Exhibition | South Carolina Icons

Dec 20, 2014 — Nov 15, 2015

Consider the work of three African-American artists from South Carolina, David Drake, William H. Johnson, and Merton Simpson. Their work echoes the stories of slavery, the struggle for equality, and the Civil Rights movement.

One of the 19th century’s most remarkable artists, David Drake was an enslaved African-American who worked as a “turner” in several pottery manufacturing facilities in South Carolina’s Edgefield District. Drake learned to read and write, dangerous and even illegal skills for a slave to possess. Apparently with his owner’s approval, Drake openly expressed his literacy and his literary skills by inscribing original poems on many of the utilitarian works he created. Ten large pots, including three poem-incised vessels offer a captivating look at the inspiring figure of David Drake.

A native of Florence, South Carolina, William H. Johnson (1901—1970) studied in New York City with highly regarded painter, Charles Hawthorne. In 1926 Johnson settled in Paris, where he experimented with French Impressionist and Post-Impressionist styles, using bright, high-key colors and deliberate brushstrokes. These early European works highlighted his eager assimilation of the many styles characterizing the modern School of Paris. While working in southern France, Johnson met Holcha Krake, a Danish weaver. The pair married in 1930 and made their home in Kerteminde, Denmark, a fishing village that is the subject of several paintings in the Museum’s collection. Five years later, the couple moved to Norway, where Johnson explored the dynamic effects of the midnight sun.

William and Holcha Johnson left Europe for New York City in 1938 just ahead of World War II. Upon his return to America, Johnson abandoned his earlier stylistic adaptations of European modernism and created a new, more personal approach, depicting African-Americans in compositions characterized by bold colors and flattened, patterned forms. 

Merton Simpson was born in Charleston, South Carolina in 1928.  As a child, he was hospitalized for diphtheria, and to pass the time while he recuperated he sketched newspaper comics, igniting an interest that led him to work part-time as a high school student in a frame shop. There he met Jean Fleming, a local artist who introduced him to William Halsey, an influential modernist painter who taught at the Gibbes Gallery. 

In 1949, shortly after Simpson’s high school graduation, Halsey, his artist wife Corrie McCallum, and Laura Bragg, the former director of the Charleston Museum, hosted the young artist’s first solo exhibition. In keeping with segregated society, there were two openings, one for whites only and one for both African-Americans and whites. Simpson continued to garner recognition for his early work, and in 1950 the Charleston Scientific and Cultural Educational Fund awarded him a fellowship that allowed him to study in New York. 

Simpson attended classes in the evening at New York University and Cooper Union Art School. He worked at the Henry Benevy Frame Shop, where he met such influential contemporary artists as Willem de Kooning, Franz Kline, and Max Weber. All critiqued his paintings and shared their techniques and aesthetic concepts. 

After serving three years in the Air Force, Simpson returned to New York, where he continued taking classes and exhibiting his work, notably at the Guggenheim Museum’s Younger American Painters in the spring of 1954. Simpson also began collecting African tribal art after seeing sculptures in the collections of his friends, Hale Woodruff and Paul Robeson. After seven years of serious collecting, Simpson opened his gallery in New York to buy and sell African tribal art, which he exhibited alongside the work of African-American artists. 

Simpson’s Confrontations series, dating from 1964 to 1972, reflects the racial conflict of the 1960s by combining abstract expressionist brushwork with an overlay of cartoonlike facial features. Simpson said of them, “the Harlem riots seemed to have motivated … this business of black-white confrontation.” He was not optimistic about the inevitable consequences of racial violence, or, in his words, “the problem of … black-white … fighting each other, almost sort of killing each other off. I’m painting what I see: ugly people fighting ugly people. I see wrongness on either side.”