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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.