June Kelly Gallery

William H. Johnson

An exhibition of paintings by William H. Johnson, rarely seen works on paper from the 1930s and 1940s that bridge the European and American styles of his career, was presented at the June Kelly Gallery, from January 5 through January 31, 2001.

The paintings — gouache, tempera and watercolor — are from the collection of the Harriton family of eastern Pennsylvania, who met and befriended Johnson and his wife Holcha during a vacation trip to Scandinavia in 1937.  The relationship continued and strengthened after the Johnsons came to the United States in 1938.

Johnson, who art critic Steven Litt of Cleveland has said “painted like a man on fire,” died in 1970 at the age of 69 after spending the last two decades of his life in a mental institution. He created images that “glow like stained glass,” Litt wrote.

In an essay in the exhibition catalogue, art historian Helen Shannon writes that the paintings, “span two decades and two hemispheres (and) clearly show the continuities in Johnson’s subjects and styles.”  Johnson’s sojourns in Southern France, she says, introduced him to the Expressionists’ non-traditional handling of color, perspective and brushwork.  These techniques continued to develop during the artist’s visit to Northern Scandinavia, where he discovered the brilliance of the colors of the northern lights.  “For Johnson,” Shannon writes, “the color also relates to the modernist desire to create pictures that need not look realistic but cohere as a composition.

And so, as he would do throughout his career, Johnson took liberties with vision, sometimes creating yellow, green or pink skies with blue clouds.”

A major traveling exhibition of Johnson’s paintings was seen at the Whitney Museum of American Art in 1992.  At the same time, other important works by Johnson were exhibited at The Studio Museum in Harlem.

Johnson’s work is represented in many important collections, including National Museum of American Art, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, DC; The Columbia Museum of Art, South Carolina; The Newark Museum, New Jersey; Fisk University, Tennessee; Hampton University Museum, Virginia; Howard University, Washington, DC; Library of Congress, Washington, DC; Moderna Museet, Stockholm; Lšnsmuseet, Sweden; Kerteminde Museum/Johannes Larsen Museet, Denmark.

 

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