I met Jerry Johnson on a cold, rainy day in Coney Island in March of 2003. I was early and soaked when his car pulled up to the corner of Surf Ave and Jones Walk. I jumped into a car packed with the debris that comes with a sign business office that doubles as transportation, and I started pitching fast balls, none of which bothered the strike zone. I told Jerry that we were painting new signs for the businesses of Coney Island and that he was the top artist on our list. I assured him that Creative Time, America’s premier Public Arts Organization (our collaborator/benefactor/instigator) insisted he be given carte blanche over Coney, and any number of losers would be at his beck and call to haul paint and get sandwiches. I don’t remember Jerry saying much, but his white knuckle grip on the wheel and his thousand-yard stare out the windshield spoke loud and clear. I rolled up the welcome mat myself, and as I stepped out of the car, left a copy of my book, a pro-graffiti memoir that I’m sure sailed out the window at the next corner. The next day, Jerry wrote one of the angriest letters I ever read, criticizing me and Creative Time for working with me. My co-curator on the project, Peter Eeley, wrote back and told him off in a way that mixed Yale and jail. I was grateful that he, and by extension the art world, stood up for me, but I knew it was gonna sting like a beanball to the spine of old Jerry Johnson.
Jerry, since 1977, was the owner and chief walldog of Orange Outdoor and was justly famous for a series of billboards he painted at Atlantic and Nevins in Brooklyn, a spaldeen toss from ICY Signs on Fourth Avenue. They were technically excellent and hilarious—truly art with a subversive edge that still cuts, decades after they were painted. I remember seeing one of them and being knocked flat. It was audacious and accomplished in a way I couldnt comprehend, but the feeling it inspired became a puzzle piece and I looked for the other pieces that fit with it, in the hope that one day I would understand. Justin Green had a piece of Jerry’s story that didn’t fit, but I kept it just the same. Matt Wright got a call to help him on a job, and after a long day of working together, Matt made an attempt to compliment him on his billboards. Jerry froze and shut down the conversation like a well-oiled riot gate. Then our oldest newest co-worker, Eric Davis, our Brooklyn Sign Expert, filled in some great details. He remembered Jerry as a long haired figurative painter at Pratt in the early 70s, and remembered him even more respectfully as a well-regarded student at the Art Students League. Fast forward to 2007 (or so) Eric saw Jerry on the street, told him that he remembered him from Pratt. Jerry denied knowing him and withdrew. Jerry was trained to be a great painter in the classic tradition and it being the seventies, his talent wouldn’t get him a show in Soho. So well trained, and possessing great talent and wit, he made a career shoehorning his abilities into advertising, an obviously painful fit. The billboards he painted for himself were a funny antidote to the advertising that was his day job, and they served the highest purpose—to be beyond everything just for the sake of being beyond. He had at least one client that met him halfway. Michael Pintchuk walked into the shop last night and, unprompted, mentioned Jerry Johnson. I turned off the stereo and patted his pockets for any missing puzzle pieces. Jerry painted several ads for Pintchuk Hardware at the corner of Flatbush and Bergen. One reimagined “American Gothic” with the farmer holding a paintbrush. Ok, not that funny, but beautifully done just the same. “What’s up with Jerry?” I asked. Michael shook his head, “No idea. Haven’t spoken to him in years, but hes a real artistic wit.” No doubt.
So Jerry Johnson, wherever you are, you are respected and remembered. I hope this finds you well and at peace. The irony is not lost on me that at this moment there are people that want to put me in shows or present me with accolades or bestow upon me kinship to their endeavors. Some bear gifts and some gift bears. I want to thank you all, and I want you all to know I think you’re awesome and you should keep doing what you’re doing without me. I’ve got to realize my potential and that means working just past all limits of imagination and time. Every opportunity you are offering, even if it’s the good one, is just a detour to delay.