Lester L. Johnson is an artist who earned his B.F.A. and his M.F.A. at the University of Michigan. For decades, he has explored color and geometry in energetic abstract collages that draw from his own African and Native American heritage as well as from his love of contemporary jazz musicians. Each of his works is uniquely profound to look at, using patterns and repetition — as well as deliberate breaking of pattern — in different ways, celebrating the beauty of cultural interchange and individuality. You can find out more about him and view more of his work on his website.
There are two pieces of Johnson’s work at UMMA, One for Gladys Knight and Total Eclipse. They’re both mesmerizing, but I have a particular fascination with Total Eclipse for its illusion of structure. At first, it seems to be rigidly following some kind of rule of pattern-making. However, the more the viewer spends time with it, the harder it is to make sense of the work. There are no real rules. All structures, all laws, all patterns are an illusion.
Naomi Dickerson is an artist who earned her bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Wayne State University, where she also taught painting for a time. In the 1970s, she was an assistant to the curator of graphic arts at the Detroit Institute of Art. Her work, often linear and/or constructive pieces that transcend the boundaries of artistic mediums, has garnered many awards and grants.
Second Score for Black Opera is a lithograph print of Dickerson’s that was exhibited at UMMA along with Johnson’s Total Eclipse and One for Gladys Knight as part of a movement of artists in the 1960s and 1970s using experimentation and abstract art to find their own agency in a fraught sociopolitical landscape. In this work, which explicitly identifies itself as “for Black Opera,” at first appears as a neat array of similar grayscale marks and then reveals itself, upon closer inspection, to be full of variety in color, direction, depth, and density. No mark, however initially similar, is exactly the same as any other. It feels like looking at music, but music that can only be made from gathering hundreds of unique individuals. I cannot speak to what Dickerson intended to convey with this piece, but it makes me think about both the beautiful art that African Americans have created and continue to create as well as a warning against viewing any one racial group as monolithic.
Notably, it’s difficult to find public information about Naomi Dickerson online. Which doesn’t make a lot of sense — she has over ten pieces of artwork in the DIA’s permanent collection, for example, and has had her work featured widely in many other exhibitions. It seems that she has been active in making art at least into the early 2000s, and according to an Eastern Michigan University article from 1980, she was, at one point, living in Paris, France. I can’t say for certain why she’s such an enigma, but her artwork definitely deserves more recognition. It’s so easy to get lost in the vast abstract worlds she creates.