The Art and Life of William H. Johnson
By Richard Powell, Introduction by Martin Puryear
Book design by Margaret Sartor
This distinctive volume focuses on the memorable paintings of a major African American modernist. Born and raised in a segregated South Carolina town, William Henry Johnson (1901-1970) became an expatriate experimental painter in Paris, then Scandinavia. As a black American working in Europe, he drew on primitivism and on his travels in North Africa, exploring styles ranging from Northern European expressionism to boldly colorful narratives. Returning to New York in 1938 with his Danish wife, Johnson captured the edginess of city life in bluesy, nervous paintings. He spent his last 22 years in a mental asylum; today his works are hardly known. An exhibition now at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American Art, along with this moving biographical-critical study, should rectify the situation. Powell is a Duke University art professor.