Home 5 Gallery Artists 5 Cletus Johnson 5 Cave of the Stars IV 1984


Cletus Johnson

(American, b.1941)

Cave of the Stars IV

Painted wood, Museum board, clear and frosted plastic, filigree and  electrical components contained in a three-dimensional shadowbox fabricated by the artist
Overall:  24 1/2 x 33 1/4 x 11 1/2 inches (62.23 x 84.45 x 29.21 cm)

Price on request


Acquired directly from the artist by the former owner in 1985


I didn’t want to do what other people were doing…If I had begun painting, my work would have been like Edward Hopper’s. There is an element of Hopper in my work – my work is very much about the same isolated sensibility, the deserted spaces, the play of shadows and light.

– Cletus Johnson

Since the early 1970s, Cletus Johnson has created a body of work that is not exactly painting and not exactly sculpture, despite being housed in three dimensional shadowboxes or “theaters”.  Evoking a lost urban world, they are indeed reminiscent of certain Hopper paintings in which the sense of isolation and loneliness is expressed entirely through empty space and a spooky, strange light. Johnson has called his art “stage sets for the play of the spectator’s imagination.”

Born in Elizabeth, New Jersey in 1941, Cletus Johnson grew up in White Plains, New York and as a kid around age 12 or 13, would take the train into New York City to visit museums and galleries. In his late teens, Johnson worked at the J. Walter Thompson ad agency in New York City and then later as production assistant on the Broadway play, Something About a Solider, an adaptation of a Mark Harris novel about a recruit in boot camp in Georgia during World Har II. According to the artist, “I worked from the first reading right through closing night, so I got to see very detail of the production.

Johnson’s involvement in the theater foreshadowed the major direction that his visual work would eventually take. The artist himself had little formal art education. He attended Bard College, for one semester and later spent a year at Parsons School of Design, but “…wasn’t a successful student…” who “…always had a terrible time with curriculums.”

Johnson’s love for theater is not necessarily a love of the institution itself; rather it’s a love for the psychological and physical “space” of the theater. Since the early 1970s he has translated his fascination with the theater into a substantial and eccentric visual vocabulary which includes his meticulously constructed bas-relief boxes, all painted the same matte grey, that depict extremely fanciful theater facades. Additionally, he has produced a large body of related collage works that incorporate various found materials and residue from theater constructions.

Theaters have become launching pads for Johnson’s metaphorical forays into wry humor, dreamlike speculations and constrained melancholy. They resonate with nostalgia, a vague sense of recollection, of déja-vu or with something even more deeply submerged in the recesses of the collective psyche.

(adapted from Cletus Johnson: Theaters & Collages, by Dan R. Tulley)