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 Malvin Gray Johnson  (1896 - 1934)

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Lived/Active: New York/North Carolina      Known for: street scenes, portrait, still life

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Ad Code: 3
AskART Artist
from Auction House Records.
Swing Low, Sweet Chariot
Artwork images are copyright of the artist or assignee
This biography from the Archives of AskART:
Black artist, Malvin Gray Johnson, a North Carolina native, rose to prominence during the Harlem Renaissance. His exhibition of oils, watercolors and drawings in 2002 at North Carolina Central University, was the first since his death in 1934.

Johnson was born in Greensboro in 1896. Of Johnson's six brothers and sisters, he was close to only one, his sister Maggie. She was fifteen years his senior, a graduate of Bennett College in Greensboro. Maggie became a teacher and a great inspiration to her younger brother, Malvin.

During a time when it was extremely difficult to find art schools or classes for blacks, Maggie took on the responsibility to give him his first art lessons and art materials. In 1906, Malvin drew his first picture in charcoal, "Untitled (seascape").

In 1911, he began painting in oil. The following year, Malvin left Greensboro at the age of 16 and headed for New York. Johnson worked during the day and took classes at night. By age 20, he had saved enough money to enter the National Academy of Design. However, Johnson had to leave the Academy to serve in World War I, returning to New York in 1920.

Johnson continued to produce realistic paintings, such as the portrait, "Meditation," a sensitive, beautifully painted black woman leaning on an elbow, looking out at the viewer. It is a very convincing composition, rich in subtle color, reflecting a certain relationship with Cezanne. His most notable work, "Swing Low Sweet Chariot," received the $250. Harmon Foundation Award for its Negro Art competition in 1928. The painting achieved international attention in the press. It also appeared in the bi-monthly Art Digest and Washington Post.

In 1933, the year before he died, Johnson gained sponsorship by the Artists' Aid Committee, and in 1934 employment with the Works Project Administration (W.P.A.), developed by President Franklin D. Roosevelt to help artists survive the Depression.

Biography from The Johnson Collection:
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.

The Johnson Collection, Spartanburg, South Carolina

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Malvin Johnson is also mentioned in these AskART essays:
Black American Artists

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