Harlem Renaissance artist exhibition opens
The work of William Henry Johnson will be on display at Touro Law Center until March 16.


Harlem Renaissance artist exhibition opens


CENTRAL ISLIP—Touro Law is hosting an exhibit celebrating the works and tragic life of Harlem Renaissance artist William Henry Johnson. The exhibit, “My Family of Primitiveness and Tradition,” is sponsored by Touro Law Center, New York State Office of Mental Health and the Islip Arts Council, and is held in celebration of Black History Month. The opening ceremony of the exhibit was held Tuesday, Feb. 20 at the Touro Law Center in Central Islip.

Johnson was an African-American painter born in Florence, S.C., in 1901, but who spent the last 23 years of his life in the Central Islip Psychiatric Center. He studied at the National Academy of Design in New York City before moving to France. It was here that he was exposed to modernism and met his wife, the Danish textile artist Holcha Krake, who was over a dozen years his senior. The couple lived in Denmark for a short time, where Johnson was influenced by the powerful folk style for which he is best known. 

 The couple traveled Europe and North Africa before moving to the United States in 1938, where he taught at the Harlem Community Art Center through the Federal Art Project. While Johnson enjoyed minor success as an artist in the 40s and 50s, he never achieved financial stability. Many of his art supplies and possessions were destroyed when his apartment in Greenwich Village caught fire. His wife also died from breast cancer in 1944. While visiting her family in Denmark a few years after her death, he started suffering from syphilis.

Johnson then returned to the United States, where he was entered into the Central Islip Psychiatric Center. He stopped painting by 1955 and died of hemorrhaging of the pancreas in 1970. His work was almost destroyed after he was unable to pay storage fees, but was ultimately delivered to the Harmon Foundation, who, in turn, gave more than 1,000 of his pieces to the Smithsonian American Art Museum. There have been numerous exhibitions featuring his work over the years, and in 2012, the U.S. Postal Service issued a stamp in his honor, recognizing his contribution to 20th-century American art. 

Islip Arts Council director Lynda Moran called Johnson a “very prolific painter” at Tuesday’s event, adding that his styles ranged from impressionism and expressionism to cubism.

Johnson is buried in the former hospital cemetery located adjacent to Touro Law Center. The exhibit also presents a view of the complex history of the former Central Islip Psychiatric Center and of the cemetery. The psychiatric center was operational from 1889 until 1996, and was one of the four major hospital “farms” in central Long Island to house the sick from New York City; the others were Kings Park Psychiatric Center, Pilgrim Psychiatric Center and Edgewood State Hospital. 

About 2,000 Pilgrim patients were lobotomized throughout the 1940s and 1950s, accounting for one out of every 25 lobotomies in the United States. Therefore, it is likely these procedures, which were common at the time, took place in Central Islip as well. 

“My Family of Primitiveness and Tradition” runs at Touro Law Center through Friday, March 16, before reopening shortly thereafter in its permanent home at the Islip Art Museum in East Islip.

The exhibit’s title comes from a quote by the late artist himself: “Even if I have studied for many years and all over the world… I have still been able to preserve the primitive in me… My aim is to express in a natural way what I feel, what is in me, both rhythmically and spiritually, all that which in time has been saved up in my family of primitiveness and tradition, and which is now concentrated in me.”