Larry Johnson started out as a painter, but by the early 1980s—and having graduated from California Institute of the Arts—he was making photographs, despite the fact that he “always liked pictures, but never liked ‘photography.’”1 Johnson’s photography is grudgingly photographic, borrowing the medium’s capacity to duplicate glossy prints, but dispensing with the messy business of lenses, f-stops, and deciding what to shoot.
The Walker Art Center owns Untitled (Movie Stars on Clouds) (1983), a key early work. Six prints spell out the names of cinematic icons from the mid-1950s and early 1960s in italicized serif type over indistinct backgrounds, like the end credits of some lost classic: Montgomery Clift, Sal Mineo, Clark Gable, Natalie Wood, James Dean, Marilyn Monroe—stars of either Rebel Without a Cause (1955) or The Misfits (1961). The work contains many of the traits common to Johnson’s practice ever since, not least the most-celebrated invention of his native southern California: celebrity itself. The mingling narratives of actor and acted-out—those life-imitating-art clichés—surface as we realize that all of the stars featured met with tragic demises, whether murdered, drowned, or drug-induced. The inclusion of Mineo, who was ostracized by Hollywood for his homosexuality, and Clift, who remained a wreck of denial, anticipates the more overtly gay context of Johnson’s later work. Yet, as David Robbins has suggested, there is further significance in that all these stars were somehow at a break-even point of stardom, whereas today, “after nearly a century of existence, stars have come to take up more cultural space than they can support. There is a star-deficit. Star mannerism has set in.“2
Johnson made such mannerism his specialty. His candy-colored word-works of the 1980s—at first purloined texts from supermarket tabloids and then self-concocted—would delight in a poetry of celebrity preening, bitchy testimonials, wild-child-alcoholic confessions, and self-justifying therapy froth, all in an anonymous first-person voice. Untitled (I Had Never Seen Anything Like It) (1988) deliberately flirts with the possibility that it’s a Johnson “exclusive,” while its porno-narrative mocks both the appetite for “outings” of movie stars and, with its nonsensical letter coloring, the suspicion that it might host some secret-coded “gay language.”