In Memoriam: Robert Bradley Johnson

“You helped pay for the roof on my house,” said Frans Wildenhain of Bob Johnson.

With sadness, I note the passing on August 13th of Robert Bradley Johnson.

Mr. Johnson was the very best collector of Frans Wildenhain’s work. And, as with all the best collectors, he fully understood and practiced the most genuine part of collecting: sharing. In 2010, Mr. Johnson generously donated his carefully curated collection of more than 330 Wildenhain examples, purchased during Frans’s longest and most creative portion of his career, to Rochester Institute of Technology.

It was largely Mr. Johnson’s collection that the 2012 Wildenhain exhibition and its accompanying catalog featured. It was my privilege to have known him for nearly three years, benefited and learned from his sharp recall of Wildenhain’s artistry and the innovations in ceramics and craft taking place at Shop One on Troup Street in Rochester, and enjoyed his dry humor that amused as much as it instructed. Bob is survived by his partner of more than 50 years, Winn McCray.

Dashingly handsome, in the mold of Fairbanks, Gable and Brando (and Bob resembled the latter), Bob charmed others with ease while easily putting us at ease.

The son of a commercial architect, Bob attended Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI) on a scholarship to study chemistry. “I got tired of all the long, complicated equations,” he told me. “Too,” he said dryly, “I wasn’t awfully good at mathematics.”

Completing RPI with a Physics degree, Bob joined Eastman Kodak in Rochester, NY, in 1954 as an optical engineer. He was drawn to Rochester as much for the professional position at Kodak as he was the film firm’s close proximity to the Eastman School of Music. Bob had a long-standing interest in music – as one who appreciates the art as well as a paid tenor in local church choirs and as a pianist.

Though very much enamored of music, he decided to focus more closely on his Kodak career after reading the salaries of music professors in the local daily newspaper: “I was earning more at Kodak than most of the faculty,” he recalled. “Plus,” he deadpanned, “I was scared to death playing at recitals.”

A chance trip to the innovative and recently opened retail craft store named Shop One, led to Bob’s first Wildenhain purchase: a lamp. “I went there,” he said, not particularly to buy a lamp, but they had a lamp for sale. It was wired up and everything. And I thought, ‘I need one of those.’”

Bob retired from Kodak in 1984 and enjoyed life with Winn at their rural farm estate.

Below I excerpt a portion of the introduction to my interview with Bob; the complete interview appears as Chapter 6 in “Frans Wildenhain 1950-75: Creative and Commercial American Ceramics at Mid-Century.” Interested readers are invited to write me (BAAGLL@RIT.EDU) and I will send them a Word document with the entire text for that chapter.

Beginning with his first purchase at Shop One in 1955, Bob collected steadily, enthusiastically, and voraciously, for more than a quarter century, assembling the largest and most diverse single-owner collection of Wildenhain’s work from across the artist’s most prolific period. He was driven and decisive. “I didn’t poke around and was always number one in line when he had a show,” Bob reports. Too, he remembers, “My last contact was with Lili,” Frans’s third wife. “I went to a private sale, when things from their house were offered. The only item I bought, of all things, was a millstone. And I don’t know how I did that. I had a Volkswagen at the time.”

Today, Johnson lives with Winn McCray in a rural country farmhouse outside of Rochester that they purchased in 1971, restored, and, over the years, expanded. Impeccably furnished and decorated, it’s set-ready for an upscale magazine’s photographer. The couple is as comfortable with one another as the visitor is in their company. Each is soft-spoken yet effervescent, dryly humorous while reflective. They don’t complete one another’s sentences as much as they embellish and footnote them. At one point, as we discussed where and at what cost Bob had purchased Wildenhain pots, Winn disappeared to another room and returned moments later with a folder containing a few dozen early ‘70s original receipts – some from Shop One others from Frans’s Laird Lane home. Later, as Bob discussed a building, Winn drew down a volume from the bookshelves and leafed through the text until he found the building being discussed. He then opened the book to the title page, showing me architect Philip Johnson’s inscription to Bob’s father.

I met with Bob and Winn on several Fall 2011 Wednesday afternoons. Each time we took our assigned seating, such that all were afforded a wonderful view of the gardens and expansive property. Sunlight streamed into the room through nearly floor-to-ceiling glazing. Bob sat in an armchair next to a table lit by the Wildenhain lamp that was among his first purchases; Winn sat in another armchair at Bob’s left; and I held down one end of an eight-foot sofa. The space they live in is generous – not palatial, but comfortably large. Still, it is difficult to imagine where more than 300 pieces of pottery once had been placed, without stacking them up like cordwood. The cathedral-ceiling room is substantial and bright, visually monopolized by a Steinway concert grand piano. Surprisingly, the instrument does not spatially dominate the room. One wall is wholly comprised of glossy, white painted built-in bookshelves where novels amicably share space next to scientific journals, museum catalogues, and nonfiction works on contemporary social concerns.

“You can’t keep all of them,” Bob says about the size and breadth of their collections. “But Winn doesn’t like to throw things out.” Winn adds: “Neither one of us does. It just piles up. But we throw out different things.” At least initially, Bob dismisses any notion that he was a collector prior to encountering Wildenhain’s ceramics. In fact, he had an interest and was actively engaged in collecting well before arriving in Rochester.

The easy conversational path we enjoyed during those visits mirrored the process that led to Bob’s fascination and devotion to “The Collection.” The asides ranged seamlessly from global warming and hydro-fracking to speculation on the universe’s size and late ‘50s social life among Rochester’s art and music lovers.

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