Twenty-three years after her death, an influential painter who spent most of her life on her family’s ranch near Absarokee is finally getting the exhibit she deserved.
“A Lonely Business: Isabelle Johnson’s Montana” opens to the public on Tuesday, Nov. 3, and will stay up through Jan. 3.
Johnson was a pioneering artist, a Modernist who broke away from the prevailing realism in Western art and infused her landscape paintings with emotion and impressionistic flourishes. When she died in 1992 at the age of 91, she left her entire studio collection of paintings, journals, letters and memorabilia to the Yellowstone Art Museum.
Her works have been seen as part of other exhibits, but this is the first time she has gotten her own exhibit at the YAM, and it is the largest showing of her works ever. It features 63 drawings and paintings as well as journal entries, letters and some memorabilia, including the phonograph and records that were in her studio when she died.
Bob Durden, the YAM’s senior curator, has spent almost a year and a half getting the exhibit ready, and he also contributed an essay to a new book about Johnson, which has the same title as the exhibit.
The book and the exhibit were made possible by Peter and Cathy Halstead, of the Tippet Rise Fund of the Sidney E. Frank Foundation. They are creating the Tippet Rise Art Center on 11,500 acres in Stillwater County. That land includes a part of what used to be the Johnson Ranch.
Johnson was one of four children. Her parents were Norwegian immigrants who ended up owning a 6,000-acre ranch in the Stillwater Valley near Absarokee. All four children went to college, and Isabelle earned a degree in history from the University of Montana.
She taught in Fromberg for a couple of years and then, after earning a master’s degree in history from Columbia University in New York, taught history at Billings High School.
She was always interested in art—the earliest drawing in the exhibit dates from 1912—but Durden said Johnson never really thought of herself as an artist until she was in her 30s. For years, she taught during the school year and used her summers off to study art at a wide variety of institutions, including the Otis Art Institute in Los Angeles, the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center, the Art Students League in New York and the Skowhagen School of Painting and Sculpture in Maine.
Durden said she was never much interested in fame or money. “For her,” he wrote in an essay in the book, “the lifelong quest to develop a unique artistic vision was the larger reward.”
A turning point in Johnson’s life came in 1954, when she took a year off to travel in Europe. Most of her journals deal with the workaday details of life on the ranch, Durden said, but the European journals are full of details about her travels and about the artists whose works she was studying.
She was already an admirer of Paul Cezanne above all, and of artists like Vincent Van Gogh, and to see their works firsthand in Europe “was pretty riveting,” Durden said.
She had been teaching art at Eastern Montana College, now MSU Billings, since 1949 and would also chair the art department there. The security of academia allowed her to continue painting in her Modernistic style, Durden said, a style that “kind of flew in the face of what people’s expectations were.”
And it was through her teaching that she had a lasting influence on art in Montana. The painter Theodore Waddell, in another essay in the book, credited Johnson, along with Bill Stockton and a handful of other artists, with bringing Modernism to Montana, and with providing “an important framework for the rest of us to follow. … I don’t think there is any way to over-estimate the influence of Isabelle on all of us.”
Johnson retired from teaching in 1961 and returned to the ranch full-time, where she painted in an old miner’s cabin that had been converted to a studio. From then on, most of her paintings were portraits of the ranch and of the land around it.
Johnson’s good friend Donna Forbes was the director of the Yellowstone Art Museum when Johnson died, and it was her description of the artist’s life as “a lonely business” that gave the book its title. In her essay, Forbes said Johnson “saw this hard, handsome, rocky land with an artist’s eye and a rancher’s sensibility.” Few artists, Forbes said, “have captured the inherent characteristics of this land as well as Isabelle Johnson.”
Durden said Johnson’s background was key to her work because she pursued her art and her ranching with complete sincerity. “Sentiment does not find its way into Johnson’s painting,” he wrote, “and it is perhaps this matter-of-fact, hard-boiled sincerity that is at the heart of her mature paintings.”
Because she never had to answer the demands of the art market, Durden said, Johnson was free to polish her craft and follow her desires, to evolve as an artist and to improve continually.
“It takes a lifetime, and Isabelle understood that as well as anybody,” he said. “Time and discipline. It doesn’t happen overnight.”
Two other essayists in the book noted how Johnson’s landscapes, though usually devoid of human beings, could be alive with emotion. Patricia Vettel-Becker said a grove of trees in one painting “seem to ‘dance’ with life, even though bare of leaves. … It is as if the landscape, the human-built structure, and by extension the artist herself, are speaking in a single voice.”
Peter Halstead wrote that in another winter painting, the “trees howl with deprivation.” He also wrote of the difficulty of photographing the places Johnson painted.
“The land hasn’t changed much since Isabelle Johnson painted it,” he wrote. “Not much has happened to Fishtail. But what really happened to Fishtail was that Isabelle Johnson went to Paris. She went to New York and Rome. And she brought home the light from distant worlds.”
Johnson was 69 when she had the biggest exhibit of her life, at the Amon Carter Museum of Art in Fort Worth, Texas. She was thrilled, but not overwhelmed. As YAM Director Robyn Peterson wrote in the introduction to “A Lonely Business,” Johnson possessed a “uniquely paradoxical blend of humility and confidence.”
Durden said he tried to choose paintings from the museum’s Johnson collection that would demonstrate the range of her work and document her growth as an artist. One of his favorites is “Trees, Winter,” in which the bare willows in the foreground seem to be writhing with emotion, against a backdrop of a beautiful but dangerously foreboding winter sky.
He also admires her rare watercolors, which she would use to capture, quickly and on the spot, dramatic scenes of changing weather.
“Not that that’s a novel idea, but she did it so damned well,” he sad.
Durden said it was difficult to sort through the 800-plus objects in the Johnson collection and pick a relative handful for this exhibit. He said some visitors surely will think he neglected this or that important work. Not to worry.
“It won’t be the last,” Durden said of the exhibit. “Our collection is very deep.”