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Courtesy Walker Art Center
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Untitled (Movie Stars on Clouds)
Larry Johnson
sheet, each of 6 20 × 24 × inches
Ektacolor photographs
Not on view

Object Details

Photographs (Photographs)
Accession Number
artist’s proof from an edition of 3 with 2 artist’s proofs
all 6 in black ink reverse BR “Larry Johnson A/P; N.A.
Physical Description
names of movie stars in black lettering flaoting in the blue sky..1 Montgomery Clift.2 Sal Mineo.3 Clark Gable.4 Natalie Wood.5 James Dean.6 Marilyn Monroe
Credit Line
Clinton and Della Walker Acquisition Fund, 1997

object label Larry Johnson, Untitled (Movie Stars on Clouds) (1983) Walker Art Center, 1999

The idea is to maximize the attention span the reader/viewer has for the work of art, which I imagine to be equal, say, to that of a daily horoscope or beauty tip.–Larry Johnson

Los Angeles-based artist Larry Johnson trained as a painter, not a photographer, but incorporates both media into his text-based works. In the early 1980s he changed his practice from using texts borrowed from magazines such as People or TV Guide to authoring fictional narratives recounting the life-and-death dramas of celebrities such as Robert Kennedy and John Lennon. He paints these texts on banal backgrounds–color fields evoking the painterly abstraction of the 1950s. In presenting the works not as paintings but as photographs, Johnson is considered part of the 1980s Appropriationist movement, which includes artists such as Barbara Kruger, Cindy Sherman, Sherrie Levine, and Richard Prince. By combining text from pop culture and transforming the imagery into “high art,” his practice is akin to that of Andy Warhol.

Johnson’s work alludes to celebrity, pop culture archetypes, gay iconography, and the pervasiveness of the myth of Los Angeles and Hollywood in the national imagination. The names presented here are those of film stars–three were in The Misfits (1961) (Gable, Monroe, and Clift), and the other three starred in Rebel without a Cause (1955) (Dean, Wood, Mineo). Each of them died unexpectedly: Clark Gable of a heart attack; Marilyn Monroe of a drug overdose; Montgomery Clift of a heart attack; James Dean in a car crash; Natalie Wood drowned; Sal Mineo was stabbed to death. Their names, floating like film credits in a picture-perfect blue sky, evoke the immortality-as-commodity they’ve gained through their movies.

Label text for Larry Johnson, Untitled (Movie Stars on Clouds) (1983), from the exhibition Art in Our Time: 1950 to the Present, Walker Art Center, Minneapolis, September 5, 1999 to September 2, 2001.

Copyright 1999 Walker Art Center

curatorial commentary Richard Flood discusses Larry Johnson’s Untitled (Movie Stars on Clouds) (1983) Richard Flood, September 1999

The Larry Johnson is a piece called Stills and it’s six photographs of clouds and the clouds really look like the opening credits for a movie. In a seraph face of each of the clouds is the name of a different movie star; so, it’s Marilyn Monroe, Clark Gable, Montgomery Clift, Natalie Wood, James Dean, Sal Mineo. I like it because more than any other piece that I can think about … It’s not too different from the Kawara. It’s the whole notion of fame is fleeting and the illusions of the gods and goddesses of popular cultural fantasies are these incredibly vulnerable people and you’d better watch what you heroicize because it’s going to let you down – or that may be my take on it. I think it’s an adolescent … I was very interested in star culture. I would go to movies then because a certain performer was in it. I remember one of the triads in that grouping of six – Monroe, Gable, Clift – when they were shooting the film that they all shared together. It was The Misfits, which was written for Monroe by Henry Miller who was trying to hold their marriage, which was falling apart at the time, together. It was Kazan, I think, who shot it. It was very interesting that here’s this icon in American theater married to the archetypal movie star with the king of another moment in American movie history, Clark Gable, and the perpetual wounded second male lead, Montgomery Clift, all in this disaster of a film – which I liked very much. It came out and probably two months later, she’s dead. Gable’s dead. Montgomery Clift will live to make one more movie and die prematurely of a very bizarre heart condition. Then, you have the youth cast on the other end of it: Natalie Wood, who dies by drowning; James Dean goes out in a flaming car; Sal Mineo is stabbed to death in his garage. They’ve all got this kind of poetic resonance within popular culture. But, I think they’re also signifiers for a flaw in our utilization of popular culture, that we tend to personalize that which we truly know nothing about. I think there’s a lot of poetic resonance in that piece, but I also think it’s smart. Actually, I do remember when I heard Marilyn Monroe had died. I was learning to drive a stick shift in the park. It came on the radio.

Richard Flood, Chief Curator, Walker Art Center, commenting on Larry Johnson’s Untitled (Movie Stars on Clouds) (1983), during the exhibition Art in Our Time: 1950 to the Present, Walker Art Center, Minneapolis, September 1999.

Copyright 1999 Walker Art Center