NYU Black Renaissance Noire NYU Black Renaissance Noire Vol 17.1: Winter 2017 - Page 18
My parents ’ conflicts were at the time incomprehensible to me , my brothers and sisters , except as adult power struggles , but in retrospect , their domestic struggle reflected the tension of the late Fifties and early Sixties in a divided South , where Black people were marching , praying , sitting-in , standing-in to bring White people of the nation to the table to negotiate more equitable terms for Black citizenship in these United States .
My first encounter with the Jitterbugs image is not as important as my first experience of it in the late Eighties in Robbie Sutton ’ s gallery in a grand and genteel old house on San Jacinto Avenue on Houston ’ s Southside . On a Saturday afternoon I was browsing in the back room of the gallery when I spotted it in a basket of unvarnished wood-frame prints leaning against the wall .
I instantly recognized it , as if I carried the matching interior negative of the stylized image . Jitterbugs V evoked in me an instant affinity . Wayne Thiebald has said of painting as an art form , “[ it is ] a physical metaphor , an extension of nerves , muscles , gestures and to grasp it you ’ ve got to feel yourself in it .” 3 The details of the postcard-sized Johnson print were obscured by its miniature size , but the vitality in the movement of the figures was familiar in simultaneously joyous and disturbing ways .
Johnson , in a letter to his mentor , Charles Webster Hawthorne , explained , “ I am not afraid to exaggerate a contour , a form , or anything that gives more character and movement to the canvas .” 4 Johnson wrote this letter before he began painting in what he termed the “ primitivist ” style with its simple , yet cunningly etched figures and angled landscapes in flat , bold colors . As surely as Johnson rendered on the canvas the lives of Black people from South Carolina to Harlem , the bony beautiful women in bright-colored dresses and the angular men in all shades of brown , in overalls or bow ties , hat or not , Johnson ’ s work touched me that spring day . I didn ’ t know about the ultimately tragic dimensions of his life until much later . What I did know at the time , and what is true of Jitterbugs is that it represents the local drama of a spontaneous dance in a Harlem dance hall and the universal complexities of relationships , the call-and-response of two people engaged in speaking through the language of their bodies and their breaths . Perhaps , from one perspective Johnson ’ s Jitterbugs reenacts the spirit of bois caiman , a dance of liberation . Like the earlier dance ritual that prepared the Haitians to defeat the French colonials , Jitterbugs functions as a physical and cultural “ intervention ,” a demonstration of agency and creativity in response to modernity ’ s incursions on the time and energy , lifestyles , and spirits of Black people . 5 Johnson ’ s artistry here achieves in its gesture a triumph of imagination , will , and commitment , despite the difficulty he experienced while attempting to practice his art in the United States , where for example , discrimination and prejudice kept him from painting a brothel in South Carolina , upon his first return to the States after having lived in Europe .
David Driskell ’ s description of Johnson ’ s work from the Forties to the end of his career , the sacred and the secular , the urban and the rural , articulates the way Johnson comprehends the range of Black expressivity in color and shape and contour . “ What Johnson achieved for the visual art of painting can be compared to what the blues singer did for the work song . He took the jubilee song , or Negro spiritual , and he transformed it , made it come to life . He took the blues , he took gospel , and he made them real — he made them real in the sense that they fit the formula for the black lifestyle ” ( Driskell 21 ). Driskell articulates Johnson ’ s ability to interpret in form and color and brushstrokes or block print the ineffable “ blackness ” of Johnson ’ s images , as recognizable as the holler , the moan , or the shout . Originality of image came from the fact that Johnson painted the urban folk with the radical simplicity of rural people , the very people he came from .