Lester Frederick Johnson was born in Minneapolis on January 27, 1919. He studied at the Minneapolis School of Art with Alexander Masley, a student of Hans Hofmann, who had "a rigorous concern with pictorial structure, spatial illusion, and color relationships," according to the Tate Gallery. Johnson also trained at the St. Paul School of Art and the Chicago Art Institute.
In 1947, he moved to New York, and shared a studio with abstract expressionists Larry Rivers, who was also a musician and friend of Miles Davis, and Philip Pearlstein, who roomed with Andy Warhol.
Johnson’s early work focused on small urban landscapes and abstractions. From his window, he began painting the men he saw struggling through life on the Lower East Side.
His subjects changed to spaces, crowded with human figures. “No matter how he packs them in we feel that both he and they would gladly find room for someone else,'' wrote the New York Times.
Johnson began to include women in his work. “Unfettered billows of hair, in a range of colors and textures, frame and accentuate each female head. …” said Judith E. Stein in “Lester Johnson: The Likeness of Things Unlike.”
An Eighth Street Club colleague hired Johnson to teach figure drawing at Yale University from 1964 until his retirement in 1989. He died at age 91 on May 30, 2010 near his summer home in Southampton, Long Island.