Even when Johnson avoided direct self-portraits, his quirky fixations were always apparent. (In an essay for the exhibition catalog, curator Joel Smith refers to “the restrained but constant thump of strange motivation” behind all of the artist’s work.) In one of the collages on display, William Burroughs’ profile almost overshadows that of the movie star from the 1950s gay icon became Tab Hunter, and both are nearly obscured by a swarm of pebbly fragments and bits of collage. Johnson was always building miniature sets for his own frenzied theater of the absurd: puzzles within puzzles. The sensibility is no different from Joseph Cornell’s, minus the romance and period nostalgia. Johnson worked in a different kind of outsider language—at once banal, vulgar, campy, and highly sophisticated. Like John Baldessari, he preferred simple lettering and clear graphic design. Especially the cardboard slats can be mistaken for portable Baldessaris.
The Morgan show is based on previously unseen photographs—two hundred of which flash past on a wall-mounted video loop—but the curator carefully gives examples of the artist’s use of the medium throughout his career. A photo of Johnson at Black Mountain College, in 1948, opens the show in an unexpectedly tender tone. It shows the artist from behind and in soft focus, so that his head, nearly shaved off of blond hair, looms up in the landscape like a glowing planet. In other photos he is in front of the camera, often in a photo booth, almost always with a straight face. As present as Johnson is in much of his work, he has remained enigmatic and nearly impossible to pin down. The late photos, all 10-by-6-inch commercial prints, are full of information about Johnson’s daily life and the places where he lived or stopped. None of these are particularly revealing, however. Johnson’s outlook is reliably sly and allusive.