Painting: Combining Man & the Monument

After World War II, the cheapest space for artists in New York was to be found on the decaying Lower East Side. One of its original "Bowery boys" was Lester Johnson, now 47; just as he felt himself on the verge of painting "the Perfect Picture" -consisting of three abstract squares -the guy with the punching bag in the gym down stairs started. "I sat there bouncing," he recalls. "I reached a dead end with my painting."

So Johnson shifted targets and be gan sketching the kaleidoscopic vitality of the city's street life. Employing a splattery "action painting" technique, he...

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