Brian Boucher’s Daily Dispatch | San Francisco, January 19, 2020
A Concert by Artist-Painter Mike Henderson Evokes “Soul of a Nation”
“At art events, they always treat you right,” blues musician/filmmaker/painter Mike Henderson told me on Friday night at the UNTITLED, ART fair as he was getting ready to play a short set of original and classic blues numbers, including some by B.B. King and Muddy Waters. “Club owners treat you like dogs. At private parties, they give you a bag lunch and put you to the side. At art events you’re really treated as a guest.” He should know from how musicians are treated; in addition to his solo career, he’s played over the years with musicians like Bo Diddley and John Lee Hooker.
Very rare is the art fair that includes musical performances, and UNTITLED, ART’s San Francisco edition proved an especially apt setting. Henderson and band were playing in front of five abstract paintings by William T. Williams, priced between $200,000 and $250,000; between them, they were, literally, a million-dollar backdrop. They made a perfect visual support, pointed out New York dealer Michael Rosenfeld, who brought the Williams works, since they were inspired by jazz. The artist used a musical argument to advocate for abstraction in the 1960s, when some of his black colleagues said abstraction wasn’t suitable for African American artists. “Jazz is the most abstract of all music,” he recalls arguing. “Music is totally abstract. How can you not say there’s a tradition of abstraction?”
Henderson’s concert, which drew a joyous audience of dozens of fairgoers, builds on his presence throughout the city at the moment. He’s included in the exhibition “Soul of a Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power,” now on view at the de Young Museum, which focuses on work by African American artists from 1963 to 1983. Curated by Mark Godfrey and Zoé Whitley, the exhibition opened at Tate, in London, and has since embarked on a tour of several American venues. The de Young presentation includes several Bay Area artists not included at other presentations, including Henderson, who also currently has a solo exhibition at San Francisco’s Haines Gallery.
Henderson came to the Bay Area to study at the San Francisco Art Institute, where he earned a BFA in 1969 and an MFA in 1970, and quickly became enmeshed in the area’s activist and artistic communities. “He was the first African American student at the Art Institute,” Haines told me. “Other art schools had accepted him but then rejected him because he was black. He has an incredible story.” Henderson began his career creating figurative paintings but soon turned to abstraction. Awarded with fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts, he’s shown his paintings and films at institutions ranging from the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York to the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. The Haines exhibition, “Mike Henderson: The Black Paintings,” is the artist’s thirteenth with the gallery and features works from the 1990s that are distinct from the colorful works for which he’s better known, dominated as they are by moody blues, brooding blacks, and rich silvers.
A nightmarish Henderson painting in “Soul of a Nation,” Non-Violence, from 1968, shows a policeman wearing a swastika armband, slashing two black figures with a machete; behind the policeman, a fearsome monster, seemingly made of smoke, feasts on a black body. The painting evokes Henderson’s experience being repeatedly stopped by police on his way home late at night from his studio at SFAI, unable to afford the bus.
Henderson’s performance took place at a booth that features many artists who are prominent in the de Young show; with figurative art by the likes of Charles White and Jacob Lawrence, sculptures by Betye Saar, and abstractions by artists including Beauford Delaney and Alma Thomas, the booth evokes on a smaller scale the survey of artists from both U.S. coasts, working in various traditions, that appears at the de Young.
Among the standout works at Rosenfeld’s booth is another that brings together the musical and the visual: Charles White’s round painting of Paul Robeson, the activist, organizer, singer, and actor who became a Communist sympathizer and an advocate for the Soviet Union, along with his support for civil rights causes. This earned him the scrutiny of the FBI and a spot on McCarthy-inspired blacklists. Painted on the occasion of a tribute to Robeson at New York’s Carnegie Hall on the occasion of his seventy-fifth birthday, the painting shows his face, staring up toward the heavens against a gold background that suggests the gold leaf that often features in historical devotional paintings; Robeson is thus cast as a modern-day divinity. The artist gave Robeson the painting; the gallery obtained it from his family, and is offering it for $1.8 million.
When Rosenfeld opened his gallery three decades ago, he said at a panel discussion just before Henderson’s performance, he naively thought it would be an educational undertaking; miraculously, he said, it has also become a successful business. Rosenfeld was responsible for one of the fair’s biggest sales, of Frank Bowling’s luminous abstraction Dan to Beersheba, a nine-foot-high, three-foot-wide canvas from 1969, asking price one and a quarter million dollars, that sold to an area collector. The miracle continues to unfold, evidently.
But the concert, as the UNTITLED, ART team explained to me in an earlier dispatch, was meant not solely for the deep-pocketed collector spending millions of dollars, but also for those who may have no art collection at all, since the fair also offers plenty of affordable options too: “Having a musical performance at the fair also helps us draw new audiences that may come for music, but stay for the art!”
- Brian Boucher