Yet Jonson's greatest desire was to devote his life to art through painting. Therefore, he left what he perceived as the corruption and instability of the city and moved to the Santa Fe desert in 1924. He built a home and studio across the street from his mentor and friend, BJO Nordfeldt, and began to paint full time. With his indefatigable energy, he also organized, despite great prejudice against abstraction, the Modern Wing at the Museum of New Mexico, taught art classes at his Atalaya Art School, and sold art supplies out of his garage. In 1934, with the support of the WPA/PWAP, he painted six large murals for the University of New Mexico and he began to commute to Albuquerque to teach at the University of New Mexico. And, in 1938, he founded the Transcendental Painting Group — a phenomenon which has gained national and international attention.
Jonson Gallery was established in 1950 on the UNM campus by this pioneering modernist painter. Jonson moved to Albuquerque to live and paint in this gallery/residence built for him by John Gaw Meem, the architect who popularized the Pueblo Revival style. The gallery served as an example of the complete life of an artist, with an upstairs living quarters and downstairs gallery, studio, office, storage rooms and conference space. Upon its opening it was heralded as "a monument to modern art." The gallery's light gray walls, linoleum floors and fluorescent lighting set the stage for New Mexico's premiere modern exhibition space in the 1950s.
Retiring as Professor Emeritus in 1954, he actively kept his connections with UNM administration, faculty and students through the gallery functions and a living will with the University by which he bequeathed his collections and the Jonson Gallery to UNM. Upon his death in 1982 the gallery became part of the University Art Museum. Within his lifetime, Jonson had created roughly 2,000 works and approximately 600 of these works are currently housed in the Permanent Retrospective Collection of Jonson Gallery, along with another 1200 permanent collection works by his students and contemporaries, such as Richard Diebenkorn, Elaine de Kooning and Joseph Albers. Before his death, Jonson ensured that the gallery and the collections would continue to function in a similar manner of his original vision and would become the property of the citizens of New Mexico.
Jonson generously welcomed all visitors to the gallery, often personally touring them through the current exhibition or the storage rooms. The Annual Summer Jonson Exhibition and other exhibitions of students, faculty and under-recognized New Mexican artists, continued until his death. The gallery was then remodeled and reopened in 1984 to a continuing succession of exhibitions in support of Jonson's original goals.
Today, scholars from all over the world come to Jonson Gallery in order to research the extensive archive which Jonson left. Within the archive, documents and catalogues are available on many significant Modernist artists who were Jonson's friends and acquaintances. The archive is also a major repository for information on The Transcendental Painting Group (1938-1941). Jonson staff members continue to update the archive with current articles, catalogues, and artists' files related to the collections.
The Jonson exhibition schedule for 1996-97 focuses on Jonson's works from the permanent collection, as well as works by artists associated with Jonson and the gallery or the UNM Department of Art and Art History graduate and Honors Thesis students. This direction for the gallery signals a return to Jonson's intention to support emerging artists and under-recognized artists, to demonstrate the quality teaching found within the Department of Art and Art History, and to enhance a museum context for viewing Jonson's works. Major Jonson works will now be exhibited throughout the year at Jonson Gallery, a small Modernist Museum.
The Jonson Gallery
University of New Mexico
1909 Las Lomas NE
Albuquerque, NM 87131
Chip Ware, Curator