not but nothing other: African-American Portrayals, 1930s to Today

Malvin Gray Johnson (1896-1934)
Harmony, circa 1934

Though he died suddenly at the relatively young age of thirty-eight, Malvin Gray Johnson was widely recognized as one of the leaders of advanced painting within the community of Harlem Renaissance artists. In the last three years of his life, he turned from the academic style he had mastered as a student at the National Academy of Design toward a modern idiom, becoming, in the words of James A. Porter—fellow painter and art historian—an “experimentalist,” incorporating the lessons of recent European art into his depictions of Black life.

African-American music had long been a subject of interest to Johnson, although here he turns his attention from the Southern spirituals that had previously inspired him to the urban world of ragtime and the Harlem nightclub. Three banjo players in eveningwear are arranged across the front of the picture plane. The expressionistic simplification of form and rhyming postures of his musicians eloquently communicate the “harmony” of the title.

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