A Short Career, But Long on Life

William H. Johnson's art reflects his origin as the son of black farm laborers. An exhibition brings this little-known painter's work into view

THE bus ride up Madison Avenue from the Whitney Museum of Art in Manhattan's Upper East Side to the Studio Museum of Harlem takes you away from swept sidewalks and manicured trees past fenced empty lots, entryways covered by graffiti, and abandoned cars.

The neighborhoods of Harlem are closer to what William H. Johnson would have seen in the 1940s, when he captured vignettes of street life on canvas.

An exhibition called, "Homecoming: William H. Johnson and Afro-America, 1938-1946," whch opened originally at the two museums and will soon go on tour, includes 80 paintings that he completed in South Carolina and New York between 1938 and 1945, as well as a 46-piece survey of the artist's work done between 1923-45.

Johnson's images stand out in both color and form. On the first take, it strikes you that these faces and scenes are familiar; that you've seen them somewhere before. You realize you haven't, but recognizable are the styles and techniques of many masters including Van Gogh, Cezanne, Pissaro, Monet, and Picasso.

Johnson set out to become a newspaper cartoonist, but he soon switched to painting. A caricature-like treatment of his subjects, however, is evident in his work. His style is also characterized by a brightness and boldness of color.

Because of timing and racism, Johnson's work was not well known during his lifetime, says Richard J. Powell, who authored the exhibition catalog. In a telephone interview he says, "[Johnson] emerges in the 1920s and at that point, collectors really banked on big European artists of several generations earlier, for example, Cezanne, Picasso. In the late '40s and '50s when American art began to receive the same critical acclaim as European artists, Johnson was institutionalized and his works [were] sitting

on docks in New York City."

Johnson was born in Florence, S.C., in 1901. Although his parents were black laborers, his Anglo-like features aroused curiosity and led to rumors that Johnson's natural father was the white employer of Mrs. Johnson. "Growing up with the mark of the white race across his face profoundly affected Willie," writes Mr. Powell. Throughout his life, he would struggle with the issue of origin and roots, and much of his work was committed to validating his black origins.

Explaining his philosophy, Johnson told an interviewer in 1932, "My aim is to express in a natural way what I feel, what is in me, both rhythmically and spiritually, all that which in time has been saved up in my family of primitiveness and tradition, and which is now concentrated in me."

Johnson was formally educated in art at the National Academy of Design in New York City from 1923 to 1926. After that, he spent a year of independent study in France, where he more fully acquainted himself with the works of the masters. His work from this period reflects both Expressionist and Impressionist influences.

It was in France that Johnson met Holcha Krake, a textile artist from Denmark, who became his wife and had a profound effect on his life.

The Johnsons lived in Denmark, where they led a rather idyllic existence, according to Powell. They backpacked all over Europe and North Africa. They visited museums and studied the works of the masters. Mrs. Johnson encouraged her husband's painting, arranged exhibitions for him, and promoted his work. Johnson's work from this period includes some of his most vibrant use of color and technique. In "Tiled Roof Tops," and some of the other landscape works, the brush strokes and bold lines resemble Van Gog h's style.

The Johnsons returned to the United States in late 1938, both to avoid the outbreak of World War II and to satisfy Johnson's need to "paint his own people."

Living in New York City, the artist painted brightly colored images of the street life surrounding him. There are series of paintings where Johnson captures the fashion and energy of his time. The "Jitterbug" set reflects the dance fad of the early 1940s and also served as a study in Cubism that indicated that "Johnson fully understood that the hyperkinetic dances and fashion extremes of contemporary black culture were appropriate inspirations for a modern African-American art," writes Powell.

DURING this period, Johnson also painted images from his past. Life-on-the-farm scenes and "breakdown" scenes depict not only the manual work his people performed, but also the drudgery and hopelessness they suffered. The "breakdown" paintings are caricature-like in that he symbolically distorts features of the characters. The hands and feet of the African-American workers are enlarged, emphasizing their labor. He is also showing the breakdown of these people's lives, not only on a physical level, but al so the deeper implications for their emotional and spiritual well being.

After Johnson's wife died in 1944, his artwork became more spiritual. He painted family members, historical works, and his World War II "Fighters For Freedom" series.

He became ill during this time, and his work changed as a result. "He was more emphatic about truth and facts. [The paintings] are conceptually powerful and profound in how they address issues of history, ideas," says Powell.

Johnson made one more trip back to Europe to visit his wife's family, but "Europe [had] changed, he changed, his family changed. There was some real sense of loss on his part," says Powell. While visiting Denmark, he became ill and was hospitalized. He was eventually sent back to the US and spent the remaining 23 years of his life institutionalized. He never painted again.

Despite the tragic end to Johnson's career, Powell says, "What little he did in the 20 years that he was active as an artist, is such an up for me. His work is about life .... This is someone we don't need to mourn as much as we need to say made some extraordinary contributions to American art in spite of the obstacles."

* The exhibition is at the Whitney through Oct. 25. Then it travels to the Addison Gallery of American Art in Andover, Mass. (Jan.15-March 14, 1993), the Greenville Museum of Art in Greenville, S.C. (April 13-June 20, 1993), and the Amon Carter Museum in Fort Worth, Texas (Oct.16-Jan.9, 1994).

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.