Sunday, October 28, 2012

American Artist William H Johnson 1901-1970 - From the Deep South to New York to Europe & Back




William H. Johnson (American artist, 1901-1970) Aunt Alice, The Artist's Mother

Born in Florence, South Carolina, to mother Alice Smoot Johnson (known as “Mom Alice” or “Aunt Alice”) and father Henry Johnson. William H. Johnson was oldest of 5 children - William, Lacy, Lucy, James, and Lillian.

William H. Johnson (American artist, 1901-1970) Jim Johnson Artist's Brother 1930

Johnson was not a self-taught or outsider artist. At age 17, Johnson moved to New York City, where he supported himself by working as a cook, hotel porter, and stevedore. In September 1921, he enrolled at the School of the National Academy of Design (NAD). Between 1923-1926, during the academic year he studied with Charles W. Hawthorne at the NAD and during the summers at The Cape Cod School of Art in Provincetown, Massachusetts.

William H. Johnson (American artist, 1901-1970) Lil' Sis

In 1926, Johnson sailed to Paris to study art. He worked as a custodian to make ends meet. Over the next few years, he held exhibits in France, Germany, Luxembourg, and Belgium. In 1930, Johnson married Danish textile artist Holcha Krake. Johnson and his wife worked in countries throughout Europe; and in 1932, the couple arrived in Tunisia, where Johnson hoped to learn more about his African heritage. After a 3 month stay, they returned to Denmark via France.

William H. Johnson (American artist, 1901-1970) Mom and Dad 1944

During the next couple of years the Johnsons visited Norway and Sweden, where they continued to exhibit their art. The couple spent most of the '30s in Scandinavia, where Johnson's interest in primitivism and folk art began to have a noticeable impact on his work.

William H. Johnson (American artist, 1901-1970) Farm Couple at Well 1939-40 Print

Johnson’s bold, rough woodcuts from the 1930s, inspired by German expressionist woodcutting techniques, distinguish his prints from the work of most other American artists, who used more traditional methods of printmaking. The materials he used for making relief prints were readily available: scrap lumber or a piece of linoleum.

William H. Johnson (American artist, 1901-1970) Deep South 1940-41 Print

After he and his wife returned to the United States in 1938, Johnson continued to produce relief prints. He also began to experiment with serigraphy. While many American artists of his generation created multiple impressions of a single image, Johnson often varied the image from one impression to the next. His prints, like his paintings, reveal the development of his distinctive artistic language to express powerful narrative, emotional, and symbolic content.

William H. Johnson (American artist, 1901-1970) Early Morning Work, 1939-40 Print

Back in the US, Johnson immersed himself in the traditions of the African-American community, producing work characterized by its stunning, eloquent, folk art simplicity. Like Jacob Lawrence and Romare Bearden, Johnson began probing the black experience, drawing imagery from his rural southern childhood and from Harlem’s upbeat urban ambience. A Greenwich Village resident, he became a familiar figure on the New York art scene.

William H. Johnson (American artist, 1901-1970) Sowing 1940-42

Although Johnson enjoyed a certain degree of success as an artist in this country and abroad, financial security remained elusive. William H. Johnson taught painting for a short period of time at the Harlem Community Art Center. The Metropolitan Museum of Art included his work of black soldiers in its 1942 exhibit Artists for Victory.

William H. Johnson (American artist, 1901-1970) Breakdown 1940-41 Print

In 1943, Johnson’s wife Holcha was diagnosed with breast cancer and died the following year. From 1944 to 1946, Johnson worked as laborer in the Navy Yards in New York. Following his wife's death in 1944, Johnson's physical and mental health declined dramatically. Johnson spent his last 23 years in a state hospital on Long Island.

William H. Johnson (American artist, 1901-1970) Going to Church 1940-41 Print

By the time of his death in 1970, he had slipped into obscurity. After his death, his entire life's work was almost disposed of to save storage fees; but it was rescued by friends at the last moment. Over 1000 paintings by Johnson are now part of the collection of the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington, DC.

William H. Johnson (American artist, 1901-1970) Folk Family 1940-41 Print

William H. Johnson (American artist, 1901-1970) I Baptize Thee 1940

William H. Johnson (American artist, 1901-1970) Sowing 1940-42

William H. Johnson (American artist, 1901-1970) Chain Gang 1939

William H. Johnson (American artist, 1901-1970) Farewell

William H. Johnson (American artist, 1901-1970) Soap Box Car Racing 1939-40

William H. Johnson (American artist, 1901-1970) Street Musicians 1939-40

William H. Johnson (American artist, 1901-1970) Cafe 1939

William H. Johnson (American artist, 1901-1970) Blind Singer 1939-40 Print

William H. Johnson (American artist, 1901-1970) Jitterbugs I

William H. Johnson (American artist, 1901-1970) Jitterbugs II 1941

William H. Johnson (American artist, 1901-1970) Jitterbugs III 1941 Print

William H. Johnson (American artist, 1901-1970) Jitterbugs V 1941-42 Print

William H. Johnson (American artist, 1901-1970) Jitterbugs

William H. Johnson (American artist, 1901-1970) Moon Over Harlem

William H. Johnson (American artist, 1901-1970) Fright c 1942 Print

William H. Johnson (American artist, 1901-1970) Off to War 1942 Print

William H. Johnson (American artist, 1901-1970) Station Stop, Red Cross Ambulance c 1942

William H. Johnson (American artist, 1901-1970) Mount Calvary

William H. Johnson (American artist, 1901-1970) Come Unto Me Little Children

William H. Johnson (American artist, 1901-1970) Three Friends 1944-45 Print

William H. Johnson (American artist, 1901-1970) Art Class 1939-40

William H. Johnson (American artist, 1901-1970) Portrait of Fletcher, 1939

William H. Johnson (American artist, 1901-1970) Art Class Model in a Yellow Chair 1939

William H. Johnson (American artist, 1901-1970) Self Portrait

 

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