"Abstract", 1956 | 40”x26” - mixed media
In Johnston's abstract painting from the height of that movement in the United States, the flattened canvas is covered from edge to edge in color and pattern. This "horror-vacuii" style (leaving no surface unpainted, or unoccupied) produces an urgency, excitement and vitality in the painting. The anchoring portion of light blue is complemented by insertions of yellow, red, white, and other colors applied seemingly randomly. However, in actuality, each was carefully conceived to create a unified whole.
Johnston’s artistic talent received encouragement from her family who enrolled her in Saturday classes at the California College of Arts in Oakland with excursions to the de Young Memorial Museum in San Francisco. In 1941 she received her Bachelor of Fine Arts degree from the University of California at Berkeley and the Bertha B. Taussig Memorial Award for the outstanding graduate in fine arts. Her instructors Worth Ryder, Erle Lorain and Margaret Peterson introduced her to the work of Picasso, Klee, Miro and Braque which later influenced her creative output.
In the early 1940s she traveled to Mexico to continue her studies, but returned to Berkeley for her Master of Fine Arts degree (1946). Three years later she summered in Paris, after which she relocated to the Los Angeles area. Benefitting from the studio and press of a college friend, Edward Edmondson, she began experimenting with woodcuts and doing sculpture in 1950. Throughout her productive and versatile career she has experimented with other mediums including etching, lithography, oils, watercolor, paper maché, ink dyes, sumi on rice paper and casein.
The inclusion of her paintings and etchings in an exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in 1951 helped launch her career as a successful artist. Her work is characterized by “jigsaw” shapes blending modernism and ancient art forms garnered from her travels to Italy, Mexico, India and Nepal. The fantastic realms she creates evolve from her fertile imagination but never quite eradicate the concrete. In her later mixed-media pieces she has explored the tactile qualities of the surface. Her paintings involve the combination, and occasional lamination, of diverse material soil, acrylic, dyes, encaustic on cloth, canvas and raw silk. The colors are vibrant and the images are composite forms suggesting ambiguous architectural, human, animal and plant shapes.
She taught at the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center, Chouinard Art Institute, California State College, University of Judaism and the Otis Art Institute. She received the Anne Bremer Award (1949), Huntington Hartford Residence (1951,1957), Guggenheim Foundation Grant (1952), Louis Comfort Tiffany Grant (1955-56), James D. Phelan Grant (1958), MacDowell Colony Residency Grant (1959), and the National Endowment for the Arts Fellowships (1976, 1985-86). In 1992 the Fresno Art Museum honored her with their Distinguished Women Artist Award and the Santa Cruz Museum of Art and History mounted a retrospective of her work in 1998.
Museum, Tulsa; San Diego Museum of Art; San Diego Museum of Contemporary Art; Los Angeles County Museum of Art; Grunwald Center for Graphic Arts-Hammer Museum, University of California, Los Angeles; Vincent Price Gallery-California State University, Los Angeles; Laguna Beach Museum of Art; San Francisco Museum of Modern Art; Achenbach Foundation for Graphic Arts, San Francisco Fine Arts Museum; Oakland Museum of Art; Crocker Art Museum, Sacramento; Fresno Art Museum, California; Dallas Museum of Art; Phoenix Art Museum; University of Arizona Art Gallery, Tucson; New Mexico Museum of Art, Santa Fe; Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center; and The Israel Museum, Jerusalem.