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Johnson, Ellen H.

    Full Name: Johnson, Ellen H.

    Other Names:

    • Ellen Hulda Johnson

    Gender: female

    Date Born: 1910

    Date Died: 1992

    Place Born: Warren, PA, USA

    Place Died: Oberlin, Lorain, OH, USA

    Home Country/ies: United States

    Subject Area(s): Modern (style or period)

    Career(s): educators


    Oberlin College professor of art history (1945-1977) and early academic exponent of modern art. Johnson was the daughter of Jacob Augustus Johnson, a hotel operator, and Hulda Headlund Johnson. She was raised in Warren, PA. Johnson entered Oberlin College as an undergraduate, receiving her bachelor’s degree in 1933 and her master’s degrees in art history in 1935. She never completed a Ph.D., despite additional study at Columbia University, Uppsala University in Stockholm, and the Sorbonne, Paris. She joined the Toledo Museum of Art, Toledo, Ohio, in 1936 as the librarian and a member in the department of education. In 1939, Johnson returned to her alma mater as art librarian and part-time art history instructor, giving free lectures on modern art. The following year she raised funds for a lending collection of original works of art for students at Oberlin, renting prints, from Rembrandt or Picasso, for as little as $2.50 a semester. She was elevated to full-time instructor in 1945. Though Johnson was never officially a museum curator, she was appointed a member of the Allen museum’s collection committee in 1947, the group assigned to make recommendations on purchases of works art. Johnson was familiar with the New York galleries and studios of emerging artists. She became an assistant professor in 1950. Thereafter, she began organizing a series of biennial shows in Oberlin on contemporary artists, known as the Young Americans exhibitions. Over the years, it featured the work of Robert Rauschenberg, Claes Oldenburg, Joan Mitchell, Bruce Nauman, Jackie Winsor among others. She was Visiting professor, University of Wisconsin, Madison, for the 1950-51 academic year. In 1958 Johnson was appointed associate professor. Even during the 1960s, more prominent and larger Ohio museums, such as the Cleveland Museum of Art doubted the importance of contemporary art. Johnson, however, mounted modernist exhibitions at Oberlin and buying significant works for a comparatively small amount for the museum and herself. In 1963 she gave Oldenburg his first show at an academic museum, the famous “Three Young Americans” exhibition. She was also the first to show the black-striped paintings that established the reputation of Frank Stella. Many works in her personal collection were gifts from artists grateful for Johnson’s attention at crucial stages in their careers. In 1964 she was appointed full professor. Johnson purchased the Frank Lloyd Wright-designed Weltzheimer house (1948-1950) in Oberlin, in 1968 from a developer. The Usonian-era house had been sold to a succession of local developers who extensively remodeled the structure. Johnson spent a considerable part of her free time and money restoring the building, hunting down custom-built furniture from the home and buying it back. The house became a center for cultural functions and the display of Johnson’s own modernist collection. She was appointed honorary curator of modern art at the Allen Art Museum in 1973. Her lectures were so evocative that they had to be held in the college’s Hall Auditorium. She used her reputation with the now famous abstract and pop artists to organize a benefit auction at Sotheby’s in New York in 1975. The auction raised funds for an expansion of the Oberlin museum named for Johnson. Johnson became a professor emerita and honorary curator of modern art at the museum in 1977, followed by a visiting professorship at the University of California, Santa Barbara, in 1978. Her anthology, American Artists on Art, appeared in 1982, the same year as her retrospective on Eva Hesse. She died of cancer at age 81, willing her house and art collection to the University. Johnson was one of the first academics in the United States to teach and acquire contemporary art seriously. Her first-hand knowledge of the pop and abstract expressionist artists resulted in a lecture form inclusive of primary source material. She was an early and continual supporter of artists in addition to Oldenburg, Rauschenberg and Nauman, included Roy Lichtenstein, Jim Dine, and Larry Poons. Her famous “Three Young Americans” exhibitions accelerated many of their careers.

    Selected Bibliography

    [master’s thesis:] Modern Painting and its Traditional Aspects. Oberlin College, 1935; American Artists on Art from 1940 to 1980. New York: Harper & Row, 1982; Modern Art and the Object: a Century of Changing Attitudes. New York: Harper & Row, 1976; Eva Hesse, a Retrospective of the Drawings. Oberlin, Ohio: Allen Memorial Art Museum, 1982; “The Development of Edvard Munch.” Art Quarterly (Spring 1947): 85-99.


    Spear, Richard. “Ellen H. Johnson, 1910-1992.” in, Johnson, Ellen H. Fragments Recalled at Eighty: the Art Memoirs of Ellen H. Johnson. North Vancouver, BC: Gallerie Publications, 1993, pp. 7-14; Shinn, Dorothy. “Retired Professor’s Influence is Celebrated at Oberlin College.” Akron Beacon Journal March 22, 1992, p. D8; Litt, Steven. “Ellen Johnson: The Object of Oberlin’s Affection for Years of Appreciation. [Cleveland] Plain Dealer March 8, 1992, p. 1H.; [obituary:] “Ellen H. Johnson, Art Teacher, Historian and Curator, Dies at 81.” New York Times, March 24, 1992, p. D21.


    "Johnson, Ellen H.." Dictionary of Art Historians (website).

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