Painter. Among the first progressive artists to settle in New Mexico, he worked in relative obscurity throughout most of his career while producing accomplished abstractions inspired by Kandinsky. He also created powerful, idiosyncratic interpretations of the New Mexico landscape. Born near Chariton, Iowa, Carl Raymond Johnson moved several times with his family before they settled in 1902 in Portland, Oregon. In 1909–10 at the Portland Museum Art School he worked with a teacher who had been a student of Arthur Wesley Dow. In 1910 he moved to Chicago, where he studied with Swedish-born painter and printmaker B. J. O. (Bror Julius Olsson) Nordfeldt (1878–1955), the city's foremost postimpressionist, and at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. During his Chicago years, while also doing innovative design work for the theater, he painted works indebted to the emotionally and spiritually charged work of Albert Bloch and Russian artist Nikolai Roerich, who arrived for an extended visit to the city in 1920. After reading Concerning the Spiritual in Art in 1921, he adopted Kandinsky as his guiding light. Following a visit in 1922, he moved to Santa Fe two years later. At this time, he altered the spelling of his surname. For his subsequent Earth Rhythms series, he incessantly drew the hard, arid forms of New Mexico's landscape, as he sought to comprehend the forces of nature. From these studies, he composed paintings that use cubist angularity and fragmentation as tools to construct expressive, at times almost violent, evocations of natural forms and processes. Some landscapes include allegorical figures. From about 1929, he worked mostly nonobjectively, combining geometric and organic forms in intricate compositions. Hard-edge boundaries suggest discipline and control, while vigorous, sometimes whiplash, lines often energize surfaces. At their best, his paintings communicate mystical inner visions, independent of the material world and realized through imagination.
In 1934 Jonson joined the faculty at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque, where he also painted murals for the university library under auspices of a federal art project. In 1938, with Kandinsky follower and influential Taos teacher Emil Bisttram (1895–1976), Jonson organized the Transcendental Painting Group, which existed for about three years. This loose association of ten spiritually oriented abstract painters also included Ed Garman (1914–2004), William Lumpkins (1909–2000), Agnes Pelton, Florence Miller Pierce (1918– ), Horace Towner Pierce (1916–58), and Canadian Lawren Harris. With a gift of his own works along with others from his collection, in 1950 he founded the university's Jonson Gallery, which showcases this material along with the work of emerging or underrepresented artists. Jonson retired from teaching in 1954 but continued to promote the exchange of ideas that underlay New Mexico's development in recent decades as a vital center for contemporary art. He died in Albuquerque.