Feb 10, 2018 — May 6, 2018
One of the most important African-American artists of his time, William H. Johnson (1901-1970) was born in Florence, South Carolina. As a youngster, Johnson copied comics from the local newspaper. He also worked to help support himself and his family. By the age of seventeen, he had saved enough to go to New York. He moved to Harlem, where he worked as a hotel porter, cook, and stevedore while studying at the National Academy of Design with Impressionist Charles Hawthorne. Hawthorne financed Johnson’s first trip abroad, and, in 1926, Johnson settled in Paris, where he experimented with French Post-Impressionist styles, using bright colors and deliberate brushstrokes. These early European works highlighted his eager assimilation of the styles of such artists as Vincent van Gogh and Chaim Soutine. While working in southern France, Johnson met Holcha Krake, a Danish artist. They married in 1930 and made their home in Kerteminde, Denmark, a fishing village that is the subject of much of Johnson’s work of the period. In 1935 the couple traveled to Norway where they painted, exhibited, and met the modern expressionist master Edvard Munch, whom Johnson greatly admired.
In 1994, Steve Turner, gallerist and art historian, retraced Johnson’s European sojourn in search of the artist’s collectors and paintings. Turner found that the artist enjoyed a highly respected career. He received extensive press coverage during the 1930s and boasted a following of collectors who avidly acquired his work. Turner subsequently mounted an exhibition titled William H. Johnson: Truth Be Told, which traveled to four museums in 1998-1999 and shed new light on Johnson’s life and career.
This installation features twenty-six of the works collected by Turner in Scandinavia and brings the art of William H. Johnson full circle, from his native South Carolina to international centers of modernism—Paris, Oslo, and New York—and back to the state of his birth, where his standing as a significant painter is more fully realized today.