William Henry Johnson, one of the great painter/poets of American experience, left South Carolina, the state of his birth, in 1917, when he was only 17, and found a place in the Harlem home of an uncle who made a good living as a porter on the trains that ran north and south. Johnson’s journey was part of the Great Migration, the mass exodus of Black Americans from the South that had begun in earnest that year and that in the years to come would thoroughly transform American society and culture. The double “North/South” consciousness of Black migrants to American cities would become Johnson’s core subject.
Soon after arriving in New York, Johnson was already able to imagine himself as a professional artist, even with few Black figures as precedents and little formal education of his own. By working as a stevedore, cook, and porter, he saved the money to attend the National Academy of Design, where he excelled to the degree that his teachers raised funds to allow him to study in Europe. There he schooled himself in the lessons of European modernism, using bright colors and loaded brushstrokes to create expressionist landscapes that found small but steady sales. After marrying Holcha Krake, a Danish artist, designer, weaver, and ceramist, in 1930, he spent time in Scandinavia and developed a deep interest in folk art and culture that he carried into his later work.
In the fall of 1938, with Europe on the brink of war, Johnson and Krake returned to New York, settling in Greenwich Village. Their repatriation was prompted by their alarm at the rise of fascism—the previous year, Johnson’s brother-in-law, the Expressionist artist Christoph Voll, had lost his teaching position in Germany and had had his work denigrated in the Nazis’ Entartete Kunst (Degenerate art) exhibition in Munich. Johnson also spoke of a desire to come home to “paint his own people.” In these lean Depression years he found employment, in spring 1939, through the Work Projects Administration (WPA), as an artist/instructor at the Harlem Community Art Center (HCAC), the largest WPA-funded center in the country. There Johnson found himself at the heart of a vibrant community of artists, including Charles Alston, Henry Bannarn, Selma Burke, Gwendolyn Knight, Jacob Lawrence, and others.
Johnson’s work changed dramatically in New York. He learned screenprinting at the HCAC, where a workshop dedicated to the technique had been set up, and before and after teaching classes at the center he spent time creating hundreds of prints. Screenprinting was generally used for commercial art, but the fine artists at the HCAC were imaginatively repurposing it. The method helped Johnson to define a new visual language of simplified forms and flat planes of bright color laid down in inexpensive opaque inks. It also seems to have served as a prompt for him, allowing him to let go of the painterly expressionist idiom he had honed in Europe in order to embrace something that seemed newer and bolder, that mixed high and low, that could speak plainly of a new kind of urban experience with folk origins. Johnson made prints and paintings in parallel in these years, often tackling a subject virtually simultaneously in both mediums, and the spare forms and vibrant colors that he used in his prints carried over into his painted work too.
In both, Johnson began focusing on images of Black life in the urban North and rural South. Many of his images of this period depict the Harlem community and touch on the forces that made it what it was. The screenprint Blind Singer (c. 1940), for example, pays homage to two street performers. They wear city clothes—suit and tie, hats and heels—but the guitar speaks of the blues, with that music’s deep roots in the South, where it evolved from the songs of Black sharecroppers, and of those earlier enslaved, before making its way to urban areas with the Great Migration. The prints in Johnson’s Jitterbugs series show the fashionably dressed swing dancers who filled popular ballrooms such as the Savoy; in one, the dancers collapse into each other, with musical instruments in an unsupported jumble behind. Back then, a very young Ella Fitzgerald sang with the Chick Webb orchestra, “Oh baby, I don’t want you/To croon soft and mellow/Let me warn you in advance/Sing me a swing song and let me dance.” The bright colors and dynamic angularity of Johnson’s forms provide a visual analogue to songs like Fitzgerald’s, evoking sound and motion in interplay. Other works from this period recall Johnson’s Southern past: the drawing Homesteaders (c. 1942) shows a family of four, posed seated with dignified postures and grouped tightly for a portrait, on the front porch of a one-room wooden sharecropper’s shack propped up on cement-brick risers. In the screenprint Off to War, a uniformed US serviceman heads off to his wartime deployment from one of these shacks, his family waving a flag with patriotic enthusiasm. In creating images of both Northern urban settings and Southern rural ones with an evenhandedness that allowed the two groups to work in counterpoint across the body of his work, Johnson offered artistic testament to the Migration experience, a nuanced exploration of the questions, Where have we come from? And where have we arrived?
The painting Children also comes from this crucial period in Johnson’s career. Using flat planes of unmodulated color, he depicts three young women of different skin tones, standing shoulder to shoulder, eyes and smiles aligned, their hats seeming to merge into one common topping. Their dress makes clear their status as city girls, denizens of Harlem, which had, through the influx of dual streams of migrants from the South and the Caribbean, become the “race capital” of the world, its streets filled with an array of Blackness. Social hierarchies based on skin tone—“colorism”—were part and parcel of Harlem society and often the focus of sharp commentary in popular culture. In “(What Did I Do to Be So) Black and Blue,” a Fats Waller standard performed by Ethel Waters throughout the 1930s and ’40s, for example, the famous singer lamented,
While here am I, left high and dry
Black, and ’cause I’m black I’m blue
Browns and yellers, all have fellers
Gentlemen prefer them light
Wish I could fade, can’t make the grade
Nothing but dark days in sight.
If Waller’s song speaks to the psychic pain caused by skin-tone prejudice, Johnson’s painting celebrates the range of Black beauty: each girl’s individual loveliness is signaled by a distinct hue, as well as by variances in the tilt of the eyes and the shape of the smile.
When Children was shown at the Barnett Aden Gallery in Washington, DC, in 1944, it was purchased by none other than Paul Robeson, then the most celebrated Black actor and singer in the world and the owner of several Johnson works. A key figure in Harlem cultural life, the performer had an office at HCAC, where Johnson taught and showed. Robeson’s assertion of race pride in concerts and recordings of African American spirituals, and his staunch refusal to perform for segregated audiences, made him a cultural as well as a political icon. One can imagine that in the quiet confidence of Johnson’s painting of three girls, he recognized an emblem of what might be.
Originally published in Among Others: Blackness at MoMA, ed. Darby English and Charlotte Barat (New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 2019)
Leah Dickerman, Director of Editorial and Content Strategy