William Henry Johnson was born on March 18, in Florence, South Carolina. His father, Henry, shoveled coal on the local railroad line; his mother, Alice, was a domestic. In 1918, Johnson moved to New York City to live with the family of his uncle, a Pullman porter. While working as a hotel porter, short-order cook, and stevedore, Johnson began to pursue his interest in art. Encouraged by several mentors, especially Charles Webster Hawthorne of the National Academy of Design, Johnson went to France in 1926 and spent three years there; he had his first solo exhibition in 1927, in Paris.
In 1929, before his return to the United States, Johnson met the Danish artist Holcha Krake, a weaver, who was sixteen years older than he. After a visit home, Johnson traveled to Denmark to marry Holcha; they settled on the Danish island of Funen. In 1938, with the threat of war looming, he and Holcha embarked for New York, where she died in 1944. A distraught Johnson returned to Denmark and Norway after the war. There, he showed signs of the mental instability that eventually resulted in his being admitted to Long Island’s Central Islip State Hospital in 1947. Suffering from the long-term effects of syphilis, Johnson remained there until his death in 1970. Were it not for the intervention of the Harmon Foundation, virtually all his surviving work would have been destroyed after his hospitalization, simply because there was no one to pay for the cost of storage. Even so, many works have deteriorated beyond hope for restoration. Fortunately, a rich legacy endures.
Johnson’s life as recounted by Richard Powell is fascinating in itself, but this superbly illustrated volume is also a study of Johnson’s art. Powell has a thesis, and he rides it hard: He sees Johnson’s career as “an evolution away from ostensible sophistication and toward art’s primal, folkloric beginnings.” Whether or not one shares Powell’s conviction that Johnson was an exemplary figure in choosing to explore “the truly primal territories of art” and rejecting “the traditions of Western Europe,” there’s no doubting the depth of Powell’s knowledge of his subject or the importance of the story he has to tell. In addition to reproductions and photographs, the text is supplemented by notes, an extensive chronology, a bibliography, and an index; Powell also lists public collections where Johnson’s work can be seen.