An Open Letter to Ellen Hulda Johnson

By Bettina Smith

November 21, 2011

Lichtenstein writes to inform Johnson of his completion of two paintings she had seen on a visit to his studio, and includes the original source material (two clippings from newspaper comics).
Roy Fox Lichtenstein letter to Ellen H. Johnson, 1963 Apr. 5. Ellen Hulda Johnson papers, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.
William Wegman letter to Ellen H. Johnson, 1974 Apr. 19.
William Wegman letter to Ellen H. Johnson, 1974 Apr. 19. Ellen Hulda Johnson papers, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.

Dear Ellen Johnson,

I think you are the bee’s knees. We’ve never met, but you taught art history at my alma mater, Oberlin College, for almost forty years. I became an art history major there after you retired and it seemed like every corner I turned, I ran into something you had contributed to the institution. Hanging in the college’s art museum was your portrait painted by Alice Neel (I hope you liked it—there’s something about it that makes you look like a real mensch).

Giant three-way plug, sketch
Sketch demonstrating the placement of the Giant three-way plug sculpture by Claes Oldenburg at the Allen Memorial Art Museum in Oberlin, Ohio, ca. 1975. Ellen Hulda Johnson papers, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.

I used to walk past Claes Oldenburg’s Giant Three-Way Plug, the sculpture you commissioned, on my way to the art library, and I visited the Frank Lloyd Wright house you restored and donated to the college. But most importantly, I have to thank you for founding the Art Rental program. As a grubby college student it meant so much that you’d trust me and my fellow undergrads to keep original works by Picasso, Chagall, Warhol, and many other hugely significant artists in our dorm rooms, and charge us no more than $5 a piece to do it.

So, after all this, when I started working at the Archives of American Art, I naturally felt a little starstruck when I realized that we have your papers! Looking through them has been fascinating. I knew you were active in the art world, but I didn’t realize how close you were with so many different artists. I think it’s so neat that Roy Lichtenstein sent you the original source materials for two of his paintings. And what’s this about you giving a hippopotamus figurine to William Wegman? I’d love to know the inside joke behind that one!

Anyway, I heard that it would have been your 101st birthday this Friday, so I just wanted to say: happy birthday and thank you again for being so great.

Wishing you all the best,

Bettina Smith

Bettina Smith is the librarian for digital projects at the Archives and a long-time fan of Ellen Johnson.

Comments

How amazing that you could share this letter with us. Love Roy Lichtenstein. Thank you Bettina.

it's an interesting posting. I read this posting from the fist sentence to the end sentence

Nice post and Nice paintings:-)