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

Malvin Gray Johnson (1896-1934)
The Letter, n.d.

Within a simple interior, a woman sits at her desk, absorbed in writing a letter. To the right, a spouted jug sits atop a dark dresser, while on the left-hand side of the painting we see the green door that gives access to this room. Behind her, a rectangular form suggests a mirror or window. The sitter’s attention is drawn, however, not to the outside, but to the thoughts she transmits to paper.

While this painting is undated, we can confidently ascribe it to the last few years of Johnson’s life, as he was engaged with the techniques of European modern art. Specifically, we find him exploring the device known in French as passage, in which brushstrokes are rhythmically aligned and contours outlining form are increasingly broken or dissolved in order to better integrate figure and ground. Notice, for example, the woman’s left breast, where the brown of her skin and the mauve of her dress begin to lose their distinct identities and become an independent visual reality all their own. The sitter’s absorption in her letter-writing thus becomes a metaphor for the artist’s own concentration on his task and ours in viewing the painting.

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