THE INDEPENDENT VOICE OF THE VISUAL ARTS

Duilio Barnabè, Sitting Figure, circa 1950. This painting is part of the Johnson's private collection of more than 500 works.

Jean Metzinger, Young Woman with Dish of Fruit, 1923. This painting is part of the Johnson's private collection of more than 500 works.

 

R.S. Johnson: A Different Kind of Art Dealer

 

R. Stanley Johnson is not a name familiar to most Chicagoans. Yet, he is a highly regarded dealer, art historian (the identity he prefers) and publisher. The R.S. Johnson Fine Art Gallery’s origins date from 1955. It has occupied space on North Michigan Avenue since 1963, when it was headed by R. Stanley Johnson’s father. Its former second-floor windows (now upstairs on the ninth floor) usually highlighted exhibits of master drawings by Dürer, Chagall, or Picasso or stellar group shows of works dating from the Renaissance.

I often read those exhibition titles and wondered what lay inside its front doors. So, one day about a quarter-century ago, I took an elevator ride to the second floor and was met by Stanley who, without inquiring about my financial means or art knowledge, proceeded to give me an impromptu lecture about the art on the walls by masters dating from the 15th century up to Picasso. My knowledge of how to view prints, their various editions, series and pulled states dates from that meeting.

In the last issue, I interviewed two long-time Chicago gallerists, Rhona Hoffman and Carl Hammer. We did not have space to run my conversation with Stanley. Yet, Stanley is a singular gallerist in several respects who deserves this separate interview. His tenure in the Chicago’s art world dates from 1968, longer than the other directors. He led quite an adventurous life prior to making art his life work.

Most tellingly, he and his wife Ursula, a fellow art historian, not only research artists but are collectors who own their inventory, which set them apart from other gallery directors. He is renowned in the trade, with sales to more than 90 museums, and is the only North American art dealer decorated as an Officer of Arts and Letters by the French Ministry of Culture. The only other Chicagoans so honored are Art Institute curator, Gloria Groom, and former museum director, Douglas Druick.

 

 

Tom Mullaney (New Art Examiner): When did you begin your career as a gallerist, and where was the first gallery located?

R. Stanley Johnson: My father founded the gallery at 424 South Michigan Avenue and then he came up here (645 N. Michigan Avenue) in 1963.

TM: You did not join the gallery until 1968. But I understand you had a fascinating background before starting your art career phase.

RSJ: Correct. I spent one year in South America in Lima, Peru and two at Mexico City College studying archeology. Then I was 15 years in Europe, including four years in Vienna (two years as an American Liaison Officer, when Stanley says “I was a spy” for the CIA).

Stanley also described his years in Innsbruck, Austria where he met his future wife, Ursula. They both studied art history at the University of Vienna and then moved to Paris, where they married in 1960.

 

 

TM: What was your life like in Paris during that exciting period?

RSJ: It was an extraordinary experience to live in the Latin Quarter in the 1950s and 1960s. Our first home there, at no. 29 on the rue de Verneuil, was a very simple sixth floor walk-up (cold water only). We had a side window looking down the rue de Beaune across the Seine and to the Louvre. What could be more inspiring for a pair of budding art historians than to wake up in sight of the Louvre?

At my philosophy professor’s apartment, I met composer Pierre Boulez. We kept crossing paths with actors Catherine Deneuve and Jean-Paul Belmondo. We sometimes encountered artist Max Ernst at a small café on the rue de Seine. We met Pablo Picasso, with his piercing eyes, at his dealer Daniel Kahnweiler. We discussed the intricacies of existentialism with Jean-Paul Sartre and Gabriel Marcel in their classes at the Sorbonne, the College de France or at the more casual Café de Flore. We could not afford the snobbish Brasserie Lipp, but often had our meals, instead, in the nearby student bistros and creperies.

TM: When did you decide to follow your father in the art business?

RSJ: I never made that decision. I came into the art business when my father suddenly passed away in 1968. But, between the time I spent at Innsbruck and Vienna, I attended the Sorbonne in Paris, where I spent 10 years. At the Sorbonne, I was a student of the noted Renaissance art professor, André Chastel, and that was a real big deal.

The inner circle of Chastel’s students, besides ourselves, included Pierre Rosenberg, who became the director of the Louvre, Françoise Cachin, who became head of the Musée d’Orsay, and so on.

TM: But, unlike nearly all other dealers, you are a private collector. So, what gave you that idea, your dad?

RSJ: Yes, he bought things and kept them. We showed our Cubist collection in 1991. And then, another high point in early 2017, we showed 150 works from our collection at the Ashmolean Museum at Oxford, England (founded 1681, 100 years before the Louvre) in the exhibition “From Degas to Picasso.”

We had 55,000 visitors at Oxford. Then we sent the whole collection to the Milwaukee Art Museum, where they established a new attendance record of 59,000 visitors for a total of 114,000 museum visitors at both museums.

[Ed. note: the New Art Examiner reviewed the show in its January/February 2018 issue.]

TM: You say you never sell works from your private collection, which consists of over 500 works of art. But you sell other artists’ works, don’t you?

RSJ: Yes. We sell contemporary works. We collect works by who we consider great artists, like Degas, Picasso, Manet.

TM: You began the gallery in 1968. Go back in time and tell me what the Chicago art world was like back then.

RSJ: It was a smaller circle of galleries back then. Since that time, we have sold works to 90 museums, which is more than any other art gallery in America.

TM: You also publish catalogues. This catalogue on your desk, “Flying Over Paris,” is your 175th catalogue. Is that true?

RSJ: Yes, the 175th. We do this because both Ursula and I are art historians.

TM: When you started in 1968, is that when you and your wife started the collection, or was it already formed by your father?

RSJ: My father had nothing to do with it.

TM: We are now in the era of art fairs—Expo, Basel—a very different way of learning about and selling art.

RSJ: We have very little to do with the art fairs. The only art fair we participate in every year is the one in New York for print dealers. We do that every year. I did one at Navy Pier a couple of years ago and, actually, Mayor Emanuel made a tour of the 200 galleries and came up to me and said, “Mr. Johnson, you are the best gallery here.” I said, “I know that! Thank you for telling me.”

TM: Tell me, has the way you do business changed in these times?

RSJ: Not really. We deal with museum-quality works of art. We advertise in Artnews and on the Internet. And we do these catalogues too.

TM: So, you [use] the catalogues as a marketing tool. Who do you send them to?

RSJ: Major collectors, every important museum in the United States, every important museum curator gets our catalogue.

TM: What’s the biggest misunderstanding collectors have about the art business? I know you like and have to educate people.

RSJ: Right, right. So collectors have one idea in their mind and they look around for things which they like and within a certain budget and make a decision to buy something. What puts them off in the wrong direction is the category which they’re buying. Most people are buying the wrong category.

TM: Like what wrong category?

RSJ: Old Master Paintings. It’s a bad category because there aren’t any anymore. Those buying old master paintings are making a series of mistakes.

TM: What if they come and they’ve got a category and a price they’re willing to spend, do you have to tell them, “Well, you know, for a little bit more, this is a better category”?

RSJ: Probably a little bit less. The great works of art that we sell are not necessarily expensive. If the collector has a 10-room home, in nine rooms of which there are 36 bare walls and three bare walls in the 10th room but, in one corner, there’s an etching by Goya from the “Cathedral” series. The director of the Louvre would say, “You have a first-class art collection.” But most of the art that one would see if you go into private homes, most of what you’d see is “bad stuff.”

TM: Is there a sale you’ve made, aside from Old Masters, that has given you the greatest satisfaction?

RSJ: Well, we sold a collection of 41 Mary Cassatt engravings. We kept the collection together rather than break it down and sell them individually. I felt morally the collection should be kept together as a group. And so, we sold them to one museum in Maine for $625,000.

TM: What gives you satisfaction today after 50 years in the business?

RSJ: I feel proud of all the exhibitions we have done and museums that have bought from us. And all the knowledge we’ve imparted to clients who have now become collectors.

TM: Nowadays, do you buy art over the Internet or at shows in Europe?

RSJ: No, right now, we don’t buy much in Europe at all. Most of the works we’re now buying we are buying back from collectors who had bought from us. We’ve sold 15,000 art objects, and we know where they all are from the files in our computer. We call people up and ask, “How are things going?” Sometimes the barn has burned down, and we ask “So, do you still have that Rembrandt?” If they do, we say we’d love to buy it.

TM: Tell me the role of your wife in all of this.

RSJ: My wife is a great art historian and also a student of André Chastel. About 40 years ago, Chastel gave a novel to my wife as a present. We never opened that novel since we already had it in our own collection. But on the second page of that novel, there was a dedication to my wife that read, “To my best student.” She’s a great specialist in the School of Fountainbleu art. I take her advice on works of art with great respect.

 

Mr. and Mrs. Johnson today.

 

TM: You are known worldwide, but you’re not exactly known in your hometown.

RSJ: Very few people in Chicago understand what we are doing.

TM: Is that frustrating?

RSJ: I couldn’t care less. I go home, I do my research, I do all these different things, and that’s it.

TM: So, you still have that passion for art?

RSJ: Wildly so.

 

Tom Mullaney is the New Art Examiner’s Managing Editor. In his career, he has interviewed Art Institute of Chicago Directors James Wood and James Cuno, Phillippe de Montebello at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, and museum directors in Minneapolis and Washington, D.C. These are his first published interviews with gallery directors.

 

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