Rescued from the flames, the pioneering work of a UC Davis artist finds new life
His works were destroyed during a fire in the studio. Many other paintings were long considered lost their incredible discovery just two years ago. The surviving story of avant-garde black artist and UC Davis professor emeritus Mike Henderson would be compelling in its own right.
But “Mike Henderson: Before the Fire, 1965-1985” opening publicly on Monday at the Manetti Schrem Museum of Art at the University of California, Davis, Campus — Henderson’s first solo exhibition in the U.S. 20 years and five years in the making — takes that story further. Henderson’s new show of restored works reveals his creative range: his large-format “protest paintings”; his experimental films. The slideshow presents works that are too damaged to be displayed in their original state.
The Henderson survey is “the most important fundraiser in our history,” said Rachel Teagle, founding director of Manetti Shrem. “It’s the biggest thing we’ve ever done, the most impressive thing we’ve ever achieved.”
The exhibit will run through June 25 at the Manetti Schrem Museum of Art, 254 Old Davis Road, Davis. Entrance is free.
The university and museum assembled a “constellation of experts” during the five-year project, Teagle said. Henderson has been active in restoring and revitalizing works damaged in a devastating fire at his San Francisco studio in 1985, as well as once-lost works that Henderson rescued from a storage container in 2021.
Black cultural scholars, art critics and curators from around the country will discuss the works at public events during the exhibit’s opening weeks, including the artist himself in a Sunday conversation at 3:30 p.m. with UC Davis Chancellor Gary S. May in the museum. On campus, UC Davis academics and black scholars held workshops for faculty to discuss his work, present new scholarship, and assert his belated place in the larger canon.
Henderson was 79 years old The first professor of black art at the University of California, Davis when he joined the faculty in 1970. He taught alongside other UC Davis luminaries of the era, including William T. Wiley and Wayne Thibault. For 43 years, until his retirement in 2012, he made his UC Davis studio “a haven for artists of color.” Today, he continues his work in the Bay Area.
The exhibition’s mission: “to showcase Henderson’s work and bring it the scholarly attention it so deserves,” Teagle said in pre-show notes, “with this exhibition the museum fulfills one of its highest goals: to restore the art of a great California artist who is central to the legacy of UC Davis.”
Henderson channeled his anger at the racial injustices of the day into unflinching large-format commentaries and experimental short films. He also explored surrealism and Afrofuturist themes.
“He said that he feels like a scientist of the world around him. He said that art should be deeply involved in the world around us. Mike doesn’t offer solutions or answers,” Teagle said. “His work is deliberately provocative, deliberately angry… He questioned authority on many levels. These are complex images.”
This anger at racism and institutional injustice, violence against blacks, is described in Nonviolence (1967); and is strongly expressed in edits Love It Or Leave It, I’ll Love It When You Leave It (1976).), kindled the flame of his art. A scientist as an artist found fuel around him.
The themes Henderson first explored as a black man and artist in 1960s Northern California remain painfully loud and relevant more than half a century later: Black hatred is on the rise. Racializing the nation has produced disappointingly little systemic change. Voting rights are under threat. Police violence is at its peak again.
“I hope it really allows today’s audiences to make connections,” said one of the exhibition’s curators, Sampada Aranke, an associate professor at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and a graduate of the University of California, Davis. “(Henderson) believed in the radicalism inherent in experimentation. He saw the wide possibilities of art and politics.”
The ambitious exhibition is a belated ovation for a great, if overlooked, California artist. But Teagle also sees the collection as a launching pad, with the ever-searching Manetti Schrem as a starting point.
“From an institutional standpoint, this is just the beginning,” Teagle said. “The question is, ‘How are you going to teach Henderson?’ How do we get Mike’s work to other museums outside of California? That’s how you change the canon.”
The question is similar to the one asked in Young, Gifted and Black, a dynamic collection of black artists which concluded at the University of California, Davis in December, will inevitably lead to even greater black shortages in the nation’s gallery spaces.
art historians and curators will discuss the racial reckoning in U.S. Art History and Its Museums on February 9 at Manetti Schrem.
The question also hangs on the walls of the gallery. One of Henderson’s fire-damaged works will hang in its current, imperfect state “as a reminder of Henderson’s struggle and the struggle of artists of color,” Teagle said.
“We cannot erase this difficult history,” Teagle continued. “As with Henderson, so with ‘Young, Gifted and Black,’ it’s a job about recovering those lost stories.”
Exhibition co-curator Sampada Aranke, an associate professor at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and a graduate of the University of California, Davis, adds important commentary to the exhibition catalog. She joins other voices, including scholars from the University of Michigan and Duke University, who are creating a new context for Henderson’s work: “Henderson’s insights into identity, race, and art history help us understand his place in late 20th-century American painting and filmmaking century, simultaneously asserting its importance to the avant-garde of modern art, as well as to our own historical present.”
If you go
“Mike Henderson: Before the Fire, 1965-1985”
If: Until June 25 from 11:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m. on Mondays, Thursdays and Fridays; 10:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays
Where: Jan Schrem and Maria Manetti Schrem Museum of Art, 254 Old Davis Road, Davis
Price: Free of charge