(A major feature about painter William H. Johnson, 1901-1970, will be posted later this spring.)
I wish William H. Johnson, gifted painter of a unique world, were at this party honoring young African American artists, staged by the foundation bearing his name, at an elegant old two-story home near the Wilshire district in Los Angeles. Most of the bright and outgoing guests would be surrounding him, and I still couldn’t talk about his art, but at least I’d know there was someone else here as rigid and generally uncomfortable with casual conversation in large groups. I’ve always had this difficulty and recently read Johnson’s art school classmates, from his early twenties in the Roaring Twenties, remembered him as “serious” and standoffish as did artists, relatives, and others who knew him in his thirties and forties.
He could occasionally open up one-on-one and in small groups, but I’m afraid on this lovely spring afternoon at a crowded garden party, encircled by shrubs and trees, and monitored by valets and caterers, Johnson would need some space. After an hour I’m getting mine a hundred yards up the street in my car. I’d run out of people to call and text, on various pretexts, and now I’ve exhausted escapist writing and must return to the party I much wanted to attend, and that cost a hundred fifty bucks, and hope to catch an adrenal wave from my half-hour on the treadmill prior to driving a couple hours from Bakersfield.
I choose a plastic chair at the rear of the property and am soon consoled that another man sits nearby and vigorously buries himself in his cell phone. I’m thankful dancing won’t be expected today. There’ll be an art auction, instead. Meanwhile, a feast is underway. I’d ignored it since I’ve been a vegan, save nonfat yogurt, more than a year but resolve to do something so start saying yes to tray-toting young ladies who offer risotto with “a little cheese inside” and beef empanadas, and start making roundtrips to the patio table featuring tri-tip sandwiches and steak tacos. This kind of food is intoxicating. I’d forsaken it only to lose weight and lower cholesterol. For one afternoon I’m back stuffing myself, soothing the brain and feeling better but still concerned my tongue seizes at social gatherings. William H. Johnson would understand.