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Harry B. Henderson, 88; Writer Drew Attention to African American Artists

September 12, 2003|Elaine Woo | Times Staff Writer

Harry B. Henderson, a freelance writer who collaborated with painter and collage maker Romare Bearden to produce a comprehensive volume on African American artists that filled a void on the subject, died of heart failure Sept. 1 in Croton-on-Hudson, N.Y. He was 88.

Henderson, a longtime journalist and editor, was best- known for "A History of African American Artists," a collection of more than 50 biographies published by Pantheon in 1993. He began work on the book with Bearden, the noted Harlem Renaissance artist, in 1966 and completed it after Bearden's death in 1988.

The work offers compelling portraits of artists and their struggles, such as 19th century painter Henry Ossawa Tanner and his mock crucifixion by jealous white colleagues. Other artists in the illustrated volume include Jacob Lawrence, Edward Bannister, Archibald Motley, Elizabeth Catlett, Augusta Savage and Robert Duncanson.

A Los Angeles Times reviewer hailed the book as "a landmark work, both in the fields of art history and of African American studies." The New York Times Book Review called it "the first in-depth reference work on the history and development of art by black Americans."

"It remains an enormously useful book," said Ruth Fine, curator of the first major Bearden retrospective, which opens Sunday at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C.

Henderson, a native of Kittanning, Pa., wrote for such magazines as Colliers, Harper's, Reader's Digest, Argosy and Look during the 1940s and 1950s, covering a diverse range of assignments, from profiles of Frank Sinatra and Dizzy Gillespie to more serious pieces on the rise of Nazism and the racist politics of Mississippi Sen. Theodore Bilbo.

He also was very interested in art and artists, which led to his meeting philanthropist and art patron Arthur M. Sackler. During the 1970s, he was editor of Sackler's weekly medical newspaper, Medical Tribune.

One of the few whites who became friendly with the black writers, poets, dancers and artists in Harlem after World War II, Henderson met Bearden in 1946 through photographer Sam Shaw, who would later gain fame for his portrait of Marilyn Monroe standing over a subway grate with her skirt billowing up around her. Shaw, who often took photographs for Henderson's free-lance articles, shared a studio with Bearden.

Bearden was primarily a painter early in his career, but later turned to collage and other art forms. He may be best remembered for his collages inspired by the civil rights movement in the 1960s and for his participation in a group of African American artists called Spiral.

He conceived the idea for a history of black American artists in 1965 when he was preparing a talk on the subject for the Museum of Modern Art in New York.

"Suddenly, faced with an audience, he realized how little was known, how skimpy were the notes he had," Henderson told Associated Press in 1994. "Black artists themselves did not know their own history."

Bearden decided to write a book and asked Henderson to be his partner. The two men worked together for the next 15 years, tracking down and interviewing many of the artists, some of whom were so used to obscurity that they wouldn't answer the door. Henderson "would interview them over the transom or through the door," said his son, Albert, of Milford, Conn., who survives him along with another son, Joseph, of New York City, and three grandchildren.

Henderson and Bearden uncovered material not only in the United States but also in Europe, where many black American artists went to escape prejudice and find greater creative freedom.

The first product of their collaboration was "Six Black Masters of American Art," published by Doubleday in 1972.

Their later, more ambitious volume begins in 1792 with portraitist Joshua Johnston and ends with contemporary landscape painter Richard Mayhew. They told some of the artists' stories for the first time, bringing to light details of their struggles that had been preserved only in oral histories.

One of the most moving portraits they produced was that of Tanner, who won admission to the prestigious Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts in 1880. Other students labeled him with a racial slur and one evening dragged him into the street and tied him to his easel in a mock crucifixion before they abandoned him.

Tanner later moved to Europe and became one of the first African American artists to attain international renown. He eventually won acclaim in this country and received major exhibitions at the Philadelphia Museum of Art and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.

Before his death, Henderson completed a manuscript on Edmonia Lewis, the little-known 19th century sculptor who was part Chippewa Indian, part African American. Henderson was drawn to Lewis because she was a mysterious figure who disappeared for years, as did her most famous work, a two-ton sculpture called "The Death of Cleopatra," which now resides in the National Museum of American Art in Washington.

At the National Gallery, Fine called Henderson "a great champion" of Bearden's work who was responsible for publication of Bearden's collages as cover illustrations for many of the periodicals he worked for. He also was an important resource for Fine as she organized the exhibit and prepared the catalog.

Henderson had been planning to preview the show Tuesday, which would have been his 89th birthday.

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