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Putting the Puzzle Together

Suzanne Muchnic is The Times' art writer

As exhibition titles go, “William H. Johnson: Truth Be Told” is loaded with implications. Los Angeles art dealer Steve Turner, who organized the show and came up with its provocative name, wants his audience to know that the truth has not been told about his subject.

The exhibition has arrived in Southern California after a national museum tour, as the inaugural event at Turner’s new gallery in Beverly Hills. Now at its final venue, a commercial gallery where the artworks are for sale, the show features 37 works by an African American painter who was active from around 1925-47. Examples of his thickly painted landscapes, still lifes and portraits survey Johnson’s early days, when he was inspired by Chaim Soutine and other European Expressionists. Crisp portrayals of black people in bold shapes and solid colors were done in the early 1940s, when he worked in a folkloric style.

A native of South Carolina, Johnson (1901-70) studied art at New York’s National Academy of Design and, with the help of a professor and friends, continued his education in France. While there, Johnson met his future wife, Danish artist Holcha Krake. They settled in Denmark, but traveled widely and moved to New York during World War II.

Life in America was difficult for Johnson during that period. Holcha died of cancer in 1944, and response to his work was disappointing, so he returned to Denmark in 1946. On a trip to Norway the following year, he fell ill and was diagnosed with a degenerative brain disease caused by syphilis. Unable to care for himself, he was hospitalized in Norway, then sent by ship to New York. He never painted again and spent the last 23 years of his life as an inmate at Central Islip State Hospital on Long Island.

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It’s a sad story, so Johnson has been portrayed as “a sort of frustrated artist who rarely sold anything and whose career was marked by tragedy,” Turner said. But after four years of research, including six trips to Denmark, Turner has constructed a much fuller picture of the artist--for better and for worse.

In the exhibition catalog, written by Turner and his wife, Victoria Dailey, Johnson emerges as a gregarious, self-confident character who had considerable success as an artist, particularly in Scandinavia. If that good news were the only untold “truth” Turner had found, he would have made a valuable contribution to art history without causing much of a stir. But in tracking down the artist’s work and filling in blanks of his life story, Turner also uncovered many documents that raise ethical questions about how the artist’s work was handled during his illness and after his death.

A determined investigator who trained as an attorney before becoming an art dealer, Turner contends that Johnson’s relatives in America and Denmark should have received his artworks after his death. Instead, his work went to the Harmon Foundation, a leading supporter of black artists that has been portrayed as his savior but actually did little to promote or protect his work. According to Turner’s detailed documentation, more than 50 pieces from Johnson’s estate have disappeared into private collections, gone to market or moved from one institutional collection to another--or they are simply missing.

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Before Turner’s revelations, most art historians thought a huge cache of Johnson’s paintings, drawings and prints had fallen into disrepair while languishing in storage and was destined for destruction in 1956, when his guardian turned over the artwork to the Harmon Foundation. Not so, Turner said. Johnson’s Danish relatives would have cared for the work, but their inquiries and requests were ignored. “I uncovered, by going through all the court records, that the lawyer simply petitioned the court to get permission to abandon the artworks because he wanted to give them away and he didn’t want the court to intervene,” he said.

It has also been known that in 1967, when the Harmon Foundation closed its offices, Johnson’s work was donated to the National Collection of Fine Arts in Washington, a branch of the Smithsonian Institution now known as the National Museum of American Art. The NCFA then gave some works to black college and university collections, while retaining more than 1,000 pieces in its own holdings.

But Johnson’s artistic legacy didn’t pass “from his guardian to the Harmon Foundation and lock, stock and barrel to the Smithsonian,” Turner said. “I found out that works were dispersed by the Harmon Foundation to various people and that the director, Mary Beattie Brady, kept a body of work, which was brought to the market a few years ago with a fake provenance, claiming that she was his collector in the ‘30s and ‘40s.

“She took the works from the foundation,” he said. “Whether there is anything wrong with that, someone else will have to decide, but clearly there is a very different set of inferences when the director of a foundation ends up with works that belonged to the foundation than if she buys them as a private person.”

Turner also discovered that some of the works donated to colleges and universities are missing. “I found out that at least three works given to Fisk University are with David Driskell, the former head of the art department at Fisk,” he said. “Fisk is missing other works--works that are worth a lot of money, but more important, works that represent the highest achievement of the artist.”

Not surprisingly, Turner’s findings have incited controversy and attracted press coverage over the past two years as the show has traveled to the Louisiana Arts and Science Center in Baton Rouge, the Terra Museum of American Art in Chicago, the Montclair Museum of Art in New Jersey and the Arkansas Art Center in Little Rock.

In response to reporters’ queries, Driskell reportedly has said that the Johnson works in his collection were given to him by Brady; Fisk officials declined to comment. Fisk also did not respond to inquiries from The Times.

As Turner’s investigation heated up, obtaining information became more difficult. Driskell abruptly canceled an interview with him; Tuskegee University refused to supply him with information; and the Smithsonian only cooperated with Turner after he filed a request for records under the Freedom of Information Act.

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As a dealer, Turner has a commercial interest in Johnson’s work. His prime paintings can sell for $100,000, and his best works on paper bring up to $10,000. But when Turner’s motives are questioned, he says his role as a scholar and art historian has compromised his role as an art dealer. “I have made powerful enemies,” he said. “Furthermore, framing these works and arranging for a traveling show has been very costly. And I have made the book available for $35 when it cost about $25 to produce. It’s not exactly a great business maneuver. On the other hand, it’s the right thing to do.”

The exhibition also raises ethical questions for the museums that participated in the tour. It is highly unusual for art museums, which have nonprofit status, to accept a show organized by a commercial dealer and accompanied by a privately published catalog. Related conflicts were cited in the widely publicized scandal over “Sensation: Young British Artists From the Saatchi Collection,” which closed two weeks ago at the Brooklyn Museum of Art.

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The opening of “Truth Be Told” in Turner’s new gallery marks the beginning of a new phase of his career. A dealer who collects a wide range of historic material--including American and Western art, posters, 19th century photography and California ephemera--and organizes exhibitions from his inventory, Turner ran a gallery on Beverly Boulevard from 1988 until last summer. However, he stopped presenting exhibitions there when he became embroiled in the Johnson project. In his larger, second-floor space, at 275 S. Beverly Drive, Turner will offer a continuous program of changing exhibitions.

Recounting the saga that led him to organize the Johnson show and publish the catalog, Turner said he became interested in Denmark as a source of art during the mid-1980s, when he began collecting Danish posters. Then, Knud Merrild, a Danish-born artist who lived and worked in Los Angeles, inspired another trip. “His works were spread out among his many relatives, so I traveled all over Denmark and acquired, one by one, two by two, all these fabulous works,” Turner said.

“Then one day when I was reading a book on African American artists, I found that William H. Johnson had lived in Denmark. He married a Danish artist and lived in this little fishing village of Kerteminde. So I determined to find Johnson--the history, the legacy,” he said. Although Johnson was not well known outside African American scholarly circles, Turner had admired his work but never dreamed that it would be available. In his preliminary research, Turner found few references to collectors but “figured if Johnson lived and worked in Denmark for 10 years, he must have sold pictures there.”

In 1994, Turner set out for Denmark “to seek out anyone who had a connection to Johnson.” He found nearly 200 people--"from the fisherman who posed for him, to the merchant in Kerteminde who traded him supplies and necessities for a couple of paintings, and bought others, to the telephone operator in the remote town of Volda who bought a great Johnson painting.” In the process of making all these connections, Turner purchased 54 works by Johnson.

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“It’s a once-in-a-lifetime thing for a dealer to collect 54 works by an artist who is already on the map, and keep them together to do a show,” he said. “Denmark is not an easy place to do research, but I’ve done it so many times that I have a network of friends [there], and an assistant who is able to help when needed and translate and travel with me.”

Turner credits his success in putting together the collection and the story to luck that the artworks “were salted away in Denmark,” and also to circumstances that led to extensive documentation of the artist’s life. “He got a lot of press coverage in Denmark and Norway,” Turner said. “You can’t say he was a celebrity, but he was paid attention to. A documentary film was made about him 10 years ago and broadcast on Danish national television. He’s called the black Van Gogh and that kind of stuff.”

Because Johnson became ill in Norway and had to be sent back to the United States, there is extensive correspondence about him in the U.S. State Department’s records, Turner said. The Archives of American Art also have a great deal of material on Johnson. “I spent several weeks in Washington reading all the archives,” he said. “Usually the stuff gets dispersed, but it was all there for me to find.”

Nonetheless, the search for the truth about Johnson isn’t over, Turner said. “I have uncovered as much as I am going to uncover, but there’s room for someone else to do more research. Who knows what will come of it? But it took 50 years for people to return works looted during the Holocaust, so I suspect that eventually Johnson’s works will come back if pressure is brought to bear.”

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“William H. Johnson: Truth Be Told,” Steve Turner Gallery, 275 S. Beverly Drive, Suite 200, Beverly Hills, (310) 271-3721. Ends March 25. Hours: Wednesday-Friday, 11 a.m.-5 p.m.; Saturday, 1-5 p.m. Turner will present a slide lecture on Johnson at the California African-American Museum on Feb. 5, 1-2:30 p.m.


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