A multi-talented artist who also plays blues guitar (he has performed with such musicians as Albert King and John Lee Hooker) and makes experimental films (some of which are in the Haines exhibition), Henderson loved music and art as a child living first in a small farm town in Missouri and, later, in Illinois with an aunt who supported his interest in art.
His art career began with a mail-order art course he took while working as a shoe shiner at a hotel. A customer who saw his art displayed by his shoe-shine chair gave him a ticket to a Vincent van Gogh show in Kansas City, and another customer gave him bus fare to get there. He spent all day at the museum, taking in the art and the docent’s discussion of van Gogh.
“’The Potato Eaters’ — that really floored me,” he said in an interview with Hyperallergic. “I was like yes, yes, yes, I want to do this, I want to find if this is in me. I had never seen white people as being poor, and the way she [the docent] talked about his mark-making and these women working in the fields with these arched backs. I’d done field work before and I knew what that felt like.”
Henderson, who is Black, moved to the West Coast in 1965 to attend the San Francisco Art Institute — the only desegregated art institute at the time. At SFAI, he began incorporating political content into his paintings. (“Non-Violence,” a harrowing portrait of police brutality from 1968, is included in Soul of A Nation, currently on view at San Francisco’s de Young Museum.) When he left SFAI, he decided to drastically change his style, and began creating abstract pieces that retained the lively color palette of his political works.
The paintings at Haines Gallery, dating from the 1990s to the present, are mostly black and gray, punctuated with bursts of bright color. In “Culture, Time, Sound” (1994), for example, a light gray obelisk lies at the center of a field of densely painted black and dark gray, with a vivid yellow square in the upper-right corner.
Henderson started his black paintings after instructing his students at University of California, Davis (where he taught for more than 40 years, alongside Wayne Thiebaud, Roy De Forest, and William T. Wiley) to look anew at the black and white tones they saw in life.
“It’s an assignment I gave to get students to see black and white and tones in between. I said, ‘Before you go to bed at night look at the darkness and start seeing light and shadows,’” he explained. “When I got home, I went to the studio and I realized I’ve never really used black paint and I wanted to try it, so I started mixing all these paints — green blacks and blue blacks and all these types of blacks. Always practice what you preach.”
The recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship and two grants from the National Endowment for the Arts, Henderson constantly challenges himself to try new things. For example, he started making films after going to a demonstration in San Francisco when Martin Luther King Jr. was killed. “I was walking home thinking, ‘How can I make my paintings more powerful?’” he said. “I decided I could make them move.”
After more than five decades, Henderson continues to make ambitious work. This exhibition comes on the heels of one at SFAI, and in 2022, UC Davis’s Shrem Manetti Museum of Art will host a large solo show of his work.
In conversation with Henderson, his love of art and his desire to know all he can about it and keep his practice experimental and evolving came up over and over again. That impulse to learn and challenge himself is apparent not only at the Haines Gallery, but throughout an oeuvre that never fails to enlighten and engage.
Mike Henderson: The Black Paintings continues at Haines Gallery (49 Geary Street, Suite 540, San Francisco, California) through March 28.