John Register


Pacific Rim Restaurant [1989], oil, 50 x 70. painting, southwest art.
Pacific Rim Restaurant [1989], oil, 50 x 70.

The paintings of the late John Register [1939-1996] chronicle a search for overlooked beauty in unpeopled places, mainly in the West. As a record of America’s depersonalized landscapes, his paintings of empty coffee shops in Nevada, old hotels in Los Angeles, and bus stations in the southwestern desert celebrate sunlight and shadow but also portray a haunting stillness.

Why did he choose to paint dingy restaurants and lowly cafés? “They are something we experience universally, a kind of common denominator of interior space,” Register once said. “If I were to do my own house it would be too specific and not something that everybody can experience.

Today, at 25, Winegar is well on the way to developing his own painterly style in tonalist landscapes of the West marked by thick brush strokes andmuted colors. He often chooses as his subjects the landscapes he sees near his home in Bountiful, a northern suburb of Salt Lake City named after apassage in the Book of Mormon. The picturesque Bountiful, where Winegar was born and raised, sits in a valley surrounded by rugged mountains and it would be too specific and not something that everybody can experience. But a café, hotel room, or bus station these are places we have all been before, places we can all relate to.”

Gallup Still Life [1993], oil, 35 x 50. painting, southwest art.
Gallup Still Life [1993], oil, 35 x 50.

Though the West Coast informed Register’s work, it would be an error to view him simply as a regionalist. Register’s painted vision of California reminds us that the state anchors the western edge of the continent—a final, grand showcase for the American Dream. While many of his images came from Los Angeles, his search for material took him all over the country, from the Great Plains to New York City.

Register came to art late in life, and his journey was an unusual one. Along the way he was a race-car driver, advertising art director, photographer, tennis fanatic, competitive chess player, compulsive letter writer and reader, ice-boat racer, backpacker, fisherman, surfer, and family man. During the last 16 years of his life he battled serious kidney problems and underwent grueling treatments for cancer. Such struggles seemed to drive his career.

John Sherman Register was born on February 1, 1939, in New York City. His parents divorced when he was 3, and Register moved to the Los Angeles area in 1942 following his mother’s marriage to an Army psychiatrist.

Martini [1994], oil, 50 x 35. painting, southwest art.
Martini [1994], oil, 50 x 35.

Register wrote of his childhood: “My memories of Southern California span 50 years. I remember driving on Sunset [Boulevard] and my recollection is there were no houses, just ochre hills of dried grass. When I see Southern California now I can’t help but be tinged with a sense of loss—a lost childhood and a lost way of life. Perhaps some of this is in my painting.”

John was 11 when his father died. Following family tradition, he went East for his education.

He spent three years at the Lawrenceville School and graduated in 1957. A friend there was Deny McCoy, whose uncle was Andrew Wyeth. One day, McCoy invited Register to visit Wyeth at his studio in Chadd’s Ford, PA. “We sat in a circle drawing one another,” he said. “I remember he was working on that famous painting of the dead deer hanging from a tree in winter. … I thought, ‘What an incredible life it must be to be a painter.’”

In 1957 Register enrolled at the University of California, Berkeley. Not interested in the abstract expressionism being taught there, he majored in English but continued pursuing art on his own and in his junior year spent a semester studying painting at the Académie Julian in Paris. On his return, Register studied at the California School of Fine Arts in San Francisco with Elmer Bischoff and Nathan Oliveira, who were part of the Figurative Expressionist school emerging in the Bay area.

Cadillac Hotel [1984], oil, 50 x 70. painting southwest art.
Cadillac Hotel [1984], oil, 50 x 70.

In 1964 Register married Catherine Richards and moved to Brooklyn. After studying design and television production at the Pratt Institute in Manhattan, Register joined the advertising firm Young & Rubicam. Within a few years he became a successful art director, but he had mixed feelings about his career on Madison Avenue. “I hated working in advertising, yet I realize now that it taught me some important skills, notably to distinguish between art and illustration,” he said. “I like some illustration, but it is supposed to make a point, to send a message. I believe a successful painting does not make a point or send a message. A good painting has an ineffable, mysterious quality, it eschews technique, and it is a refinement of the commonplace.”

He continued to take a Saturday class at the Art Students League. On the surface, it seemed like a fine life. Register had a beautiful wife and three children, a Fifth Avenue apartment and high career prospects. Yet he was unhappy. “I was almost speechless with misery about my job and life,” he said. “Sometimes Cathy 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.”

Shortly after his 33rd birthday, in 1972, an event occurred that changed his life. “We were in the conference room for yet another big meeting concerning the Sears account,” Register recalled. “I saw that this was the way my whole life would be in advertising. I realized that I just couldn’t do it. I stood up and said, ‘I’m sorry, I have a dentist appointment. I have to leave.’ They all looked at me quizzically. I left the meeting, left a note for my boss, and never went back to an office.”

In 1973, the Registers re-turned to California. In these early years of his painting career Register completed important works, drawing on subject matter that he would return to throughout his life: hotels, cafés, and empty chairs. Some images seemed to evoke scenes from the 1930s and ’40s, but the artist disclaimed an interest in nostalgia. “It just happens that these old-time places in Venice [California] are what I’m used to, and they are being torn down,” Register said. “There’s a fragility to the urban fabric in L.A. that people aren’t aware of. I’m attracted to places where real life has taken place.”

Although he was a realist who used photographs as a point of departure, Register was not a photo-realist painter. “For me, painting is less rendering and more distillation. I try to reduce an image to its essence,” he said. He even felt that the poorer the photograph he worked from, the better the painting turned out. Occasionally he photocopied photographs to reduce them to simplified shapes of light and dark.

The artist deliberately rejected obvious beauty. “It’s not beautiful furniture, it’s all very ordinary,” he once said of some of his subject matter. “It’s as ordinary a chair as I could find. It’s as ordinary a table as I could find. It’s not that the ordinary chair is beautiful but that in its ordinariness it becomes the essence of a chair, or the essence of a table.”

In 1980, the 41-year-old Register suffered kidney failure as the result of a childhood disease. He became dependent on a dialysis machine while waiting for a transplant, a thrice-weekly ordeal that made painting time precious. “I painted some of my best pictures when I wasn’t feeling well,” said Register. “When you have a limited amount of energy, you tend not to overwork a painting. You’re more lucid about what you have to say.” Register received a transplanted kidney from his sister in 1981. Unfortunately, the transplant failed. Returning to Los Angeles in 1985, the artist underwent another transplant. For the remainder of his life he was in and out of hospitals on a nearly monthly basis.

Though Register painted throughout the country, his heart always lay in the West. Cathy Register reminisced in a letter: “Years ago when we would be driving across the country in our Volvo, moving West from New York, John would always stop the car when we hit the lonely desert dotted with sagebrush, make us all get out, and say, ‘Be still. Listen to the quiet.’ The kids and I would stand motionless by the blazing tarmac. Then he’d pick some sagebrush for us and say, ‘That’s the best smell in the world. Smell it. That’s home! We’re West.’”

In his last decade, many of Register’s images came from the streets of Los Angeles, a city that, to him, personified the alienation of American life. “When I drive around L.A.,” he said in 1989, “I look for an offbeat beauty. I don’t know what I’m looking for until I find it. There are things so ugly that I can’t paint them. Sometimes I get depressed by that city and by other cities I visit. But I like the patina of things that have been battered by life.”

The artist himself was being battered by illness. In the fall of 1994, cancer caused by the kidney medication overtook Register, and he underwent surgery to remove a cancerous nerve near his brain. Though the physicians predicted that Register had only a few months to live, the artist remarkably painted a dozen major paintings in the next year and had a successful 1995 show at Modernism Gallery in San Francisco. On April 9, 1996, Register died at home in the arms of his wife.

The exhibit John Register: Persistent Observer is currently on view at the Frederick R. Weisman Museum of Art at Pepperdine University, Malibu, CA, through March 26. It travels next to The Lawrenceville School, Lawrenceville, NJ, and the West Valley Art Museum, Sun City, AZ..

Barnaby Conrad III is the author of John Register: Persistent Observer and served as guest curator for the Register retrospective exhibition currently traveling the country.

Photos courtesy Woodford Press.

Featured in February 2000