John Register, Artist of Lonely Rooms

California Realist Painter



 John Register (1939 - 1996) was dogged by congenital kidney disease, enduring two transplants in 1981 and 1985. Diagnosed in 1989 with what would be a fatal cancer, he described himself as "positive and belligerent," preparing to fight the disease as he had fought to find and fulfill himself as an artist.


  In the early 1960s, Register studied art at the California School of Fine Arts in San Francisco, the Art Center School of Design in Los Angeles and Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, after taking a B.A. degree in literature at the University of California, Berkeley in 1961.


  Register was a very successful advertising art director in California and New York for approximately eight years, during the latter period studying painting at the Art Students League on Saturdays. But the longer he worked in advertising, the unhappier he became. "I was almost speechless with misery about my job and life. Sometimes Cathy (his wife) and I would go to the Museum of Modern Art to look at the paintings during lunch. One time I remember telling her that if only I could paint one good picture, I might be happy." In 1972, shortly after his 33rd birthday, he simply walked out of a meeting, away from his job and into the life of an artist.


  Always a photographer, at times in a professional capacity, Register painted from sketches and photos he took as a matter of course wherever he lived and on scouting trips for subject matter, sometimes traveling alone by bus.


  Though different in style than Edward Hopper, Register has in common with him the use of interiors as subject matter, and a sense of the alienation of modern man that has been nearly universal in 20th Century art, whether abstract of realistic. While Hopper's art is more traditionally realistic (made modern by hard contours and a subtle use of cubist geometry), Register's painting reflects both contemporary photo-realism and the flat planes of minimalism, itself a further derivation of cubism. But, where Hopper will often place single figures in an architectural setting to express the problem of human loneliness, Register generally eliminates people altogether, making paintings that resonate with the void created by their absence. Both Hopper's and Register's architecture is haunted, to one degree or another, by this feeling of loneliness and displacement.


  In concentrating nearly all his attention on inanimate objects, Register imbues them with the feeling and presence of human beings. As a result, a chair is no longer a simple piece of furniture, but a nearly living entity expressive of the artist's attempt to come to terms with the existential crisis of doubt afflicting the modern age.


  A 1989 quote from John Register reveals his feelings about society, his sense of its loss of purpose and vitality. "A realist today must deal with the threat of the bomb, extraordinary materialist and Philistine values, a hypocritical government, and a generally vulgar environment. Consequently, the subject matter of a realist painter must capture the feeling of isolation, the tension of nothing happening. The suspended animation. The frozenness one feels when confronted with this environment."


  Register's paintings of diners, waiting rooms and offices are invested with great dignity and melancholy. He paints chairs, stools and booths, either singly, which magnifies their aloneness, or in series, as if the objects that we use congregate in our absence to overcome transferred isolation. But the chairs may have given up hope that anyone will ever sit in them.


  Another way of saying it, Register's art is about structures...walls, chairs, booths and counters in diners, throughway overpasses, bridges, hotels, offices, airports and buses...and, equally importantly, the windows that connect the interior spaces with those

outside. This dichotomy between inner and outer space, in addition to the absence of people, forms the basis of his art.


  The interiors represent the emotional intensity and zone of relative safety within his own being (the interiors are literally self-portraits of Register). All the richness of color and depth of tonal values are within this inner world. The outer world through the windows is blanched and, if not threatening, unappealing, little there to satisfy. This, of course, is the visual equivalent of what Register has told us about our "frozen" world where "nothing is happening".


  There is a certain yearning of the furniture for the windows (and doors), which are the means of possible connection with the outside world despite its negativity. There is also added sadness because it seems apparent that the two will never come together. The human desire for a significant relationship with the world will not be fulfilled.


Copyright by Don Gray


Don Gray Art  •  Art Essays & Art Criticisms