Home News Vision From the Vault: Raymond Jonson and the Transcendental Painting Group

From the Vault: Raymond Jonson and the Transcendental Painting Group

Submitted Art "Watercolor No. 5," by Raymond Jonson, 1942, watercolor on paper. Purchase of the Roswell Museum and Art Center Foundation Acquisitions Fund.

Copyright © 2021 Roswell Daily Record

By Aubrey Hobart

Curator of Collections and Exhibitions

Roswell Museum and Art Center

About two and a half years ago, Scott Shields, the chief curator of the Crocker Art Museum in Sacramento, California reached out to the Roswell Museum and Art Center (RMAC). He knew there are several works by Raymond Jonson (1891-1982) in RMAC’s collection and he wanted to borrow one of them for an exhibition he was putting together on the Transcendental Painting Group (TPG). The TPG was a movement ahead of its time, but not well-known outside of New Mexico, so Shields decided to tour an exhibition of Transcendental art around the country and offer an alternate thread as to how we understand American abstraction in the 20th century.

The TPG was co-founded by Jonson and Emil Bisttram in 1938, and its stated purpose was “to carry painting beyond the appearance of the physical world, through new concepts of space, color, light and design, to imaginative realms that are idealistic and spiritual. … The work does not concern itself with political, economic or other social problems.” This was in direct contrast to Social Realism, which was the dominant form of art in America in the 1930s, and used realistic depictions to draw attention to the social, political and economic problems of the Great Depression. Because of this trend, the 10 members of the TPG were largely ignored by a populace that was not yet interested in abstraction, and the group dissolved within a few years.

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Shields’ interest in putting together a touring exhibition of this material seemed like a noble goal to me, so I assembled a document detailing all 14 of the Jonson pieces in our collection. He chose the one illustrated on this page: “Watercolor No. 5.” Its date puts the creation of this work at the end of the short-lived TPG movement. With a work selected, the long process of loaning an artwork to another museum was ready to begin.

At RMAC and other accredited museums, art loans begin with approval. Once we have all the details of the loan, we bring the request to the museum’s board of trustees for a discussion and a vote. Most loans are approved, but every once in a while, the board will say no. That happened not too long ago when another museum asked to borrow our “Ram’s Skull with Brown Leaves” by Georgia O’Keeffe. Knowing that visitors often come to RMAC just to see that piece, they decided it was not in our best interests to lend it out. However, they were happy to lend the Jonson work, so we moved to step two.

The next step was paperwork. We started with a loan agreement, which is essentially a contract that both museums sign. In the agreement, we detail exactly which work(s) will be loaned, exactly how the work will be packed and how it will be traveling, who is responsible for insurance and/or damages while the work is in transit, what to do or not do if the work is accidentally damaged, who is paying for the transportation, and how the borrowing institutions can or cannot use the image of the work for publicity purposes. We then request that every location on the tour provide us with a facility report which documents the levels of light, temperature, and humidity in their buildings, so we can do our best to make sure the piece isn’t damaged by its environment as it moves from place to place.

Once the paperwork is in order, the physical work begins. The piece is matted in acid-free board and framed to cover its face with acrylic or glass. Then it’s wrapped in cloth, surrounded by hard and soft foam, and securely inserted into a protective, custom-made wooden crate that will keep it from shifting during transport. The crate is put into the custody of a certified art handler — with more paperwork to show it has been picked up — and shipped off to its first destination.

This is all a lot of effort by a lot of people, but the results are worth it. Not only will Shields be able to put together the finest exhibition possible, but visitors across the country will learn more about New Mexican art and RMAC, so I think it’s worth the trouble. Our watercolor will be on view in Albuquerque from July to September of this year; at the Philbrook Museum in Tulsa from October 2021 to February 2022; in Naples, Florida at the Baker Museum from March to July 2022; at the Crocker Art Museum in Sacramento from August to November 2022, and finally, at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art from December 2022 to April 2023. The exhibit is called Another World: The Transcendental Painting Group, 1938-1945. Be sure to check it out if you get the chance.

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