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An American Modern

A rare look at William H. Johnson's exuberant works
Ring Around the Rosey

Mark Cole Associate Curator of American Painting and Sculpture


Until illness cut his career short in 1947, William H. Johnson (1901–1970) produced an esteemed body of work that solidified his reputation as a significant and compelling figure in the history of American art. This winter, William H. Johnson: An American Modern celebrates the artist’s achievements through 20 works in a wide range of media. Drawn from the collection of the James E. Lewis Museum of Art at Morgan State University, Baltimore, the exhibition charts the pivotal stages of Johnson’s artistic evolution, allowing viewers to assess and enjoy his career’s varied trajectory. The presentation in Cleveland is supplemented by two prints by the artist from the permanent collection of the Cleveland Museum of Art. 


Ring Around the Rosey 1944. William H. Johnson. Oil on cardboard; 64.8 x 61 cm. Courtesy Morgan State University, Baltimore


Born and raised in Florence, South Carolina, Johnson followed in the steps of many rural southern African Americans during the early decades of the 20th century who migrated northward in search of improved economic opportunities and social environments. In Harlem, the 17-year-old Johnson took on a succession of jobs to earn money toward his ultimate goal of obtaining a degree in studio art. In 1926 he graduated from the National Academy of Design, an institution known for its conservative curriculum, where he mastered the essentials of painting and drawing. Shortly afterward, the fledgling artist moved overseas, launching his career first in Paris and subsequently in Cagnes-sur-Mer, a Mediterranean coastal village in the south of France that long attracted painters due to its picturesque scenery and inexpensive lodgings. The works he created in both locations constitute his first forays into modernism, marking a decisive stylistic break from his traditional academic training in New York.

Johnson spent the next decade living and working in Scandinavia, as well as making a number of treks across Europe and northern Africa. His art from this period drew inspiration from his immediate surroundings and reflected his progression through various modes of modernist aesthetics. Despite his diverse stylistic engagements, Johnson remained at the core an expressionist—primarily interested in communicating his emotional responses to his subjects. During an extended stay in Norway in the late 1930s, Johnson met the famed artist Edvard Munch (1863–1944), whose psychologically charged woodcut prints had inspired Johnson to tackle the medium years earlier. Around this time, Johnson’s works became even more emotionally exuberant, as exemplified by Untitled Still Life, Flowers. As if the artist were calling attention to the act of painting itself, these canvases feature thick pigment applied with vigorous daubs, and their palettes often dazzle with an unprecedented immediacy.


Untitled Still Life, Flowers

Untitled Still Life, Flowers ca. 1936–38. William H. Johnson (American, 1901–1970). Oil on burlap; 71.1 x 55.9 cm. Courtesy Morgan State University, Baltimore


In 1938 Johnson grew concerned by rumors that fascist forces in Germany would soon invade and occupy Denmark, where he had been living for several years. Under this cloud of worry he returned to New York and resettled in Harlem, a move that prompted the most significant shift in his mature artistic career. On these shores he began to address his African American identity and experiences, drawing inspiration not only from his Harlem neighborhood but also from his memories of growing up in South Carolina. During this final phase of artistic development, Johnson fashioned a singularly modernist style featuring flat areas of bold color rendered in crisp outline. As before, he engaged in expressionist distortions of form and a high-keyed palette. Some art historians have suggested that Johnson’s penchant for the boldly patterned motifs routinely surfacing in works from this period was inspired by similar designs in multi-strip African American quilts from the rural South.

Regarding this stage in his career, Johnson stated his aim as “to give, in simple and stark form, the story of the Negro as he has existed.” Although he depicted famed historical and biblical figures, Johnson most often turned his attention to contemporary scenes of everyday life, such as Ring Around the Rosey, a celebratory image of childhood enjoyment set amid a stylized backdrop of boisterously blooming flowers. His iconographic interests at this time coincided with the American Scene movement, which encouraged artists to draw inspiration for subject matter from their own communities.


Jitterbugs III

Jitterbugs III ca. 1941. William H. Johnson. Screenprint with hand coloring; 34.7 x 25.5 cm (image). Cleveland Museum of Art, Severance and Greta Millikin Purchase Fund 2012.9 


In New York, Johnson also participated in programs set up by the U.S. government to employ artists during the Great Depression and the early years of the Second World War. He first taught painting at the Harlem Community Art Center and then worked on a project producing war and defense posters. Likely while participating in the latter, Johnson learned the technique of screenprinting, which allowed him to create multiple versions of the same composition. A variation on the technique of stenciling, screenprints are made by pressing opaque ink through a fine mesh screen. One of Johnson’s most admired screenprints, Jitterbugs III—acquired earlier this year by the Cleveland Museum of Art—captures the frenetic moves and rapturous bliss of a man and woman abandoning themselves in the wildly popular dance craze. The two abstracted circular forms glimpsed behind the female figure’s legs signify trombones, as seen head-on.

 Although Johnson exhibited widely in Europe and the U. S. during his career, he sold only a handful of works and did not receive widespread recognition until the late 1960s. Around this time, just shortly before his death, the vast majority of his output—more than 1,100 works—was donated to what is now the Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, D.C. The terms of the gift called for the Smithsonian to distribute selected pieces to several historically black colleges and universities, and Morgan State University was among the chosen institutions. Morgan State’s art department chair, James E. Lewis, carefully selected the 20 objects that constitute the core of this exhibition. William H. Johnson: An American Modern marks the first national tour of these important works.  


Cleveland Art, November/December 2012