years, renting out the rest of the house. In the 1960’s she created paintings representing hugely magnified plant forms, orchids, irises and tulips, which to Johnson represent the ‘Lady of the Plants.’ 

Buffie Johnson’s last series of paintings had their roots back in that research trip to Europe in 1954 when she had befriended Carl Jung. She and Jung had many meetings and his insights into the origins and workings of human consciousness were to excite her own exploration of symbolism. Her Numbering Series are a sequence of abstract canvases where numbered forms are suspended in a vivid blue picture space. These pure, precise paintings are a long way removed from the gestural nature of abstract expressionism.

Buffie Johnson died on August 11th 2006, whilst I was researching her work.  She was 94 and in her prime had exhibited internationally not just in Paris but in London, Venice, Nice, Ljubljiana and Mexico City. In 2007 a memorial exhibition at the Anita Shapolsky Gallery in New York showed Buffie’s paintings spanning six decades, as well as painting and sculpture by her friends including Betty Parsons. Sadly, her art is now not seen outside the USA but is represented in many important American collections including the Guggenheim, Whitney Museum and Boston Museum of Fine Art, though it is not always on display.

My thanks to Tracy Boyd, Romy Ashby and Anita Shapolsky for their kind help with my research.
The Buffie Johnson Website, run by Tracy Boyd and Jenny Johnson Sykes is the best source for information about Buffie Johnson. -

Other sources include:

Buffie Johnson, Women in Art (The Embattled Woman Artist) essay written 1943, first published in 1997 by Conaty & Harrison - see below
Buffie Johnson (1988) Lady of the Beasts: Ancient Images of the Goddess and her Sacred Animals San Francisco, Harper & Row
Colette Allenby Gallery1949 - Exposition du 11 Mars au 2 Avril par Buffie Johnson, Pierre Emmanuel, David Gascoyne, Tambimuttu  catalogue pub. Paris,
Romy Ashby Buffie Johnson - A Penny Delightful interview in GOODIE Magazine issue 3, New York 2000
Siobhan Conaty & Helen Harrison 1997 Art of This Century: the Women exhibition catalogue pub. Pollock- Krasner House & Study Centre, East Hampton, NY

Margalit Fox  Buffie Johnson, Artist and Friend of Artists, New York Times obituary, 2 Sept 2006
Horace Gregory quoted by:-
Anita Shapolsky in Buffie Johnson, Transcendentalist exhibition catalogue pub. New York, 2002

Comments and further information about Buffy are very welcome.

You can read about each of the 31 women as their birthdays arrive, earlier ones remain on this blog


  1. My teachers Marjorie Liebman and Dorothy Sturm would always speak well of Buffie Johnson. When I was 25 they arranged a meeting with me and Betty Parsons! That's when I knew I wanted to collect only art mostly by women from the 1940s 50s-thru present.

  2. Paul thanks for this comment, I've only just seen it, sorry, blogger is meant to tell me when somebody comments, but the system doesn't seem to work very well.
    I would love to be able to collect an artwork by each and every one of the 31 women, unfortunately my funds are somewhat limited! I certainly can't afford paintings by Dorothea Tanning, Frida Kahlo or Leonora Carrington, but I've found a compromise, I've bought some of the bought books they've published!