“When I met Jonson, I knew I had found the key- the force that created a climate that enabled art to endure in a desert.”
“The function of the artist is to create or present something that is a statement of the finest qualities conceivable in the human mind and emotions.”
Born Carl Raymond Johnson in Chariton, Iowa to Swedish immigrants Gustav and Josephine, Raymond Jonson grew up in Portland, Oregon, under the strong influence of his father, a Baptist minister who instilled a profound appreciation of art and spirituality in his son. In 1909, Jonson enrolled in classes at the newly established Portland Art School, which was affiliated with the Portland Museum of Art. In 1911, he left Oregon for Chicago to study illustration at the Art Institute and the Academy of Fine Arts with painter B.J.O. Nordfeldt. However, a trip to the Chicago Armory Show in 1913 exposed him to cubism and futurism for the first time and inspired him to start painting. In 1912, he became the art director for the avant-garde Chicago Little Theater, a position he held for five years. In Chicago, Jonson met and worked with the Russian “painter, mystic, and fellow set and costume designer, Nicholas Roerich, who instilled in Jonson the belief that all of the arts—painting, theater, dance, and music—were but facets of the single spiritual truth underlying all phenomena. With Roerich, Jonson organized the Chicago group Cor Ardens (Flaming Heart) around the idea that all the arts together constituted a ‘universal medium of expression and an evidence of life.’”
Influenced by his experiences in Chicago as well as Wassily Kandinky’s theories concerning the relationship between art and spirituality, Jonson began to move away from representational paintings towards greater abstraction. In 1924, he moved to Santa Fe, New Mexico, where he painted and exhibited extensively for the next decade. In 1934, Jonson joined the mural division of the Federal Art Project of the WPA, ultimately creating six murals under its auspices, including The Cycle of Sciences at the University of New Mexico Library. That same year, he also began a long teaching career at the university. In 1938, as part of his desire to connect the spiritual and the abstract, Jonson co-founded the Transcendental Painting Group (TPG). This group of artists, which included Emil Bisttram, Florence Miller Pierce, and Stuart Walker, shared an interest in the principles of Theosophy advanced by Madame Blavatsky, and they also drew inspiration from Zen Buddhism, which would gain influence among American abstract artists in the decades to follow. Aesthetically, the TPG artists followed Jay Hambridge’s theory of dynamic symmetry, which claimed that artistic perfection could be arrived through mathematical principles that were based on the symmetry of human and plant forms. Although TPG members were committed to a shared set of philosophical concepts and ideals, each artist developed his or her own artistic language and sought a unique path “to carry painting beyond the appearance of the physical world, through new concepts of space, color, light, and design.” For Jonson, this path involved a variety of abstractions that nonetheless share a clarity of line and lucidity of composition. Striving to fulfill its mission to “widen the horizon of art,” the TPG organized lectures, published articles, and mounted exhibitions. With them, Jonson participated in several landmark exhibitions including the 1939 Golden Gate International Exposition in San Francisco, the 1939 New York World’s Fair, and a 1940 group exhibition at the Museum of Non-Objective Painting (now the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum) in New York City.