religious fundamentalism and the centrality of gospel music to modern black religious expression. When examined together, Jesus and the Three Marys, I Baptize Thee, and a host of later paintings and drawings on African-American religion constitute a body of work that unequivocally celebrates black spirituality from both a liturgical and a sociological point of view. What is perhaps all the more amazing about these works is that they avoid the intellectual trap of a professed objectivity as well as the methodological pitfall of viewing black religion from an essentially European cultural standard. As expressed in these and other paintings, Johnson's 1932 pronouncement crediting his innate "family of primitiveness and tradition" as the guiding forces in his work finally takes a concrete form.
The rediscovery of William H. Johnson as an accomplished artist in Europe and the United States in the 1930s and 1940s and the reassessment of his contributions to art during those watershed years open up yet another tract on modern art and the concept of primitivism. As Jesus and the Three Marys demonstrates, the concept achieves a new viability when examined in light of an artist whose notions of "primitiveness and tradition" are undergirded by his social and aesthetic identification with "the folk." Johnson's quest for an authentic, inner primitivism took him beyond Paris (and his initial affinity for the Impressionist style), through the south of France, Scandinavia, Germany, Tunisia, and back to a previously untapped American source--a journey that demonstrates that the so-called Western world, too, has its share of "tribal" impulses. By articulating his primitivism primarily through his own African-American and Judeo-Christian background, Johnson compels serious reconsideration of a concept that is sometimes dismissed as a superficial attraction for "the other." When, as in Johnson's case, the artist is a self-conscious, willful, culturally grounded "primitive," one discovers in primitivism a profound and fascinating search--not just for a radical new image but for the very root itself.
From American Art (Fall 1991). Reprinted by permission of the author and the National Museum of American Art.