New York

William H. Johnson

Studio Museum in Harlem/Whitney Museum of American Art

Forming a well-thought-out retrospective that included works ranging from 1923 to 1946, these joint exhibitions, organized by the National Museum of American Art, provided the first serious consideration of the African-American painter William Henry Johnson (1901–70) in over 20 years. As art historian Richard J. Powell notes in the accompanying catalogue, Johnson’s relative obscurity is due to a number of factors: his expatriate status in the ’30s, his category-defying eclecticism, and, of course, the pervasive racism that informs the Modernist canon.

The Studio Museum presented an in-depth look at Johnson’s early career, from his precocious student years at New York’s National Academy of Design, through his bold experimentation with European Modernism. The shimmering building in Vieille Maison at Porte, ca.1927, reflects the artist’s early foray into Impressionism, but not until the wildly expressionist landscapes inspired by Chaim Soutine, such as the undulating Cagnes-sur-Mer, ca. 1928–29, are the restless energy and empathy for motif—the signature of his mature oeuvre—readily apparent. A sojourn through Norway later in the decade yielded a dramatically brighter palette in such canvases as Chalet in the Mountains, 1938, in which skewed perspective and flat, unbroken areas of pure color look ahead to the “primitivist” style for which Johnson is best known.

Upon his return to America, in 1938, Johnson turned to figuration and became committed to capturing and interpreting the African-American experience. Like his contemporary Jacob Lawrence, Johnson looked to the street life of Harlem for inspiration, which is apparent in works like Street Musicians, ca. 1940, and the lively “Jitterbugs” series, ca. 1940–41. Painted in a radically simplified manner that self-consciously approximates the folk vernacular practiced by self-taught artists like Horace Pippin, these figures are activated by abstract, formal rhythms even as they document specificities of physiognomy, personality, and dress. Johnson’s newly simplified if sophisticated style is especially successful in his renderings, from memory, of rural–South Carolina farm life. The jewellike primary colors and rhythmic play of jagged horizontal and vertical bands in works like Early Morning Work, ca. 1940, and Going to Church, ca. 1940–41, recall the improvisational patterns of African-American quilts. These canvases, along with the “Breakdown” series of the same period, are arguably Johnson’s best. Other works of the early ’40s include a series of wartime gouaches that relate the story of segregated black enlisted men, while Moon Over Harlem, ca. 1943–44, a notorious story of police brutality, is an explicit—and uncannily timely—statement of protest.

After the death of his wife, an increasingly spiritual Johnson visited South Carolina to paint family portraits and religious themes. The exaggeratedly simplified planes and patterned surfaces of Mom and Dad, 1944, and the painfully attenuated figures in Swing Low, Sweet Chariot, ca. 1944, are representative of his folk style, carried to its logical, anti-style extreme. With the narrative, visually crowded canvases of the “Fighters for Freedom” series, 1945, Johnson ended his career on a contemplative, philosophical note.

William Johnson occupies a unique position in American art between the Depression and the end of World War II. While this period is neatly bifurcated by historians between two camps—Modernist and American Scene—Johnson’s oeuvre contributed significantly to both. His arrival at a mature, “folk” style was a hard-earned reappropriation of his own cultural heritage and the visual traditions that had for decades informed European Modernism.

Jenifer P. Borum