Buffie Johnson

Statement/Biography

BUFFIE JOHNSON (1912-2006)

After summer classes at the Art Students League (1927-28), Buffie Johnson graduated from UCLA (B.F.A., 1936). Her first solo show at Jake Zeitlin Gallery, Los Angeles, in 1937, was followed by travel to Paris, where she befriended Sonia Delaunay and received studio visits from Francis Picabia. Johnson had a solo show at Galerie André J. Rotgé in Paris in 1939. She also studied at the Académie Julian and Stanley William Hayter’s Atelier 17. Returning to New York, she showed at Wakefield Gallery and Bookshop, then led by Betty Parsons. In 1943, she was included in Peggy Guggenheim’s Exhibition by 31 Women at Art of This Century Gallery in New York, along with Sonja Sekula and Hedda Sterne, a significant experience that contributed to her awareness of the position of women in the male artistic environment. In the late 1940s, she traveled again to Europe, where she considered the environment more inclusive toward women artists.

Johnson’s turn toward abstraction coincided with her friendship with architect and sculptor Tony Smith and her first show at Betty Parsons Gallery in 1950. That year, she married art critic Gerald Sykes and set up a studio in East Hampton, New York. In 1954, her longstanding interest in the history of goddess imagery and the Great Mother, reflected in her paintings, led to a Bollingen Foundation grant for collecting images on the subjects. Egyptologist Natacha Rambova and archaeologist Marija Gimbutas were also important influences. In 1959, she created an epic abstract mural for the Astor Theatre, New York; in the 1960s and 1970s, she returned variously to representation, portraiture, and plant and flower imagery. In 1988, she published Lady of the Beasts: Ancient Images of the Goddess and Her Sacred Animals, a compilation of prehistoric representations of the goddess as sacred animals, including her own drawings and textual interpretations summarizing the vast “Mistress of all Creation.” In her later years, she showed frequently at the Anita Shapolsky Gallery, New York. In 2007, she was a recipient of a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Women’s Caucus for Art of the College Art Association Committee on Women in the Arts.

[Excerpt from the exhibition catalogue, "Women of Abstract Expressionism" published by Yale University Press in association with the Denver Art Museum]