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Thursday, August 11, 2011

An American van Gogh

Chain Gang, 1939,
William H. Johnson

He could almost be considered an American van Gogh. The similarities are uncanny. William Henry Johnson was born in Florence, South Carolina, around 1906, the son of a black laborer who shoveled coal for the railroads. At the age of 17, he went to New York to study art at the National Academy of design, and then in 1926, moved on to France where he met his Danish wife, a weaver by the name of Holcha Krake. With the approach of WW II, he returned to this country where he had some modest success with a few New York gallery shows, and even had a painting, Chain Gang, displayed at the 1939 New York World's Fair. Such meager success was not enough to live on though. He worked as a teacher for the WPA in Harlem and at the Brooklyn Naval Yards. In 1944, his wife died of breast cancer. After the war, he packed up all their belongings and bought a ticket for Denmark, apparently hoping to marry Holcha's sister.  She had other ideas.

Jacobia Hotel (Florence, SC), 1930,
William H. Johnson
Here the similaity to van Gogh is most
William Johnson's early works were expressionist landscapes. In France, his work was more impressionistic very much like van Gogh. Eventually, he settled on a flat, two-dimensional style which makes up most of his work. His subject matter included urban couples dancing, making 1940s style fashion statements, black soldiers from WW II, southern tenant farmers with their horses and mules, working the land, their faces often expressionless, their hands and feet seemingly enlarged by years of tortured labor in the fields. It was not the kind of thing selling in the postwar New York art market. He was eventually reduced to painting on burlap and discarded plywood.  His style appeared crude and unschooled. It was neither, but the color of his skin served to reinforce such judgments. Galleries and museums weren't much interested. 

In Denmark, finding his wife's sister not much interested either, he moved on to Oslo, Norway, where police found him wondering the streets, homeless, but with over $6,000 in his pocket. In 1947 Willie Johnson was deported back to the United States, committed to a mental institution, diagnosed with paresis, a brain disease caused by syphilis, and declared mentally incompetent. His last painting is dated 1956. He died 14 years later, his work stored and damaged in a leaky warehouse. During the 1950s, through a long chain of judicial events, his work was declared worthless. It eventually ended up with a now-defunct Harlem social agency which, in closing its doors, passed it on to the Smithsonian Institution.  Some thirty years after his death, thanks to the institution, Johnson's work was restored, and made the subject of numerous shows, while reproductions of his brightly colored paintings adorn calendars and postcards. In 1998 and again in 2000, Johnson's descendants claimed the artist's work was stolen from them, and filed a $100 million lawsuit to reclaim it. The suit was dismissed. Meanwhile, Willie Johnson lies buried beneath a small stone bearing the number 5405, among the waist-high weeds of an abandoned cemetery behind the abandoned Central Islip Psychiatric Center on Long Island.

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