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From On Campus, June 2007

By Mark E. Rondeau

WILLIAMSTOWN — Mentored by legendary art professors while a student at Williams in the 1950s and now an art professor here himself, E.J. Johnson '59 stands in a distinguished line of succession.

And the future is no less exciting than the past. Indeed, from his vantage point in the art department he can teach and watch rising generations of Williams students poised to take the art world by storm.

These students are much more diverse both in background and in profession than the original crop of white male museum curators and directors dubbed the “Williams Art Mafia” in the late 1980s.

As was true of many Ephs of his generation, Johnson came to Williamstown in 1955 not particularly interested in art. He was more interested in studying theater. “I knew nothing about art when I came to Williams,” he said.

“I took what was called Art 1-2 in my sophomore year, under protest. Friends of mine said that I should take it, that it was a wonderful course. And I said, ‘I have no interest in art at all.’ But they insisted,” Johnson said. “Whitney Stoddard '35 was teaching the first half of the course, and after about two lectures I suddenly realized that I just loved what was going on. Whitney was a wonderful teacher. And I had never found anything that had interested me so much. That’s how I got hooked.”

Learning art from the object

Though he wasn’t an art major, Johnson took six courses in the art department at Williams. Three were with Stoddard; three were with another giant of the department: S. Lane Faison '29.

Faison’s greatest gift as a teacher was visual analysis, quickly cutting to the essence of things and succinctly summarizing what he found. He also had the ability to get students to write clearly.

“He was also right on top of the most avant garde movements of the day. I remember taking a course with him in 20th century painting, and he was showing us Jasper Johns, who was the latest thing, and I think Johns had just had his first show.”

It’s been said at many times and in many places that the approach to art history at Williams has been to teach from the object.

“That was Lane’s approach, and that was Whitney’s approach,” Johnson said. “Whitney had a course called Modern Architecture and he would take us out to look at new houses in Williamstown. We actually went through buildings.”

After graduation, Johnson went into the Air Force Reserve for six months of active duty. He came to an important decision.

“While I was there I decided I wasn’t going to go to law school, which is what my parents wanted me to do, and that I would become an art historian,” he said. “So I asked Lane in particular where I should go to graduate school, and he said ‘go to the Institute of Fine Arts.’ So I applied to the Institute of Fine Arts at New York University and got in and went there.”

Johnson went on to concentrate in architectural history, doing his Ph.D. dissertation on the church of Sant'Andrea in Mantua, Italy. He came back to Williams as an instructor in 1965 and has been here ever since.

If the typical art student at Williams has changed, so has the technology available to help that student learn.

For the times when they didn’t have a local building to guide students through or an exhibition to ship up from New York, Stoddard and Faison made sure they had the best slides available. In fact, Stoddard would project four slides on a screen at a time to give students a more unified idea of whatever great building they were studying.

Johnson has a new teaching tool at his disposal, one developed by two Williams graduates, Michael and Barry Gross, both ’02. The digital panorama combines a seamless series of photographs of a building or artwork to give one the ability to “tour” it with a computer.

“It’s a wonderful teaching tool. It’s really exciting. It’s almost — it’s not the same — but it’s close to being there,” he said. “What this allows you to do is to see how all the parts are related to each other. And the Gross brothers are also able with digital photography, and with superimposing one exposure on another, to get the effect of the light in a building in a remarkably faithful way.”

Williams in New York

For the spring semesters of 2007 and 2008 Johnson is directing the Williams in New York Program and not surprisingly bringing an arts focus to it.

This spring, students in the program — most not art majors — took a course in contemporary art taught by Shamim Momim '95 associate curator of the Whitney Museum of American Art.

"Another course, taught by architectural historian Anthony Robins '72, is about the architecture and the urban development of the city, and it’s taught basically on the sidewalks. It’s very much about observing what’s there and then trying to figure out why it’s there, what historical forces led to the city being the way it is.”

The third course, Cinema and the City, is taught by Associate Professor Liza Johnson '92, whose own films are rapidly gaining international recognition.

Women such as Momim, Liza Johnson and Laylah Ali, ’91, assistant professor at art at Williams and an acclaimed artist, are part of a yet untitled new generation of prominent Williams art grads. In fact, even at the time when there was merit in it, the media hype over the “Williams Art Mafia” overlooked many accomplished graduates in various areas of the art world.

“If there’s one thing I’d like to stress, it is that although the guys who ran museums have gotten a lot of press because there’s something unique about this group of Williams graduates who’ve taken over the major museums of the United States, we have produced students who have been very successful in architecture, in art history, in studio art, art dealers," Johnson said. “This is a very diverse department, and out of this diverse department has come a diverse group of graduates who are doing in all kinds of different things in the art field and being very successful at it.”

Adding studio art

Johnson noted that when he was a student Williams had one person teaching studio art and no major in the subject. The college added this as a major in the late 1960s.

“That part of the department has gotten stronger and stronger and stronger, until now we have produced artists like Laylah Ali, who’s internationally famous. We have also produced a remarkable number of architects,” he said. “We’ve been able to hire really smart younger people here, and so I think the art department has continued to be strong.”

For himself, Johnson has no plans to retire: “I’m going to keep teaching for a while. I’m having too much fun to quit.”

“I really enjoy doing art history 101. Not everybody enjoys doing introductory courses. I do. Maybe it’s because I’m just a ham and I like being able to perform,” he said. “I’m having a good time doing that, and I’m also having a really good time with this new technology, which I never thought I would.”

He also has a book project to tackle. “I’m working on a book on the architecture of theaters in Italy in the 16th and 17th centuries, which is a longtime project that just keeps growing and growing and growing.”

(At top is part of the sculpture "Eyes" in front of the Williams College Museum of art and visible from Main Street in Williamstown. This bronze and electric light installation by Louise Bourgeois was commissioned by the museum for its 75th anniversary in 2001. Mark E. Rondeau photo)