Clarice Smith Distinguished Lecture: Richard Powell
On Wednesday, November 17, 2021, the Smithsonian American Art Museum hosted a virtual lecture with art historian Richard Powell. Discover the magnificent Scandinavian landscapes and other European-based paintings created by celebrated Harlem Renaissance painter William H. Johnson. During this captivating virtual talk, take a deep dive into this often overlooked and misunderstood period in Johnson’s life and work. By comparing these paintings with Johnson’s well-known artworks of African Americans, Powell introduces a new understanding of the artist’s enthusiasm for his expressive and rapturous subject matter. This virtual lecture examines the breadth and radical inventiveness of this singular artist’s work. It pays particular attention to Johnson’s interpretations of international Expressionism in painting and ideas discussed by philosopher Alain Locke on a post–Harlem Renaissance racial “Reformation.”
Richard Powell is the John Spencer Bassett Professor of Art & Art History at Duke University, where he has taught since 1989. Along with teaching courses in American art, the arts of the African Diaspora, and contemporary visual studies, Powell has curated nationally touring exhibitions and written extensively on topics ranging from primitivism to postmodernism. Powell wrote the catalogue that accompanied SAAM’s nationally touring exhibition Homecoming: The Art and Life of William H. Johnson (1991). He is the author of Black Art: A Cultural History (1997, 2002, & 2021), Cutting a Figure: Fashioning Black Portraiture (2008), and Going There: Black Visual Satire (2020).
This program is part of our annual Clarice Smith Distinguished Lectures in American Art series, which presents new insights into American art from the perspectives of outstanding artists, critics, and scholars. The series is made possible by the generosity of Clarice Smith.
Dr. Powell has also been recognized by colleagues in the field. The College Art Association in 2016, honored him as the most distinguished scholar of the year. He has also been inducted in the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and 2021, he was offered membership of the American Philosophical Society. It is really a distinct pleasure, to, to, welcome Dr. Powell— at least virtually— back to his home, and to this program tonight, and I really thank you for your interest and appreciation in the Clarice Smith Distinguished Lecture series, which are also archived. It takes about a week for us to edit them, and so feel free to watch again, or better yet share with those who may have missed it, and make it part of something that you go back to regularly. We have an incredible roster of past speakers. Thank you again for attending today.
—(Dr. Richard Powell) Thank you so much, Stephanie, for that kind, and generous introduction, and thank you Smithsonian American Art Museum for inviting me to speak to our audience this even-[computer glitch]—ing. I'm going to share my screen now.
As some of you know, the art and life of the early 20th century American painter William Henry Johnson have intrigued me for at least 40 years. On at least two occasions in the 1980s, I held fellowships, at the Smithsonian American Art Museum, during which I conducted research on this artist and his work. At Yale University, I wrote my Ph.D. dissertation on Johnson and his art. In the early 1990s I organized a critically well-received traveling exhibition of Johnson's paintings, and William H. Johnson was the subject of my first book. So, for those of you familiar with my personal and professional history with this artist, some might wonder why now, well into the 21st century, am I still talking about this painter and his work? And my answer would be that, despite my previous research and past writings about Johnson, looking at his paintings, and pondering his extraordinary life have never become tiresome or an intellectual exertion.
William H. Johnson's life, creative labors, artistic triumphs, and personal tragedies are the narratives of great cultural legends and high melodramas. It's remarkable that moviemakers haven't yet adapted his extraordinary life, his story of personal struggles and achievements, for film and television.
His unbelievably handsome, adonis-like, bronze body is the perfect literary foil for a career prematurely halted by mental illness and institutionalization, and the [unintelligible] in which he lived and worked. The early 20th century Southern U.S., jazz-age Harlem, depression-era Europe, and the New York art world of the 1940s, are prime settings for an expansive cinematic period piece. But, what I want to do this evening is situate William H. Johnson's story and art in the ecstatic, a-philosophical, and emotional concept that, —along with its associations to religious experiences and elevated states of spirituality— has a place in the visual arts, and specifically in a strain of modern art in which Johnson was one of its chief protagonists. Although most frequently considered in art by way of Gian Lorenzo Bernini's Baroque sculptural ensemble, inspired by an autobiographical experience from the life of the Carmelite nun and mystic Teresa of Avila, I propose that William H. Johnson's paintings offer an alternative visual representation of ecstasy, manifestations, or visions of bodily transcendence. Which through landscapes, portraiture, and the artistic mechanisms of painterly expressionism, and primal semi-abstract formulations, [unintelligible] the self to the point of stretching one's introspection, into a universal and timeless state of being— or what German philosopher Martin Heidegger described as "dasein," roughly translated into "being there," or the experience of being wholly conscious about one's personhood, mortality, and existence. That Johnson arrives at the sense of self in his art in the early 20th century, and during those regimes of propagandized racial difference and black cultural exceptionalism, makes his artistic journey all the more remarkable, particularizing his mostly Northern Renaissance landscapes, and African American portraits, in subtle ways.
Tucked away in the Smithsonian Institution's Archives of American Art, is a scrapbook-bound picture of the artist William H. Johnson. This black-and-white photograph shows him with his smoking pipe in one hand, and in his other hand, and under his arm, respectively, a tote bag and a large wooden board—the latter apparently to be used as a support for painting works on paper. Johnson is standing outdoors, in a residential section of Kerteminde, a small fishing village on the Danish island of Funen, surrounded by slate roofs and whitewashed homes, dilapidated fencing, and — as suggested by the wooden dock bumpers in the middle distance— an adjacent harbor in day. There's enough that is shadowy and impossible to differentiate in this picture. Sp-[computer glitch] ecifically Johnson's hand-knit sweater, a small dog in the lower-left corner, to suggest an arrested yet palpable life in this out-of-the-way Danish town. Un-photographable in many respects, and nevertheless pulsating with and noteworthy for its dashing, principal actor.
Looking closely at William H. Johnson's paintings during his first decade abroad, gives new meaning to this innocuous photograph and vice-versa, whose blurred and fleeting forms now suddenly aligning themselves with Johnson's concurrent forays into a bold, expressionist style. Like the photograph's subtle, undetermined quality, Johnson's paintings and works on paper from these years, eschewed his reality-bound academic training in art, replacing it with a quivering, temporality that, in the final analysis, was infinitely closer in spirit to the individuals, communities, and landscapes depicted.
Johnson's artistic epiphany was shared with other modern painters, who, like him, realized, that to truly represent the world around them, the artist must first become one with his or her subject. This conscious, but uneasy alignment between artist and subject initiated approximations of observable truths, but channeled those representations through artist-to-subject surrogacy and direct, painterly engagement. Ernst Bloch, a Marxist philosopher, and one of the leading theorists of expressionism, described this artistic repositioning as a dynamic transcendence.
[Unintelligible] —a utopic state of mind with the aim of establishing bonds between human beings, despite the challenges that such an initiative posed. While neither the blurry photograph nor Johnson's raucous landscape provided readers with an objective reality, their turbulent dispositions, expressed in quaking forms and uncompromising colors, [papers shifting] articulated in line, shape, and hue, the social and psychological dimensions of peoples and places, and their interconnections. Johnson would pursue this ambition for the remainder of his career, but as seen in these paintings from the French Riviera, Scandinavia, and North Africa, his agitated, yet knowing paintbrush incorporated his idiosyncratic persona into these seemingly disparate locations, making them, in effect, extensions of his racially-hybrid, part primitivist, part intellectual, cosmopolitan self.
Although created within months of one another, William H. Johnson's street, in "Cagnes-sur-Mer" and "Cagnes, White Houses," could not be more dissimilar. Johnson who had been living and working in Paris, France since the fall of 1926, moved to the south of France towards the end of 1927, seeking a sunnier, warmer climate and more inspiring surroundings in which to paint. He found that ideal setting in Cagnes-sur-Mer a west-southwest suburb of Nice, in France's Provence-Alpes-Côte d'Azur region, in the former, and then current home of numerous artists and their wealthy patrons and clientele— including such figures as Paul Cézanne, André Derain, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, George [unintelligible], and Harry and Harriet Crosby—among many others. Not long after arriving in Cagnes-sur-Mer, Johnson painted several versions of one particular view a narrow path flanked on either side by stucco-covered walls, two and three-storied residencies, and a pollard tree in the composition's right foreground. Taking advantage of the raking winter sunlight and shadows casting designs on this town's planar multi-leveled facades. "Streets in Cagnes-sur-Mer" represented Johnson's first modest steps, circa 1927-28 towards a Cezanne-like reconciliation of landscape, atmosphere, and fundamental geometry.
That Johnson's movements towards a more modern approach to the landscape were as seen in "Streets in Cagnes-sur-Mer" halting in fraught of doubt was made evident in the New York Herald interview he gave in 1927. When asked about modern painters and their license to interpret reality, Johnson stated that this direction in art was far more appealing than a photographic interpretation of the world, but unfortunately, Johnson continued, "there is often a lack of sincerity among the painters of today. They are seekers after sensational effects and neither seek nor are capable of a profound emotion, nor are they technically well enough equipped to carry out any serious conception," end of quote. It would only take [computer glitch] a few months in the French Riviera before Johnson would modify his critique of modern painters, and of his own volition, break free from the academic conventions that governed paintings like "Streets in Cagnes-sur-Mer." The break was most apparent in "Cagnes, White Houses," where among other influences, the expressionist sensibilities of the then famous and highly successful Lithuanian-born, Paris-and-French-Riviera-based artist, Chaïme Soutine, turned Johnson's restrained modernism into an art of gestural flourishes and dazzling colors. Whereas in "Streets in Cagnes-sur-Mer," Johnson was content to let the town's chop block architecture predominate, in "Cagnes, White Houses," or "White House," his textured, energetic brush strokes in tandem with a quaking, topsy-turvy perspective commandeered the townscape with an unrestrained momentum in shades of cerulean blue and adobe white. Johnson's trademark imprint on his canvases, a part level, part impasto application—which left raised-lip-like markings over the entire surface of each painting— encouraged close, intimate inspections of these small-to-medium works, and, revealed, perhaps unintentionally, Johnson's irrevocable, academic schooling.
Johnson's fascination with Soutine, and the related struggle to work out a style of his own, were the primary topics of his August 1928 letter to his former teacher at the National Academy of Design, artist Charles Hawthorne. Although never mentoring Soutine by name, Johnson referred to the real-spirited modern painters whose use of distortion, elongation, and an illusion of the reality, attracted him. "I am not afraid," said Johnson, in almost full reversal to his New York Herald comments from months earlier, "to exaggerate a contour, a form, or anything that gives more character and movement to the canvas." But in the same breath, Johnson stressed his great admiration for the nature. Johnson's emphasis, and his concern that his freedom would [unintelligible] take him too far away from a perceived reality.
Apart from Soutine, Johnson was enamored in the late 1920s with a whole cadre of European modernists from the School of Paris's more conservative urban delineators, like Maurice de Vlaminck, Maurice Utrillo, and Pierre Bonnard, to the kaleidoscopic cityscapes of such visionaries as Robert Delaunay, and Lyonel Feininger. While clearly in conversation with these and other continental artists, "Cagnes, White Houses" and comparable paintings from Johnson's European years individuated themselves via his frequent use of the fisheye lens —an apparatus that artists occasionally used to see areas of land wider than the human eye typically allows, distorting normal perception so that pictorial elements bend and curve onto themselves in a tunneling centrifugal fashion. The fisheye lens imposed a visual artifice that, not unlike cubism, forced an artistic reevaluation of space, volume, and the interrelationships between bodies in motion and bodies in stasis. Johnson's partial depiction in "Cagnes, White Houses," of overhead power lines, and pedestrians ambling down Cagnes-sur-Mer's narrow past, underscored this unique physics art lesson —insinuating sources of both electrical and human energy within the awkward consciousness of a town and nation. Taking these ideas back to the United States towards the end of 1929, William H. Johnson soon embarked after a short, critically-acclaimed reception in New York, on painting the neighbors and peoples of his birthplace, Florence, South Carolina.
Of the dozen or so surviving canvases from that 1930 homecoming, one notices even bolder uses [computer glitch] [unintelligible] distortion than seen in his Cagnes-sur-Mer paintings. "Portrait Study/ Number 16," which Johnson painted in South Carolina in the spring of 1930, unabashedly flirted with an international style in his portrayal of a beautiful young woman, recalling such art legends as Amedeo Modigliani, and Vincent Van Goh. Writing from Florence, Johnson told one of his New York sponsors that he hoped to abstract and to put into canvas that 'something' which the surrounding little negro boys and girls possessed. "Portrait Study/ Number 16," with its scheme-like, loose-fitting assembly of body parts, contemporary clothing, and smoky atmospherics seemed to genuinely reach for that ineffable quality through the pictorial language of expressionism.
As one might have expected prior to racial desegregation in the United States, the site, let alone the mere idea, of a Black man painting on the street corner in the south was simply inconceivable, and a cause for alarm in a more provincial predominantly White community. After being detained by the police in Florence, South Carolina because of his "peace-disturbing" plein air painting, and then exhibiting 135 of his works at the local Y.M.C.A., —the latter no doubt arranged to smooth over any hard feelings from his unfortunate clash with local authorities— Johnson again made his way back to Europe. But now, settling in Kerteminde, Denmark, which was the new home of his wife to be—the Danish weaver, Holcha Krake.
Johnson had met Krake while living in the South of France, and they had apparently decided, before his brief American sojourn, to eventually get married. Krake, who was 16 years older than Johnson, had lived and worked in Germany in the years just before World War One —in addition to other countries in Europe— and was conversing with the several leading German artists of that era— most notably Oskar Kokoschka and Wilhelm Rudolph. Johnson's exposure to this wider world of contemporary art particularly, German Expressionism, coupled with his previous experiments in various forms of modernism, set the stage for paintings like "Danish Youth," his portrait of one of Kerteminde's townspeople. Angular, elongated, and comprised of broad, pigment-loaded brush strokes, "Danish Youth" hearkened back to Johnson's South Carolina portraits of just a few months prior —and before that to Johnson's School-of-Paris-informed work. A circa 1928 pencil drawing, entitled "Portrait of a Young Woman," like Johnson's "Danish Youth," deployed a highly stylized figure, which while anatomically distorted and radical to the extreme, visually swirled and perambulated within its own abstract logic. The cross-hatched, linear foundations of Johnson's "Portrait of a Young Woman" had a counterpart in the loose yet deliberate brushwork of "Danish Youth," whose fundamental nature and setting literally oozed from Johnson's coagulated waves of paint. "His art is a form of expressionism," wrote one reviewer in 1934 about Johnson's painterly approach, "a dynamic form which has never really flowered here in Denmark. For him and all those who can [unintelligible] the sensations of life, most evident in lines and colors maintain an importance which make the motifs live in one's consciousness." The reviewer's metaphoric description of Johnson's colors, spreading over the whole canvas like butter on bread, resonated with "Danish Youth" and Johnson's other progressively more impostor canvases of the 1930s. Although encapsulating the specific facial features and emotional states of his models, these paintings were artist-driven statements more than conventional portraits, operating under the assumed pretext of capturing likenesses. When in fact, their primary goal was a seismographic registering of Johnson's own relationship to each sitter. In the case of "Danish Youth," one gleans from a [computer glithces] kind of youthful awkwardness informed by a core asceticism. The latter attribute -the latter [computer glitch] attribute intuited through Johnson's professed affinities at this time for the primitive.
"My aim is to express in a natural way what I feel. What is in me both rhythmically and spiritually," mused Johnson about his artistic philosophy, "All that which in time has been saved up in my family of primitiveness and tradition, and which is now concentrated in me," end of quote. These thoughts, which were published in a Danish newspaper in December of 1932, followed an approximately six-month tour that Johnson and Krake conducted throughout Europe and North Africa earlier that year. Johnson's emphasis on internal and primordial motivations for creating works art, one might wonder how this introspectiveness took shape beyond, say, his self-portraiture from this period. Arguably, the watercolor-like street in "Tunis," although painted from direct observations in Tunisia, was infused with these rhythmic and spiritual essences to great visual effect.
(inaudible) [27:49-51], a bustling souk at the foot of the late 17th-century Mosque of Sidi Marez, a 10th century Marabou and the patron saint of Tunisia vibrated in Johnson's watercolor, with an energy emanating from within its market stalls and beyond. Balancing personal expression with a conscientious study of a specific built environment in time, Johnson's pigment-saturated brush jumped across city and sky, depositing its colors in an emphatic yet extra-sensory way. But there's no mistaking the veracity of this view, from the Ottoman-style architecture of the mosque, with its nine white clustered domes to the square itself with lined with shops, merchandise, animals for sale, and portage bargain hunters and foreign tourists like Johnson and Krake. Although a secular and subjective representation, "Street in Tunis" pulled back the veil on Johnson's aforementioned reservoir of feelings, saved up sentiments that when directed towards quotidian so-called primitive peoples and places manifested themselves and disquieted, pulsating strains and colored [unintelligible] that Johnson's attraction to the primitive was neither race-based nor specific to non-western cultural traditions was demonstrated in the transference of these same ideas and artistic strategies. To Scandinavian subjects and settings, as already seen in "Danish Youth," Johnson perceived the common folk of Denmark, and later of Norway and Sweden, as human beings who have preserved the essential characteristics of their nature —people in whom there is an element of tradition. How he actually put that characteristic —nature and tradition— into artistic renderings of people varied —from the reptilian flesh and abstract patterns on the figure in "Danish Youth" to his own purposely crude self-portrait from 1933.
As displayed in his "The Self-Portrait," the rough and elemental nature of the woodcut offered a direct, emotional charge, mode of image-making that supported his desire to tap deeply into his quote "family of primitiveness and tradition." Created shortly after his six-month tour through Europe and North Africa, the woodcut would soon be joined by others that themselves accompanied identical or similar subjects in oil paintings and watercolors —while also emphasizing Johnson's expressionistic affinities with various early 20th-century German printmakers such as Conrad Felixmüller, Max Pechstein, and Karl Schmidt-Rottluff, among others.
"Bazaars Behind the Church of Our Savior," a hand-colored, woodcut, and watercolor created sometime after Johnson made his way early in 1935 from Denmark to Norway is a version of his similarly-themed oil-on-burlap painting "Bazaars behind Church, Oslo." Both images privileged the red brick arcade of shops and cafes, or the Kirkeristen, that when viewed from the south-southwest curved around behind Oslo's majestic Cathedral, and both introduced irregular bands of clouds against this well-known skyline. But the two images depart from one another by way of the painting's added architectural element on the far right. The distinctive, rounded edge of the ultra-modern and functional du blog building, completed in 1933 by the noted German architect Erich Mendelsohn for the Norwegian wholesaler Ingrid Doblaught, the circular building is missing from the woodcut version, but it's visible here in the watercolor which makes the long curved bazaar and the Cathedral's soaring tower of the picture its focal point. Like Johnson's 1933 self-portrait, the rudimeri — the rudimentary cuts and free-form uneven elements of these images of the bazaar and the church, all give this cityscape a brutal feeling. [computer glitch] Imagistically shifting from the urbane to the outwardly natural, with the Cathedral's towers resembling a craggy Matterhorn and the bazaar appearing as if part of an expansive, picturesque horizon.
William H. Johnson also elevated the color saturation quotient in his landscapes of Norway's Lofoten Islands. The signature painting within this group, Johnson's "Midnight Sun, Lofoten," attempts to capture the meteorological and geological grandeur of this outpost, when during the summer months, the sun remains visible all night over the northern horizon of several of the islands. Johnson's landscapes generally adhered to Lofoten's distinctive, rock formations glacial fjords, and perhaps most surprisingly, the setting's broad color scheme. The view's distant; blue-white mountains; green valleys; white ice floes and streams; and orange, yellow, and red firmament; psychologically assault viewers' brains. A sensory onslaught clearly abetted by Johnson's heavy, yet agile application of impostor oil pigment over the painting's stretched burlap. The sun's ovoid, egg yolk form, accentuated by a black outline and precariously placed just above a craggy mountain range, introduced an almost surreal element —where this solar factor feels more science fiction than scientific and where the sun's color rather than recording this natural phenomenon's overtures to an astronomical twilight captures the celestial actors spiritual or animistic dimensions. Writing about expressionism in the visual arts, the philosopher Nelson Goodman qualified the oft-voiced sense of ownership that artists like William H. Johnson intoned regarding their subject matter. Turning one's attention to the symbolic dimensions of an expressive pictorial overture, Goodman noted that: "Expression is not, of course, mere possession, apart from the fact that the possession involved in expression is metaphorical. Neither literal nor metaphorical possession constitutes symbolization at all. To denote is to refer, but to be denoted is not necessarily to refer to anything. Yet expression, like representation, is a mode of symbolization and a picture must stand for, symbolize, refer to, what it expresses."
In his carefully worded reconceptualization of the expressionist inclination in the arts, Goodman raised the prospects of a holy conscious, deliberative act on the parts of artists —who while emotionally in tune with themselves and their subjects, nonetheless operated in the realm of a discursive enterprise in which refiguring, analogizing, and assigning supplemental significations to their subjects, frequently resulted in an extravagant, and on the face of it, impulsive product. Yet this brief survey of William H. Johnson's artistic march from academician to expressionist demonstrates that, in spite of embracing German expressionist painter Emil Nolde's edict, to reevaluate the values of nature and then add one's own spirituality, Johnson remained in full control of his so-called primitive self. Forging in the years between the two World Wars, an individual path through modernism, that while trembling and superficially unsure, stood firm on an ever-evolving sense of purpose, tradition, and truth-seeking in art.
In his classic book, "Modern Negro Art," the renowned mid-20th-century art historian, James Amos Porter, clearly struggled to make sense of William H. Johnson's paintings of the 1940s. After acknowledging Johnson's thoroughly extroverted and aggressive character, which curiously contradicted all other accounts of a rather introverted and emotionally tortured individual, Porter's sagaciously discussed Johnson's analytical approach to his French and Scandinavian subjects. Porter then followed these assessments with thoughts about Johnson's more recent paintings, which he faulted with being enamored with prehistoric and primitive art. Adjectives like 'slate-like' and 'gnome-like' were paired with 'grotesque' and 'bushmen art' in describing word [cpmputer glitch] like fright. Paintings, whose emphatic two-dimensionality and African-statuary-proportioned figures, contradicted what many people expected from an academically-trained, European-associated artist. "Even if we welcome the gain in bright color, charming color, to which this change of style opens the way," Porter conceded, "it is difficult to understand [computer glitch] why any American artist in this day of confusion, should elect to be unintelligible. The singular, and cryptic nature of Johnson's work," Porter notoriously concluded, "sets it apart from anything else in the studios of Negro artists," end of quote. Apart from Porter's refusal to place such concurrent confusions as World War II, the 1943 Harlem and Detroit riots, etc., in tandem with an enigmatic, or impugnable stance, in contemporary culture, his brandishing of Johnson's work as unintelligible was especially odd. Porter, who received his M.A. degree from New York's Institute of Fine Arts, working with the noted art historian Robert Goldwater, surely was familiar with Goldwater's primitivism in modern painting, which explained the possible motives behind the radical expressionism of painters like Johnson. Yet it was clearly Johnson's gnome-like, and specifically African characterizations in paintings like "Fright" that befuddled the culturally conservative Porter, who could not imagine why an educated and accomplished Black artist in 1943 would choose to create such non-idealized depictions of fellow African Americans. Underlying Porter's expressed removal of Johnson's paintings from anything else in the studios of Negro artists was not only an acknowledgment of Johnson's uniqueness, but an exclamation of Johnson's heresy and expulsion from a more celebratory modern Negro art project.
In contrast, other critics immediately sensed the careful thought and visual imagination behind paintings like "Fright." A reviewer for Art Digest regarding Johnson's spring 1943 exhibition of temperas at the Wakefield Gallery and Bookshop in New York, which at that point was run by Betty Parsons, perceptively noted that emphasis is still on the unconventional side with well- ordered designed to give a conventional aspect. Howard Devree, writing about this same exhibition in The New York Times, "rejoined with more than primitive paintings, they at first glance seem to be, the temperas by William H. Johnson, reveal, on closer acquaintance, a lot of keen observation and shrewd, setting forth of ideas in what seems an authentic Negro idiom." Rather than incredulity or disavowal upon encountering paintings like 'Fright,' many critics conceived that what was artistically afoot in Johnson's most recent work mutinied against predictable techniques and or formulae, and instead explored patterns, colors, and forms that might be associated with something both representatively Negro and outside of the often soulless world of contemporary art. "Fright" not only signaled a bold uncharted shift in William H. Johnson's [unintelligible], it also foreshadowed a string of personal tragedies and emotional pressures that contributed to the transformation of Johnson's artistic production for the remainder of his career. Johnson's "Ring Around the Rosey" and "Aunt Alice" are two paintings created shortly after Porter's singular and cryptic valuation, and consequently, solicit careful scrutiny in regards to this appraisal. Painted in the aftermath of the January 1944 death of Johnson's wife Holcha Krake, and in response to Johnson's return visit that same year [computer glitch] to Florence, South Carolina, his birthplace, after a 14-year hiatus, "Around the Rosey" and "Aunt Alice" posed interesting questions about the assumed incoherence, idiosyncrasy, and strangeness of Johnson's circa 1944 paintings. Johnson's deep, topical immersion in the everyday experiences and comportments of working-class African Americans, along with his rudimentary compositions and otherworldly, modern chromatics, compel one to both acknowledge Porter's discomfort and dismantle its blunt, unreflected criticism, maintaining that Johnson straddled a willed naivete and part diagnostic, part emotional space in these paintings. The results, as James Porter inadvertently predicted, would be an art that vertiginously turned towards raw, unmediated provocation, despite persevering as some of Johnson's most compelling, unfeigned creations.
The scenario of "Ring Around the Rosey" appears straightforward enough. Three, unnaturally elongated girls and short dresses frolic with one another in a colorful interior. Their dark brown arms, legs, and bodies like the floral display surrounding them, create jagged linear patterns across the room's pea-green walls and cobalt blue flooring. The girls brightly colored dresses —from left to right: solid yellow, white with green and yellow trim, and salmon pink with tiny red dots— chromatically contend with the room's enormous red and pink flowers, and the three girls themselves whose flipper-like, bare feet pirouette and hover over a long pink runner rug. But this description alone does not tell the whole story. Johnson's treatment of the scene, concise unpretentious, and agonizingly direct, convey just as much about this painting as its childhood setting seemed to communicate. Beginning with his simplified canvases of Norway's rugged mountains and fjords, Johnson was progressively painting in higher chromatic keys and with less perspective. And upon his return to New York in 1938, he transferred these same attributes to jitterbugging Harlemites and his poison cloisonné memories of the rural, Black south. By turning his back on coincidental details, naturalistic forms, and the stylistic gestures that exemplified his former European-based identity,
Johnson signaled a new candor, a reborn artist for whom elemental forms and unmodulated colors were the main ingredients for both self-expression and, perhaps of greater importance, an authentic community commentator. When asked by the New York Amsterdam News columnist Nora Holt in 1946 about this artistic shift, Johnson answered, "it was not a change but a development. In all my years of painting, I have had only one absorbing and inspiring idea and have worked toward it with unyielding zeal. To give in simple and stark form, the story of the Negro as he has existed" end of quote. Describing his Scandinavian and French landscapes as developmental works prior to the largely figurative paintings of the 1940s is intriguing, suggesting that the lessons learned as an expressionist charted the path to becoming a neo-primitive, but one whose source of inspiration rather than non-western and purely sculptural examples, come from the contemporary African American subaltern. Inspired and possibly painted while Johnson was visiting his family and friends in Florence, South Carolina, "Ring Around the Rosey" captured that community's essence and life force —its children, but in such a way as to turn the sentimentality that normally envelops childhood into a rude and gaudy abstraction. Prior evidence of Johnson's movement towards this unsentimental conception can be found in circa 1942 pink pen and ink study for an unrealized federal earth project mural. Although easily read as a playground scene where children engage in all sorts of games and activities, Johnson deftly transformed this scene into a modern freeze of rhythmic geometries, with placard like renderings of children in action, playground and equipment, and a Stuart-Davis-inspired cityscape. This dismantling of a socially encoded narrative and replacing it with an evocative palette and interlocking jazzy elements was also present in "Ring Around the Rosey"'s watercolor counterpart, "Children Playing London Bridge," where Johnson's resolute focus on relational forms and colors was quite explicit.
None of these renderings by William H. Johnson are close to the childhood types and models typically seen on Norman Rockwell's "Saturday Evening Post" covers, much less the prim, milk chocolate and cinnamon boys and girls that graced Negro funeral parlor fans and calendars of the period. Johnson's girls in "Ring Around the Rosey" are the lean and spiky twigs of sycamores, persimmons, sweet gums, and tupelos —brown or blackish, adorned with fresh foliage in the spring, and withdrawn and gray in winter. Rather than tinkling and angelic, the girls in this painting are all sass and acidic. With limbs poised for action and face-to-face repartee that make the flowers withdraw from their lack of a comparable affect. Indeed, Johnson's daisies and [computer glitch] ices appear as if sprouting from the girls themselves, whose root-like legs and multi-hued, tree trunk bodies are the picture's core [computer glitch] and subject matter. Children's ring games, summertime efflorescence, and daily-attired girls in pastel-colored pinafores, became in Johnson's conceptualization patchwork swatches of color and pattern held together in by a loosely-threaded narrative about intra-group dynamics, class, and role play. This balancing act between modern and uncompromising forms, and a stifled, temp-down sentimentality was echoed in Helen Levitt's "Photographs of City Children" during the same period. Exhibited in New York's Museum of Modern Art in the spring of 1943, nearly simultaneous with Johnson's show of tempera paintings, Levitt's [computer glitch] photo conveyed much of the same artistic and ethical independence that "Ring Around the Rosey" communicated. Carefully picturing impoverished African American, Latino, and White children within an inscrutable scenery of facades, platforms, and urban backdrops. That race, or conspicuously, Blackness, became almost coincidental in Levitt's photographs and in a painting like "Ring Around the Rosey," was perhaps the ultimate yoke that broke the back of Porter's modern Negro art dromedary. Johnson's was a Blackness that refused to proselytize, for its inclusion in high society that wasn't about to apologize for its course honesty and intrusion —antithetical visibility that stood or tumbled in its rightful universality alongside other races and ethnicities. Or that in the South Carolina hamlet of Florence, in particular shunned tight, ill-fitting shoes. As markers of socioeconomic freedom and cultural primitivism, Johnson's barefoot subjects embodied a rejection of a type of socially engineered respectability, that despite its intrinsic role in racial uplift and individual advancement would sap African Americans, according to some advocates, of Black popular culture —of their history tested grass-root metal and spirituality.
In the painting "Aunt Alice," William H. Johnson portrayed his mother, Alice Smoot Johnson, in a manner similar to the trio in "Ring Around the Rosey." Wearing a red, white, and pink checkerboard pattern dress; a shoeless, dark brown Alice visually anchored the sketchy [computer glitch] pastel blue interior she occupied. Just like the suspended disbelief in "Ring Around the Rosey"'s spatial and perspectival truths, "Aunt Alice," disassembled viewers; sense of location and corporeal attitude with sundry ambiguities. The half rendered rocking chair, Alice's indefinite posture, and the chromatically split vertiginous periwinkle background-foreground, sharing the painting's periwinkle side with Alice's evasive flowers, which sit on an orange side table, whose long legs artlessly reply to the other legs —human and wooden— as well as the linear traceries within the painting. "Aunt Alice," despite this concise description, defies a quick simple analysis. Beyond representing Johnson's mother and designating her as 'Aunt,' a Southern U.S. term of endearment for older Black women, there's little else in this painting that can be taken at face value. Almost everything in it has an uncanny, otherworldly presence contributing to its extra-sensory dimension. A bi-colored room, furnished with half of a black chair and a ghostly radioactive side table, simultaneously invokes paintings by Henri Matisse and Adolph Gottlieb. The vase of sunflowers, bucolic and austere in appearance, feel less decorative than integral to this picture, functioning almost like a specter witness to the act of portraiture. Even Johnson's portrayal of Alice, as compared to her circa 1940 photograph, hovers between caricature abstraction and dead-on delineation. Alice's ambiguous seated-standing position further complicated how viewers, circa 1944, might have understood Alice's portrait. Either thinking of it in the verificated background as a spiritual reflection on states of consciousness and physical existence, or as a playful, folkloric nod to Albert Einstein's theories of relativity. Nothing is certain in "Aunt Alice" except, as one might deduce, her motherly relationship to Johnson and her conceptual iconicity.
One of several portraits painted in South Carolina in 1944, "Aunt Alice" also denoted Johnson's artistic recognition of a distinctly Southern U.S. mode of reception and interaction. Ritualized salutations from the vantage point of the porch, the chair, or other seated, proscenium-like arrangements from his formulaic designs of people ensconced in shaker-style rocking chairs, to his pictorial summaries of elders holding court from porches and structural stoops, Johnson revealed an even deeper appreciation for Black vernacular culture than reflected in his rural-themed works of just a few years prior. His portrayals of enthroned family members, each enveloped in a chromatic brilliance and with their hierarchic poses, suggestive of ancient African spirits, visualized the oral and performative riches that spectators like Johnson experienced while in Florence, South Carolina, and in the presence of these residential storytellers and regalers. "Porch traditions," writes critic Trudier Harris, "of comparable literary [unintelligible] created a similarity of experience and telling and hearing, that became a part of the oral tradition. Indeed almost a folk form in itself." Harris's assertion that African American writers, such as Zora Neale Hurston, relied on some manifestation of that oral interactive pattern, of porch sitters and porch watchers, of participants and those who react by filling in the spaces of the presenters, is applicable as well to Johnson's portraits in this site-specific Southern U.S. tradition.
The colorful, quilt-like spaces that Johnson invented for his mother and other sitters, indicated how emotionally charged the subjects were. While this high-effect palette might have been closer to reality than initially assumed, employing Hurston's theory of African American aesthetic surface, there's something else about these concentrated inordinately bright colors and their disparate combinations that suggested extraordinary intensifications on Johnson's part. His renderings of family and friends with a passion and power apropos his strong heartfelt feelings towards them. Johnson, who [computer glitch] only a few months earlier had lost his wife to breast cancer, and ironically with Holcha's death occurring on his mother's birthday, now turned his artistic attention to family. His mother, his siblings, and their children, and the rest of his extended South Carolina clan, in a virtual explosion of predominantly female-focused, domestic, portraiture. "My mother was Black, as I have shown in my portrait of her," Johnson underscored to journalist Nora Holt on the occasion of his New York Public Library exhibition in 1946. Sitting with folded hands and an expression of resignation in a simple polka dot dress was how he completed his description of one of his half dozen portraits of Alice. Johnson's attentiveness to race, humility, and sartorial elegance all folded into his maternal lineage, is telling. Especially if one thinks of these South Carolina paintings as an interrelated, concordant group. Joining "Aunt Alice" and "Ring Around the Rosey" were countless other portraits of mostly girls and women, all painted, observed one art critic, "with a peculiar, sad, sincerity and feeling devoutly religious in spirit." Johnson's circa 1944 painting entitled "Maternal," showing another shoeless, but stylishly-attired woman in a rocking chair and nursing a child is especially poignant, considering his wife's recent death from breast cancer, as well as thematically resonant with his other South Carolina images of women and children. The mossy, light green ground upon which the figures are placed in "Maternal," formed the ideal backdrop for Johnson's visually percussive show of [unintelligible] earth tones, yellows, blues, and black accented in all of these pictures with white fingernails, toenails, and eyeballs that pierce the darkness, and defiantly probe beyond the picture frame. The world that Johnson painted in Florence that year: a supernaturally- colored domain comprised of regal, yet humble Black women installed on porches; children at play and at rest; and flowers in riotous, full bloom; was at once familiar and outlandish, connecting the artist to the ultimate locus of origin —mother. While envisioning that same fundamental life source within a part cultural part invented space of impromptu games, performed rituals, imparted legacies, and constantly changing scenery —like the too-big-to-be-breastfed child in Johnson's "Maternal," the artist returned in 1944 to the comforting, all-embracing arm of home. Partaking of not only the emotional sustenance of the female element, but of the vertigo-inducing experience of self-consciousness —of finally grasping one's purpose in life, even if it meant the proverbial re-entry into the symbolic womb. In this instance, Johnson's primal African American, folk roots. Although it was practically second nature for this expressionist to feel his way through the world and to visually cast it in the operative role of emotional vehicle for his art, it was another matter altogether for the bereft and distraught Johnson, to totally immerse himself in the maternal lap and bosom of Alice, Florence, and to transform his temporary asylum and sanctuary into a new, and arguably more honest mode, of modern painting.
As James A. Porter's judgment of this artistic shift made plain, painting and emulating the Black poor and working-class was the aesthetic 'third rail' that would bring Johnson's radical, post-1944, achievements in modern painting into disrepute and doubt for many contemporary and subs-[computer glitch] equent critics. That the Black subaltern could be the legitimate subject of art was the combined professional and personal risk that William H. Johnson was willing to take. His exhibitions of these paintings in the porch tradition elicited praise during these years, but not always from that period's likely arbiters of taste. The uptowners, who in 1946, saw these paintings in Johnson's solo exhibition at the 135th street branch of the New York Public Library quickly comprehended that they were created with an African American, working class audience in mind, and that the paintings, conveyed in feeling and contour, their own notions of community and family.
Like his fellow, mid-century delineator of Black American life, Jacob Lawrence, Johnson recognized the artistic challenge of capturing not just social realities in two-dimensional form, but interiority via pictorial and conceptual means. "Ring Around the Rosey" and "Aunt Alice" exemplified how William H. Johnson's visual pursuits of these intimate, Black portrayals also summoned interrogations of class, gender, and his own state of mind. Territories of identity and cultural history that would figure prominently for the remainder of his accomplished, though short-lived career.
But what differentiated William H. Johnson's Florence, South Carolina portraits from Jacob Lawrence's paintings of Harlem and its peoples, was Johnson's intimate marshaling of posture, gesture, placement, and sartorial self-expression. A visual equation that although focused on others, ultimately projected Johnson's kindred position and emotional bonds to his subjects for everyone to see and discern. That one might describe Johnson's radically conceived circa 1944 portraits as ecstatic is understandable if one considers their severe minimalist, neo-primitive, approach as fundamentally related to his animated, impasto Scandinavian landscapes. Instead of being diametrically opposed to one another, think of paintings such as the 1937 "Harbor Under the Midnight Sun" and the 1944 "Little Sis," as akin. Their subjects betraying an analogous monumentality, an affinity with a seeker whose antenna was forever attuned to reciprocal energies —corporeal and environmental. Whether a tumultuous sun, illuminated mountain, or a barefoot girl armed with a flyswatter, Johnson's consciousness is outside itself— aligning with a world which through its communion with the artist confirmed his colorful past, offered a mirrored reflection of the present, and prognosticated an imagined future. This relationship between one's consciousness and the temporal was theorized by German philosopher Martin Heidegger, who in his 1927 book "Being and Time," argued that the ecstatic, or humanity's heightened sense of existence, was as with Johnson's family portraits and plein air landscapes, funneled through that which one has experienced, that which one instantly knows and that which one imagines or envisions. In contrast to an ecstatic state that's generated vis-a-vis a spiritual and/or of the worldly vision, as visualized here by Bernini, translated into shimmering marble and gilded bronze, Johnson's aesthetic forms sprang from life, and is seen in a lifetime's work materialized in the century-old mysteries of oil pigments, plain or coarse woven fabrics, and his ruminations on modeling the most sovereign of all creators. Thank you.
— (Gloria Kenyon) Thank you so much for that wonderful talk that, close look at so many fantastic Johnson works. This was an absolutely beautiful presentation, and I know our audience has a few questions so we'll take some time for that. One of the questions that folks have been asking as you've been talking is, how does S.A.A.M. (Smithsonian American Art Museum), have, or the Smithsonian American Art Museum, have so many William H. Johnson works in our collection. Can you answer that for us?
— (Richard Powell) Yes, I can. So, some of you are familiar with the story but, Johnson, after World War II, returns to Scandinavia. His wife has died, he has just had this important experience in Florence, South Carolina, but wants to reconnect with post-war Europe, and specifically post-war Scandinavia, and his wife's family. And, to make a long story short he has a mental breakdown while visiting Scandinavia and is actually shipped back to the United States and is institutionalized for an extended period of time, from the late 40s until his death in 1970. His art is in, is in the warehouse, basically and to make a long story short, The Harmon Foundation, which had been supportive of him from the very beginning, steps up and takes charge of trying to dispose of this vast collection of objects that he has been carrying with him for the past 20 years and is all in this warehouse. And efforts are made towards MoMA (the Museum of Modern Art) in the early 60s and MoMA is not interested, efforts are extended, or I think, inquiries are made to the Whitney, the Whitney's not interested. But around 1966, The Harmon Foundation is in contact with The National Collection of Fine Arts, the former name of the Smithsonian American Art Museum, which had just moved into the old post office building, so there was a lot of space and a lot of storage. And David Scott, who was the director, looked at this work and said, "you know this is amazing. I don't know much about this artist but I think that this is something that needs to be preserved and needs to be held onto." So arrangements are made for the transfer of this material from The Harmon Foundation to The National Collection of Fine arts. I should also add around the same time, the Harmon Foundation makes gifts of some of this material to several historically Black colleges and universities as well as Sir Johnson's family. So, so but, the questioner is correct in inquiring about the volume of material that that SAAM. (the Smithsonian American Art Museum) is in possession of.
— (Gloria Kenyon) Fantastic, thank you. We do have a fantastic collection of his work and we are fortunate to have a visible storage area in our Luce Foundation Center up on the third floor, where there are several cases devoted to Johnson, for those who would like to go visit the museum when it is open. There's a question about his early work, excuse me, with the kind of the curving you mentioned with a fisheye lens. Did he look through a lens to get that view or did he take photographs with the fisheye lens? How did he achieve that look?
— (Richard Powell) According to my research, he was not a camera person [laughs]. He really was taught at the academy, and being at the academy means that you paint from life, you paint plein air in open space when you're doing landscapes, you paint from figures who are standing in front of you, but I, I would imagine that that when he's in France and when he's experiencing the south of France, from some of the evidence that we see in some of the material at Smithsonian American Art Museum, we actually see a few drawings that are round where there, it seems to be a landscape that has been painted or sketched within that round space. And we know from various studies of modern artists that actually go back to the Renaissance period, that artists often use lenses and mirrors and various ocular devices to look through in order to create images. But let me caution and paraphrase that, or, or compliment that, that obs— that, that device element with, you know, a vivid and expressive imagination. In other words, that's not just about something that one does as they look through a piece of glass, that's very much an artist inspired and using that vehicle to then build on that and to really absorb and take in, you know, the topsy-turvy buildings and really, as I said in my lecture, putting himself into the landscape and, and, and so that's what kind of makes these works I think unique —that they, that they are both landscapes and, in an uncanny way self-portraits.
— (Gloria Kenyon) Thank you, that is really interesting and a good insight into his approach. We —I wish we could talk for more time, but we only have time for one more question. We have so many, and thank you all to the audience for your really fantastic questions and you're listening this evening. We're so glad you were able to join us, um, this is one that I think is really interesting. You mentioned all different artists that Johnson was influenced by and talked with. Were there any other contemporary artists who were influenced by Johnson, and his work, and his approach?
— (Richard Powell) That's a good question, I would have to say that, I don't know if he was so much a source of inspiration for people during his lifetime. Well, I take that back. Beauford Delaney was living in the village during that time period when Johnson and his wife first moved from Europe. They lived in the Greenwich Village area and then they lived on the Lower East Side, and there were a whole set of of African American artists. I remember having a great interview with Bob Blackburn and he talked about the Harlem group people who lived in Harlem like Jacob Lawrence and Romare Bearden, but then he talked about the downtown group and the downtown group was Selma Burke, the downtown group was Ellis Wilson, the downtown group was William H. Johnson, and, um, and um, Beauford Delany. And these are artists who, who um, some of whom I think picked up on that expressionistic quality in a lot of their work, and were and I don't know if I would say they were inspired by him, but but they saw that as a way of on one hand dealing with the figure or with still lifes, but, but pushing the button particularly with color and using one's kind of expressive qualities and I'd say Beauford Delaney is perhaps, the, the prime example. Although, by the time he, he goes to France himself in the early 1950s, he really kind of takes those lessons into a whole other level with with extraordinary paintings, abstractions, imposto works, that, that that, on one hand, look back to Johnson, but then move forward into ab-ex (abstract expressionism) but, but in a very kind of art informal way, perhaps the French variation on ab-ex. When you think about contemporary artists, I mean, um when Johnson, first really becomes well-known, at least well-known again at the, in the, 1990s and in the 21st century I mean a whole bunch of artists have been looking at these works and thinking about how you reimagine the figure. And I would argue that right now we're kind of in a figure renaissance if you look at auction houses and galleries, I mean it seems like there's there's no shortage of painters who are using paint and the figure in ways that I would say resonates a lot with with Johnson. I can't say whether those artists are inspired by him, but I would I would say that um, um that, that, that contemporary artists are quite knowledgeable about traditions and no doubt they've seen um these incredible works by, by Johnson that that really have stood the test of time. As I said, these are words created in the 40s and 30s, but they feel so fresh. They're really quite exciting and powerful, so perhaps there's some inspiration there.
— (Gloria Kenyon) Wonderful, thank you. I'm going to start looking closely at contemporary things for the figure renaissance; I like that term a lot. Thank you so much for your wonderful lecture this evening, for taking the time to be with us, and for sharing your expertise. So many folks in the Q-and-A have thanked you for introducing them to Johnson and for sharing more about his journey, so we are really grateful for your expertise tonight. Thank you to our audience for joining us this evening, we're so glad you were able to be with us. This program is being recorded, so please check it out on our website later in next week. We also invite you to join us on December 10th with the Corning Museum of Glass. A live hot shop program with glassblowing artist Megan Stelljes. There will be a link in the chat for you to follow to register for that program and join us in December for that one, and we do ask you to complete the survey in your browser window after we close out this evening. Thank you again, Dr. Powell, for joining us this evening, thank you audience for joining us, and thank you to all the folks behind the scenes for helping produce this program. We will see you soon, take care.