When William H. Johnson (1901-1970) returned to the United States in 1938, his art was undergoing a profound transformation. He had spent most of the past 13 years in Europe and Northern Africa, drinking in the era’s artistic ferment, refining his multifarious talent, and turning out hundreds of striking Expressionist landscapes, still lifes, and portraits.
“When you’re in Europe at that time, you’re in the belly of the academic whale, so he’s really surrounded by all the wonderful things that were happening,” says Dejáy Duckett, associate director of the Arthur Ross Gallery, which is hosting an exhibition titled William H. Johnson: An American Modern. “He was very taken with Soutine, Gauguin, Munch. He’s seeing all these guys and surrounded by this work, so at that time his work was very Expressionistic—very thick, bold, and pastel paint.”
Shortly after his return, Johnson—who was born in Florence, South Carolina, and studied at the National Academy of Design in New York—moved to Harlem.
“All the fantastic things that were happening in Harlem kind of led him away from the Expressionistic style of painting into the pieces that he’s best known for—bright, contrasting colors; kind of flattened figures, often sort of pressed up against the picture plane,” Duckett notes. “That’s where he really came into his own.
“He had a very free hand,” she adds. “He retained that freedom from the Expressionist painting, but he just completely changed the direction that he was going in. The show traces the earlier work through his evolution into his own style, so you can walk through and see that change happening in front of your eyes.”
Take “Jitterbugs,” one of his best-known pieces. When eyeballed by a viewer, the painting “just undulates,” notes Duckett. “[The dancers] just move in front of your eyes. The composition is so simple, but it’s really complex.” That deceptive simplicity is a kind of primitivism—which, Duckett notes (quoting the sculptor Martin Puryear), “valued the radical, the raw, the unrefined.”
“Aunt Alice,” Johnson’s portrait of his mother, “disassembled viewers’ sense of location and corporeal attitude with sundry ambiguities,” notes Richard J. Powell in an essay for the catalogue.
Not long after his Danish wife, Holcha Krake, died in 1944, Johnson’s mental and physical health began to deteriorate, and he spent the last 23 years of his life in a mental institution on Long Island. His art, much of which had been painted on such fragile surfaces as burlap and cardboard, languished in a warehouse. After his death, the Harmon Foundation took possession of his work, and when that foundation closed, the work went to the Smithsonian Institution, which in turn dispersed it to a number of historically black colleges and universities. They had their work cut out for them.
“He used a lot of materials that were really unstable,” says Duckett, “so a lot of work had to be done to conserve them over the years. To have 20 [of Johnson’s] paintings that are traveling—it’s rare.”
The exhibition, which was organized by Morgan State University and the Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service, opens January 17 and runs through March 23. Duckett notes that the Ross Gallery and the Department of Africana Studies have commissioned composer Guy Ramsey to create a “Johnson Suite,” which will premiere at the opening reception, and on March 21, Leslie King-Hammond (a scholar who contributed an essay to the exhibition catalogue) will give a talk. Some sort of Jazz Age event is being planned for February as well.
“We’re really thrilled to have his work coming to Penn,” says Duckett convincingly.