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Malvin Gray Johnson

Known for the dignity with which he portrayed African Americans, Harlem Renaissance artist Malvin Gray Johnson was enjoying considerable commercial and critical success at the time of his sudden death at the age of thirty-eight. In WPA-commissioned works executed in his native South as well as in urban scenes of New York, Johnson painted his subjects performing menial tasks with grace and vitality. Alain Locke, the philosophical leader of the Harlem Renaissance, praised Johnson for his ability to capture the cynical humor and mythical desolation in the moods of blacks better than most other 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 supported his creative inclinations and helped him submit paintings to local exhibitions. 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 military duty in France and entered the prestigious insititution.

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.”


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