Malvin Gray Johnson

"Roll Jordan Roll"
Oil on canvas
38 1/8 x 30 1/8 inches
1930
By artist Malvin Gray Johnson
This painting was published in: Outliers and American Vanguard Art

(Description of thumbnail photo:
Self-Portrait,
1934
By artist Malvin Gray Johnson
oil on canvas, mounted on canvas, 97.2 x 76.2 cm
National Museum of American Art, Smithsonian Institution. Gift of the Harmon Foundation)

Artist Malvin Gray Johnson was born in Greensboro, NC January 28, 1896, and died October 4,1934 in New York City 1934.

Known for the dignity with which he portrayed African Americans, Harlem Renaissance artist Malvin Gray Johnson produced some of his most celebrated images not in New York, but in Virginia. In 1934, Johnson used funding he had received from the Works Progress Administration’s Public Works of Art project to return to his native South and record the daily lives of African Americans there. As in his urban scenes, Johnson painted his subjects performing menial tasks with grace and vitality. Alain Locke praised Johnson for his ability to capture the cynical humor and mythical desolation in the moods of blacks better than most other artists. It came as quite a shock when this rising star in the art world died suddenly at the age of thirty-eight after returning to New York City. His death occurred just a few months before his Virginia scenes were to be exhibited in a solo exhibition at Delphic Studio and on the heels of the completion of a documentary film sponsored by the Harmon Foundation that addressed obstacles faced by Johnson and other African American artists.

Gray Johnson’s interest in art began as a youth in Greensboro, North Carolina. Though he may have felt discouraged by the absence of local black artists and lack of formal instruction available to aspiring African American artists, his older sister, a recent graduate of the nearby teachers college, supported his creative inclinations and provided basic lessons. During these early years, Johnson, with his sister’s help, entered his paintings in local fairs and exhibitions whenever possible. Confidence gained from these experiences led Johnson to pursue further studies after his family moved to New York in 1912 and, four years later, to apply for admission into the National Academy of Design. Although his call to service during World War I postponed his enrollment, Johnson returned from his military duty in France determined to complete his training. He experienced considerable success during his tenure at the National Academy, earning nine awards for his art during the late 1920s. Upon graduating in 1927, Johnson worked as a commercial artist and received sponsorship from the WPA.

The classicism of Johnson’s early painting style changed when he encountered African sculpture, Cubism, and Cezanne’s post-impressionism while studying at the National Academy. Inspired by Cezanne’s reduction of forms into basic geometric shapes and facets of color, Johnson began experimenting with color and light in his own work. His later style—characterized by simplified forms, vitality of color, and the incorporation of African imagery and aesthetics into a planar composition—fell under the umbrella of Symbolic Abstraction. Johnson may have gravitated toward abstraction stylistically, but his preference for portraiture, genre, and spiritual subject matter did not change, and his paintings were celebrated for their emotional resonance. In 1928, Johnson’s best known work, Swing Low, Sweet Chariot, received the top prize at the Harmon Foundation’s annual exhibition; Roll, Jordan, Roll was entered in the 1931 competition. The press praised Johnson’s spiritual paintings as “evidence of the black artist’s potential to make a distinctive contribution to American culture.”

When Johnson died at the height of the Harlem Renaissance, stunned friends and critics mourned the loss of one of the most influential and promising African American artists of the era. Unfortunately, many museums and galleries that did not prioritize African American art in the 1930s misplaced or lost Johnson’s work shortly after his death. Only sixty works (primarily watercolors and oils) are known to exist today. Johnson’s work is held in the collections of museums nationwide, including the Smithsonian American Art Museum, Hampton University Museum of Art, and Amistad Research Center.

Written by the curator of The Johnson Collection Art Gallery In Spartanburg, SC.

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More About Malvin Gray Johnson

Self-Portrait,
1934
By artist Malvin Gray Johnson
oil on canvas, mounted on canvas, 97.2 x 76.2 cm
National Museum of American Art, Smithsonian Institution. Gift of the Harmon Foundation

Malvin Gray Johnson was born in Greensboro, NC January 28, 1896, and died October 4,1934 in New York City 1934.

His family moved to New York City, where he studied art at the National Academy of Design. He rose to prominence during the Harlem Renaissance. He was "the youngest member of the Harlem Renaissance artists...migrated to New York with his family at an early age...where he was influenced by French Impressionism and Cubism

Malvin "was one of the most far-reaching and versatile artists of his period. He drew upon many stylistic sources and demonstrated the disciplined learning necessary for high levels of creative expression...as he became familiar with the works of the Impressionists and the Cubists his artistic style changed."

His work is often labeled as Symbolic Abstractionist, being one of the first African-American artists to paint in the Cubist style. Elements of his art seem also to derive from studies of African sculpture. He concerned himself with technical aspects of light, composition, and form, and a desire to express the experience of the spirituals in terms of abstract symbolism.

Like many other artists, Johnson worked on the Federal Arts Project during the Depression. His work was displayed in many of the Harmon Exhibits in 1929 and the early thirties. In 1931 some of his work was hung in the Anderson gallery and the following year, the Salon of America displayed several of his paintings. In 1928 he won a prize at a Harmon exhibition, and in 1929 he won the Otto H. Kahn prize for painting. "Johnson's painting 'Swing low sweet chariot' was awarded the 1929 exhibition prize for best picture in the second Harmon group show."

Johnson was featured in the 1930s film A Study of Negro Artists, along with Richmond Barthé, James Latimer Allen, Palmer Hayden, Aaron Douglas, William Ellisworth Artis, Augusta Savage, Lois Mailou Jones, Georgette Seabrooke, and others associated with the Harlem Renaissance

Towards the end of his life, Johnson produced a group of watercolors of urban and rural blacks, many of which were set in Brightwood, Virginia. These paintings from his final period, are more widely regarded as some of his finest works.

In The Negro in American Culture, Margaret Just Butcher, argued that some of Johnson's paintings "are among the most significant commentaries on the American Negro scene." Alain LeRoy Locke said that Johnson captured the cynical humor and mythical desolation in the moods of blacks better than most artists. Viewing Johnson as a maturing experimentalist, James A. Porter wrote that his later work was expressed in terse, pregnant patches of color.

The exhibition of his oils, watercolors and drawings in 2002 at North Carolina Central University was the first since his death in 1934.

On February 23, 2010, Swann Galleries auctioned Malvin Gray Johnson's celebrated painting Swing Low, Sweet Chariot, oil on canvas, 1928–29, for $228,000. It was the first time any significant work by Johnson had come to auction.