50 Years After His Death, William H. Johnson’s Work is Showcased in Museum Exhibitions and Rare Solo Presentation by Michael Rosenfeld Gallery

 

ACTIVE FOR ABOUT TWO DECADES, American artist William H. Johnson (1901-1970) made paintings in two distinct styles over the course of his career. Living in Europe from the mid-1920s to 30s, he developed a modern aesthetic making expressive and moody landscapes and later took an interest in folk art and what he called a “primitive” style.

Upon his return to the United States, he settled in New York City’s Greenwich Village and fully embraced the simplicity of folk art. In the late 1930s to mid 1940s, Johnson produced color-driven portraits, scenes of African American life in Harlem and the rural South, and his celebrated Jitterbug images of nattily dressed couples intertwined and dancing.

 


Michael Rosenfeld Gallery at ADAA: WILLIAM H. JOHNSON (1901–1970), “Playmates (aka Children, aka Three Friends, aka Three Girls),” circa 1941 (tempera on paper, 15 x 12 3/4 inches, signed). | Courtesy of Michael Rosenfeld Gallery LLC, New York, NY

 

April marks 50 years since the death of Johnson. Coinciding with the milestone, his work is showcased in several presentations this year. Works by Johnson are on long-term view at the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington, D.C. The artist has also been represented in thematic exhibitions across the country, including “Detroit Collects: Selections of African American Art from Private Collections” (Nov. 29, 2019-March 15, 2020) on view since last fall at the Detroit Institute of Arts.

Currently, Johnson is featured in “African American Art in the 20th Century” at The Westmoreland Museum of American Art in Greensburg, Pa. (Feb. 15–May 10, 2020) and “Riffs and Relations: African American Artists and the European Modernist Tradition,” which opened at The Phillips Collection in Washington, D.C., two weeks ago (Feb. 29-May 24, 2020).

In addition, Michael Rosenfeld Gallery dedicated its entire booth to Johnson at The Art Show, the recent art fair organized by the Art Dealers Association of America (ADAA) at the Park Avenue Armory in New York (Feb. 27-March 1).

Over the course of his career, William H. Johnson made paintings in two distinct styles—expressive, moody landscapes and folkloric figurative works exploring the African American experience in Harlem and the rural South.

Johnson grew up poor in the segregated South and found his calling as an artist. He exhibited his work at home and abroad and achieved measurable recognition before the final chapter of his life, a tragic period beset by mental illness.

Born in Florence, S.C., in 1901, Johnson was the eldest of five children. In 1918, he took a train to New York, where he lived with an uncle in Harlem, who was a Pullman Porter. Working odd jobs, Johnson saved enough money for tuition at the National Academy of Design, where he received his art education from 1921 to 1925.

Malvin Gray Johnson (1896-1934) also attended the National Academy of Design in the early 1900s. “Spirit of the Renaissance: The Art of William H. Johnson & Malvin Gray Johnson” (Jan. 24-April 4, 2020) is currently on view at the Hampton University Museum in Hampton, Va. The two artists share the same last name, but are not related. Key aspects of their biographies, however, overlap. Both men grew up in the South, found their way to New York City, studied at the same school, spent time in Europe, and received support from the Harmon Foundation.

The works in the show are drawn from the museum’s collection and are connected to the Harmon Foundation. The foundation donated 15 works by Malvin Gray Johnson to the museum and, in 1967, gave 1,154 works by William H. Johnson to the Smithsonian’s National Collection of Fine Arts (now the American Art Museum). The Smithsonian redistributed some of the artist’s work to a select group of HBCUs, including Hampton, which acquired 66.

Further explaining the pairing, the museum quotes Alain Locke’s 1936 book “Negro Art: Past and Present”: Diverse as their temperaments are, there are certain common features, first of all, the strong influence of modernism or abstract art, that is, art with the shorthand emphasis on generalized forms rather than pictorial realism or photographic detail.”

 


SAAM 4th Floor: WILLIAM H. JOHNSON, “Sun Setting, Denmark,” circa 1930 (oil on burlap). | Smithsonian American Art Museum, Gift of the Harmon Foundation, 1967.59.720

 


SAAM 4th Floor: WILLIAM H. JOHNSON, “I Baptize Thee,” circa 1940 (oil on burlap). | Smithsonian American Art Museum, Gift of the Harmon Foundation, 1967.59.977

 

AFTER STUDYING at the National Academy of Design, Johnson He went to Paris in 1926, where he sought out American expatriate artist Henry O. Tanner (1859-1937). Johnson had his first solo exhibition in Paris in 1927. The following year, he headed to southern France where he met his future wife, Danish artist Holcha Krake.

After further travels through Europe, Johnson returned to New York in 1929 and entered his paintings in the Harmon Foundation’s annual competition. He was awarded a gold medal and four of his paintings were featured in the foundation’s annual exhibition. Johnson also went home to South Carolina, seeing his family for the first time in about a dozen years and made a trip to Washington, D.C., where he visited with Locke, a prominent figure at Howard University.

When he returned to Europe in 1930, Johnson married Krake, who was 16 years his senior. The couple spent most of the decade living in Denmark. In 1938, the threat of World War II looming, Johnson moved back to the United States with Krake. They lived in New York, and in 1939, Johnson went to work for the Federal Art Project, teaching at the Harlem Community Art Center. Originally founded by Augusta Savage as a school, it became one of the WPA’s neighborhood art centers during the Depression.

Many well-known African American artists were affiliated with the center, including Charles Alston, Palmer Hayden, Norman Lewis, Jacob Lawrence, and Gwendolyn Knight Lawrence. Johnson worked at the center until 1943. During his tenure, he took his practice in a new direction, reinventing both his style and choosing anew his subject matter—the narrative experiences of “his own people.”

Johnson’s “Nude” (1939) is featured in “Riffs and Relations” at the Phillips Collection. Made the same year the artist began working at the Harlem Community Art Center, the painting blends his European influences (referencing Picasso’s nudes) with the focus on black figures and flat compositions that became his trademark.

About the transformation of his practice, Johnson said: “And even if I have studied for many years and all over the world. …I have still been able to preserve the primitive in me. …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.” *

“And even if I have studied for many years and all over the world. …I have still been able to preserve the primitive in me. …My aim is to express in a natural way what I feel, what is in me, both rhythmically and spiritually,…” — William H. Johnson

Johnson had a solo exhibition at Alma Reed Galleries in 1941 and then suffered two tragic events—a studio fire in 1942 and the death of his wife in January 1944, which left him despondent. That summer he visited his family in South Carolina. In 1946, seeking solace from Krake’s family and the couple’s circle of friends, Johnson moved back to Denmark. Emotionally spent, his behavior became increasingly unpredictable and he was diagnosed with syphilis, which was impacting his mental health. Johnson was sent back to the United States, where he was confined to Central Islip State Hospital on Long Island and treated for syphilis-induced paresis, a neuropsychiatric disorder. For 23 years, he remained in the hospital where he died in 1970.

 


“Riffs and Relations” at Phillips Collection: WILLIAM H. JOHNSON, “Nude,” 1939 (oil on burlap, 29 3/4 x 38 1/4 inches). | Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, D.C., Gift of the Harmon Foundation

 

WHEN THE MUSEUM OF MODERN ART re-opened last October after an extensive refresh of its gallery spaces, the rehang of its permanent collection included “Children” (1941). The triple portrait by Johnson is on view in the Collection 1940-1970s exhibition in a gallery dedicated to works made “In and Around Harlem.”

One of Johnson’s Jitterbug works is featured “Into the Night: Cabarets and Clubs in Modern Art.” After opening at the Barbican Art Gallery in London, the exhibition, which also features works by Aaron Douglas and Jacob Lawrence, is on view at Belvedere 21 in Vienna, Austria.

In the United States, Johnson’s life’s work is represented in the collection of the Smithsonian American Art Museum (SAAM). The vast holdings are recorded as gifts of Harmon Foundation, donated in 1967, three years before Johnson died.

More than two dozen works by Johnson are currently on view at SAAM. “Harriet Tubman” (circa 1945) and “Young Pastry Cook” (circa 1928-1930) are featured in “Experience America,” a long-term exhibition that brings together several artists active during the Depression and World War II eras, many affiliated with WPA programs, similar to Johnson.

“Cafe” (circa 1939-40), “Man in Vest” (circa 1939-40), and “Breakdown With Flat Tire” (circa 1940-41), all painted while Johnson was teaching at the Harlem Community Art Center, are on view in SAAM’s second-floor collection galleries. On the fourth floor, 21 paintings, including a self portrait (circa 1923-26), are on display in the Luce Center, the museum’s visible art storage gallery. The selection provides an overview of Johnson’s career.

SAAM has mounted three traveling exhibitions of Johnson’s work, in 1971, 1991, and 2006. The catalog accompanying the 1991 show, “Homecoming: The Art and Life of William H. Johnson,” included scholarship from art historian Richard J. Powell.

Forthcoming in May, Johnson’s work will be included in a new exhibition at the Smithsonian museum. “Boys Sunday Trip” (circa 1939-40) is among the works featured in “Steel and Sky: Views of New York City” (May 8–Oct. 25, 2020).

 


“Experience America” at SAAM: WILLIAM H. JOHNSON, “Harriet Tubman,” 1945 (oil on paperboard). | Smithsonian American Art Museum, Gift of the Harmon Foundation, 1967.59.1146

 


Michael Rosenfeld Gallery at ADAA: WILLIAM H. JOHNSON (1901–1970), “Cagnes-Sur-Mer,” circa 1928-29 (oil on canvas, 23 5/8 x 28 5/8 inches, signed). | Courtesy Michael Rosenfeld Gallery LLC, New York, NY

 

EACH YEAR AT THE ART SHOW, Michael Rosenfeld mounts a solo exhibition featuring an artist with a long association with the gallery. (Last year, the gallery showcased Tanner.) Michael Rosenfeld organized “William H. Johnson: Works From the Collection of Mary Beattie Brady,” its first solo exhibition of Johnson’s work in 1995. Brady served as director of the Harmon Foundation from 1922 to 1967.

“This landmark exhibition was the first gallery exhibition for the artist in over 50 years,” gallery director halley k harrisburg said in a statement to Culture Type. In subsequent years, “the gallery has remained a stalwart supporter, contributing to his rich legacy by supporting ongoing research and actively exhibiting the work to new and diverse audiences.”

Michael Rosenfeld waited 25 years to mount another Johnson solo show. The gallery’s presentation at The Art Show featured the artist’s early landscape paintings and later figurative works. A total of 19 artworks were on view and for sale. The selection included paintings, watercolors, and pochoirs (a printmaking process that involves stenciling) dating from circa 1928 to circa 1941.

The landscape paintings Johnson made when he was in France and Kerteminde, the small fishing village in Denmark where he married Krake, were priced $150,000-$200,000 and the pochoirs were priced $200,000 each. The gallery said the majority of the works sold to private collectors.

The Art Show inaugurated a new prize at this year’s art fair, recognizing galleries “whose presentations epitomize the connoisseurship and leadership of the ADAA membership.” Michael Rosenfeld was one of three booths voted “Best in Show” for its presentation of Johnson works.

“His work is so incredibly rare,” harrisburg told Artnet News. “Since then (the 1995 exhibition), we’ve been squirreling away any other pieces in order to do another show.” CT

 

*JOHNSON QUOTE: From Richard J. Powell, “In My Family of Primitiveness and Tradition: William H. Johnson’s Jesus and the Three Marys.” | American Art 5:4 (Fall 1991), Page 21

 

PLEASE NOTE: Many museums and galleries have closed temporarily or modified their hours and programming in the wake of COVID-19. Check directly with each institution for the latest updates

 

FIND MORE Research by art dealer Steve Turner questioning the distribution of William H. Johnson’s works in his final years culminated with “Truth Be Told,” a traveling exhibition (1998-2000) and catalog covered by the Los Angeles Times and The New York Times

READ MORE about the lawsuit filed against the Smithsonian and Michael Rosenfeld Gallery by James H. Johnson, the artist’s nephew, seeking claim to William H. Johnson’s art work or comparable compensation that was dismissed by Judge Constance Baker Motley in 1998. A related appeal was also dismissed in 2000.

 

FIND MORE The Florence County Museum in Florence, S.C., William H. Johnson’s hometown museum is “committed to preserving the legacy of William H. Johnson’s life and work through collections, exhibitions, research and educational programs.” Five years ago, the museum presented “William H. Johnson: New Beginnings” (2014-15) drawing on four sources: the museum’s own holdings, the Johnson Collection, a private collection in Denmark, and the Smithsonian American Art Museum.

 

BOOKSHELF
Michael Rosenfeld Gallery produced a catalog to accompany its ADAA presentation of William H. Johnson. Co-authored by Steve Turner and Victoria Dailey “William H. Johnson: Truth Be Told” was published to coincide with an exhibition organized by Turner. “Homecoming: The Art and Life of William H. Johnson” documents the Smithsonian’s 1991 traveling exhibition. Also consider “William H. Johnson: An American Modern.” The catalogs “Riffs and Relations: African American Artists and the European Modernist Tradition” and “Into the Night: Cabarets and Clubs in Modern Art” accompany current thematic exhibitions that feature Johnson’s work. “Lucy” (circa 1939-40) by Johnson covered the catalog for “I Too Sing America: The Harlem Renaissance at 100,” the exhibition organized by Wil Haygood at the Columbus Museum of Art in 2018.

 


Michael Rosenfeld Gallery at ADAA: WILLIAM H. JOHNSON (1901–1970), “Café,” circa 1939-40 (watercolor, gouache and ink on paper, 16 3/4 x 15 1/8 inches, signed). | Courtesy of Michael Rosenfeld Gallery LLC, New York, NY

 


Michael Rosenfeld Gallery at ADAA: WILLIAM H. JOHNSON (1901–1970), “Training for War,” circa 1942 (pochoir with hand additions on paper, 11 1/2 x 17 1/2). | Courtesy of Michael Rosenfeld Gallery LLC, New York, NY

 


Michael Rosenfeld Gallery at ADAA: WILLIAM H. JOHNSON (1901–1970), “Jardin, Kerteminde,” circa 1932 (oil on burlap, 20 1/2 x 24 1/2 inches, signed). | Courtesy Michael Rosenfeld Gallery LLC, New York, NY

 


Michael Rosenfeld Gallery at ADAA: WILLIAM H. JOHNSON (1901–1970), “Untitled (Tunisian Street Scene),” circa 1932 (watercolor and graphite on paper, 19 5/8 x 25 5/8 inches, signed). | Courtesy Michael Rosenfeld Gallery LLC, New York, NY

 


Michael Rosenfeld Gallery at ADAA: WILLIAM H. JOHNSON (1901–1970), “Going to Church,” circa 1940-41 (pochoir with hand additions on paper, 13 1/8 x 17 1/2 inches), signed). | Courtesy Michael Rosenfeld Gallery LLC, New York, NY

 


Michael Rosenfeld Gallery at ADAA: WILLIAM H. JOHNSON (1901–1970), “Untitled (Two Red Barns),” circa 1935 (oil on canvas, 20 3/8 x 24 5/8 inches, signed). | Courtesy Michael Rosenfeld Gallery LLC, New York, NY

 


Installation view of Solo Show of William H. Johnson, Michael Rosenfeld Gallery, ADAA-The Art Show, Booth D4, Feb. 27–March 1, 2020, Park Avenue Armory, New York, N.Y. | Courtesy Michael Rosenfeld Gallery LLC, New York, NY

 


Installation view of Solo Show of William H. Johnson, Michael Rosenfeld Gallery, ADAA-The Art Show, Booth D4, Feb. 27–March 1, 2020, Park Avenue Armory, New York, N.Y. | Courtesy Michael Rosenfeld Gallery LLC, New York, NY

 


Michael Rosenfeld Gallery at ADAA: WILLIAM H. JOHNSON (1901–1970), “Jitterbugs (III),” circa 1941 (pochoir with hand additions on paper, 16 x 11 1/8 inches). | Courtesy Michael Rosenfeld Gallery LLC, New York, NY

 


Installation view of Solo Show of William H. Johnson, Michael Rosenfeld Gallery, ADAA-The Art Show, Booth D4, Feb. 27–March 1, 2020, Park Avenue Armory, New York, N.Y. | Courtesy Michael Rosenfeld Gallery LLC, New York, NY

 


Installation view of Solo Show of William H. Johnson, Michael Rosenfeld Gallery, ADAA-The Art Show, Booth D4, Feb. 27–March 1, 2020, Park Avenue Armory, New York, N.Y. | Courtesy Michael Rosenfeld Gallery LLC, New York, NY