a later span of Jonson’s production: his series, produced from the mid-1930s until 1965. “The defining characteristic of the series,” Ware writes, “was its presentation of pure form, line, and color to evoke musical sensations. More expressly, Jonson intended to reference atonal music in this series, specifically placing an emphasis on dissonance to control what he viewed as the natural tendency of colors to be harmonious.” He quotes Jonson: “In these I have thought of a kind of dissonance in color playing a part in the composition. [It is a] music term I know but there is not a word in painting that would state the item. … Now what I’m after is exactly the same thing in music except that here it will be color. In other words a complete rhythm built like a discord, which becomes resolved and will add a further kick, as it were, to the sensation of color movement.”
Ware develops this idea in the context of a similar boundary crossing that had occurred some two decades earlier and was exemplified from the visual side by Wassily Kandinsky’s 1911 theoretical treatise Concerning the Spiritual in Art and from the musical side by coeval compositions by Arnold Schoenberg, particularly his String Quartet No. 2, which had its first performance in 1908. Ware leads the reader into the aesthetic question of “empathy,” through which formal elements may themselves evoke a specific psychological response from a viewer. This idea would evolve into a tenet of the Transcendental Painting Group, which Jonson helped found in 1938.
Schoenberg’s relevance to a coeval artist interested in dissonance would seem obvious. It was Schoenberg, after all, who oversaw the gradual evolution of musical harmony that led over two decades — from the beginning of the 20th century until the 1920s — from the acute expressivity born of the waxing and waning of traditional consonances and dissonances to a radical mode of “composition with 12 notes,” in which no note had more harmonic importance than any other note and in which musical consonance and dissonance essentially lost their meaning. One wishes the Schoenberg-to-Jonson connection could be drawn more boldly, and Ware must be frustrated to have to content himself with saying,
Chromatic Contrasts No. 20 (Oil No, 11), 1945, oil on canvas, 24 x 32 inches