In the days before he started painting The Scream, Mike Henderson soaked up 1966 San Francisco the way only a Black 23-year-old in a big city for the first time could. He rode cable cars because they reminded him he was in California—not in cloistered, KKK-dominated rural Missouri, where he was born and raised.
Henderson ate burritos in the Mission district, where he lived, and absorbed city views from Russian Hill, where he attended the San Francisco Art Institute. It was a San Francisco where he could go to Bill Graham’s Fillmore Auditorium to see Cream but come away with his mind blown by opener Rahsaan Roland Kirk, a blind multi-instrumentalist who was as much a performative shaman as a jazz virtuoso.
“Roland Kirk comes out in the audience with all his horns, he’s playing music with the whistles, chanting ‘volunteered slavery, volunteered slavery,’ ” Henderson says. “He’s passing out whistles and kazoos to the audience, everybody’s blowing on them.” Henderson went to the Fillmore both nights of the bill, Saturday and Sunday.
Soon after, he was riding the cable car up Powell Street toward SFAI when he spotted a Black man in wraparound sunglasses playing a saxophone on a street corner.
“I get closer and I said, ‘Damn, that’s Roland Kirk!’ ” Henderson says. He jumped off the car and approached Kirk.
“I came right up to him and said, ‘Pardon me, aren’t you Roland Kirk? Didn’t I see you at the Fillmore last night?’ He said, ‘Yes, that’s me, brother.’ I said, ‘Why are you playing out here in the middle of the street?’
“ ‘I’m playing the sounds of the city, brother.’ ”
Henderson was electrified. At SFAI, he was being mentored by a diverse group of modern art masters committed to making work that was meaningful to themselves, and he’d been studying Jackson Pollock, Marcel Duchamp, and his muse Vincent van Gogh. But Kirk was a revelation. Here was someone making something in the flesh, in the moment, for the honesty and purity of it.
“This was it, man. This is what it’s about. You do it,” Henderson recalls. “You do it. It’s none of this nine-to-five stuff. Twenty-four hours, you do it, you believe. It’s religion.”
When he reached his studio at SFAI, he thought, That’s what I want to be. I want to find that Roland Kirk thing in me. “That’s when I did the Scream painting.”
Henderson’s feelings about the war in Vietnam, the civil rights revolts at home, and his own journey through racism and segregation came out in the work. The painting depicts three seemingly conjoined heads staring out at the viewer. Viewed from left to right, it has the dramatic jolt of an Eisenstein edit in Battleship Potemkin. The heads are a ghostly bone white, with no racial characteristics but defined by pointed teeth and the blood-red gashes of their gaping mouths. Henderson applied the paint manually. “I felt like using my hands—the painting was coming out of me,” he says.
The oil-on-canvas diptych, 10 feet high and nearly 12 feet wide, now in the collection of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, was hung in fall 2020 at the de Young Museum. This particular museum acquisition placed a bemused but grateful Henderson in a cohort of surviving Black artists of his generation (he was born in 1943) who are now receiving their due. The group—Betye Saar, Faith Ringgold, Sam Gilliam, to name a few—have recently garnered critical appraisals that consider the artists’ craft and creative logic as much as their social critiques and cultural representations.
This winter, Henderson will receive more attention: a partial retrospective featuring 13 of his paintings, a drawing, and five of his avant-garde films at the Jan Shrem and Maria Manetti Shrem Museum of Art, on the UC Davis campus. The exhibition runs from January 29 through June 25, 2023.
This article appears in Issue 22 of Alta Journal.
Henderson, now 79, is good-natured and quick to smile. He appears to be thoroughly enjoying his late-career renaissance, as if to say that there’s no point in any bitterness now about his struggles and his journey from Missouri to California. “I didn’t come here to make money or get a teaching job—all that just fell in place,” he says. “I just wanted to see if I could be an artist.”
SOUL OF AN ARTIST
Sturdy and stout, Henderson now sometimes uses a cane to steady himself while walking longer distances. His combed-back full natural hair is more silver than black, as is his thin beard. I visited him at his home studio in San Leandro the day after he’d met with the Manetti Shrem Museum team about his show. Looking at his old work, talking about making it, had unleashed a flood of memories.
After completing The Scream, Henderson began a series of pieces known as his protest paintings. The figurative nonrealistic works are visceral, direct, and often disturbing. Non-Violence (1968) was shown at the Whitney Museum of American Art’s Human Concern/Personal Torment: The Grotesque in American Art in 1969. The 6-by-10-foot oil painting shows a uniformed cop with a swastika armband wielding a bloody machete against what seems to be a cowering apelike creature. In the background, a dark hooded being gnaws on an ape’s severed arm.
Nearly 50 years later, Non-Violence was featured in the revelatory traveling exhibition Soul of a Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power 1963–1983, which visited San Francisco three years ago. The painting will be included in the show at UC Davis, where Henderson taught in the art department for more than 30 years, retiring as a professor emeritus in 2012.
The title of the Manetti Shrem exhibition, Mike Henderson: Before the Fire, 1965–1985, references his surviving work from the period before a fire in his studio destroyed some of the paintings stored there. Several pieces thought irrevocably damaged have been carefully restored for the show.
“One of the things I really want to emphasize around Mike’s work is that it has never felt so prescient,” says Sampada Aranke, cocurator of the exhibition. “For the visual language he’s using, the kind of content and the politics that he’s raising in his work, I think it can really give us a lot of insights into our contemporary moment.”
At the back of Henderson’s studio, blank stretched canvases lean against the wall, their frame backs facing out. A long worktable layered with paint splatters and spills holds cans of brushes and pigments. At least five electric guitars also lean against walls and cabinets. I spot an acoustic guitar and a resonator. A small sound-mixing console rests on a second table. VHS tapes, cassettes, and CDs grow all around like plants. Dog-eared pictures of blues icons Howlin’ Wolf and Sunnyland Slim are tacked to bulletin boards.
Henderson is clearly at home in this space, oblivious to the cluttered mayhem. He invites me to sit in a corner of the room and then moves a microphone stand bedecked with beads and chains from in front of another chair before easing into it.
“They used to call me the Black Frenchman,” he says, smiling, referring to friends back in Marshall, Missouri, who knew he was pursuing art. “I just went with it. I always felt it was better to be in on a joke than try to fight it.”
In Marshall, the idea of being an artist was fantastic and outrageous—not something he verbalized around his house, even though it was very much on his teenage mind. Labor was, of course, the way most Black men and women Henderson knew got along. His father was a janitor, and his mother was a cook and domestic worker. They had five other children after him. The family lived just outside town and had no indoor plumbing. Henderson would often carry water not only for his house but also for equally poor white people who lived nearby. His devoutly religious grandmother made him return money they once gave him for doing it.
Henderson quit high school when he was 16. He loved both art and music, but academic classes were a challenge. His father beat him for not doing well, and teachers mocked his efforts. Years later, he would learn he was dyslexic and had attention deficit disorder. He moved to nearby Springfield, Illinois, living with an aunt and uncle who encouraged his artistic inclinations, but soon returned to Marshall.
Late in his teens, he set up a shoeshine stand in town at the Viking Hotel and helped out as a bellhop and custodian. He also learned guitar, taking lessons from a janitor friend in exchange for cleaning bathrooms. Imitating Lightnin’ Hopkins’s “Goin’ to Louisiana” and the style of a woman called Aunt Ethel who played at the local Black Holiness Church, he found it came easily. He thought making music might support him if making art couldn’t.
While at the Viking, Henderson remarkably found downtime when he could draw and paint with watercolors. The hotel’s co-owner Lucille Freeman was impressed enough with what she saw that she urged him to keep at it. Freeman even bought her own watercolor set so she could paint alongside Henderson.
Longtime SFAI friend Suzy O’Neill describes Henderson’s encounter with Freeman as a turning point for him. “She started encouraging him, and he saw the future,” O’Neill says. “He saw that he could have a life that was very different from what he had been living.”
Henderson won a mail-order drawing contest and then signed up for a correspondence course advertised on the back of a matchbox. “I had a knowledge of stuff, but I didn’t know how to put it together,” he recalls. He received monthly lessons on elements of perspective, figure drawing, light, and shade.
He put his pictures up around his shoeshine stand, and customers were thrilled. He even sold a painting for $30. Local businessman Leonard Van Dyke gave Henderson a ticket to a touring Van Gogh exhibit in Kansas City. A friend of Van Dyke’s came through with a bus ticket and a suggestion that Henderson attend the Six Painters exhibit at the Kansas City Art Institute while there. That show included works by Georgia O’Keeffe, Elaine de Kooning, and Joan Mitchell. They were the first abstract paintings Henderson would see.
After walking wide-eyed through the Van Gogh exhibition, Henderson sidled up to a group of viewers and eavesdropped as a docent explained The Potato Eaters. “I was the only Black person in the museum,” he recalls. “I didn’t know if they were going to allow me to be a part of the group. The woman started talking about the paintings and his life. Next painting, I got a little bit closer. Then I was part of the group. Then another group formed, and I went again. I think I did that three times.”
In 1963, at age 21, he reenrolled in high school in Marshall, with Freeman’s financial support, and he graduated two years later. He was accepted at SFAI, the only nonsegregated art school in the country at the time, and started that fall.
In San Francisco, Henderson worked on the after-hours cleaning crew at SFAI, where Bay Area masters Jay DeFeo and Joan Brown, both teaching night classes, befriended and inspired him. Other faculty members included Fred Martin, Bob Nelson, Wally Hedrick, and Peter Saul. Henderson embraced the newfound creative freedom, sometimes going beyond painting. When he wanted to see his images move, he started making films. If his films needed a soundtrack, he played guitar and sang original music. Still, he painted as often as he could and by his second year had executed The Scream and the protest series.
The Smile, from early 1968, shows Henderson confidently moving away from the protest paintings with a large gestural portrait of a gently smiling Africanic head. The seven-foot-high, six-foot-wide oil-on-canvas work portrays a barely contained face tinted whitish gray on one side and bluish gray on the other, its red lips pressed together and its eyes tilted upward in a benign gaze—the emotional opposite of the earlier Scream. That summer, he was accepted to the Skowhegan School of Painting & Sculpture, an artists’ retreat in Madison, Maine, and began experimenting with abstract, less representational pieces.
Henderson earned a BFA in 1969 and an MFA in 1970, both at SFAI. In his final year as a student, he was surreptitiously recruited to teach at UC Davis by the painter William T. Wiley, who was teaching there himself. A one-time gig showing his film The Last Supper turned into a part-time offer, then a full-time one.
In the Whitney Museum’s 1971 exhibition Contemporary Black Artists in America, two Henderson pieces were shown side by side: Smile hung next to Revolution, from 1970. The latter painting presents simple overlapping colored rings that form a bull’s-eye. Henderson had reinvented himself in more ways than one.
In less than 10 years, Henderson had gone from being a twentysomething high school student in Marshall, Missouri, to teaching at Davis alongside Wiley, Roy De Forest, Manuel Neri, Wayne Thiebaud, and Robert Arneson. They were all nationally known but had no use for East Coast art drama or trendy career ambition. Henderson fit right in. He became lifelong friends with Wiley and De Forest, who served as an extended family.
Ethan Wiley, son of the late artist, is making documentaries about both his father and Henderson. “They were on a path of self-discovery, which might play into the times, but it was also a struggle to create art that connected in some personal way, with their own feelings, with their own vision,” Wiley says.
SIGHTS AND SOUNDS
Henderson’s work continued to evolve. In the 1970s, he started making surreal mixed-media collages he called “space modules.” In works such as Off the Coast and Cloud Nine, unidentifiable strips of texture or design form a rough landscape against a cool, gray-green background. Critics Mark Hain and Michael T. Martin wrote, “Amid the colors and shapes making up what seem to be alien landscapes, fragments almost coalesce into recognizable images—a face, a figure, an animal, musical symbols, letters—but then retreat back into their compelling mysteriousness.”
Meanwhile, Henderson’s music had become more than a hobby. His band opened for Isaac Hayes and Uriah Heep at the now-defunct San Francisco music venue the Old Waldorf, and he played the Bay Area’s blues circuit. He made records featuring standards and his own originals. There were European tours. Superstar guitarist Mike Bloomfield was a fan. Henderson often sat in with such major figures as Albert Collins, Jimmy Reed, and Taj Mahal. John Lee Hooker dubbed him “the blues professor.”
Music bonded Henderson and Wiley, who played folk guitar and harmonica and was pals with the highly regarded artist and musician Terry Allen. Allen taught at UC Berkeley for a year, then moved to Fresno State but maintained friendships with artists throughout the Bay Area. He often played at the Langton Street performance space, where he thinks he first met Henderson. “Mike and Terry and Dad would jam after gallery openings,” Ethan Wiley says. “We had a big house, and so we would host parties for Thanksgiving or Christmas or a birthday.”
Henderson, Allen, and Wiley formed a trio. “We actually did several visiting-artist things and several [music] shows together, the three of us,” Allen says from his home in Santa Fe. “We billed ourselves as the Creatures of Snot. Where that came from, I don’t know. Probably some overextended exuberance at some point.”
A gig in Sun Valley, Idaho, left a lasting impression on Allen: “Wiley and Mike and I were walking down the street, and we’d just gotten there. People looked at Mike like they had never seen a Black person before or wondered, ‘My God, they’re here, too?’ We were just dumbfounded by that climate. It made me think about what a person like Mike had to go through so many times that you weren’t even aware of. That night, we were especially volatile on the Creatures of Snot performance.”
Teaching at Davis suited Henderson, especially working with non–art majors. “You needed to reach everyone,” he says. His salary enabled him to buy his parents’ house for them and build one on the lot next door with indoor plumbing. “I didn’t want my brothers to grow up poor the way I did,” he says. He married and moved to San Leandro. He and his wife raised a son, who went to Humboldt State, works for the U.S. Forest Service, and lives in the woods.
ANOTHER NEW BEGINNING
For the first several decades of his career, Henderson’s abstract work wasn’t well received. “I was told it wasn’t Black enough,” he says, smiling and shaking his head. He joined San Francisco’s Haines Gallery in 1991, and a broader awareness of his work began to take hold. Today, the unperceived Blackness matters less than the skilled execution and gut-level
emotion elicited by the paintings.
Henderson’s recent paintings Parallel Portions (2017), on view at SFO’s Harvey Milk Terminal 1; As It Is Now (2017); and Dreams (2019) are evocative patterned abstractions. Such work won him a 2019 San Francisco Artadia Award. “Mike Henderson’s striking nonrepresentational paintings belong to a long history of Bay Area abstraction,” curators Essence Harden and Aleesa Pitchamarn Alexander wrote in a statement. “Though his practice is rooted in embracing chance and improvisation, the final products of his process are so elegant and fully realized they belie such unplanned origins.”
Henderson doesn’t believe in luck but will say he’s been blessed. He tells me it’s impossible to put into words what the upcoming exhibit at the Manetti Shrem Museum means to him.
“You can never have too many shows. You always need another one somewhere on this planet,” he writes in a follow-up email. “I feel like it is a prelude to a portrait of beginning. I could also say it’s a portrait of my personal renaissance.”•
Mike Henderson: Before the Fire, 1965–1985
• Jan Shrem and Maria Manetti Shrem Museum of Art, UC Davis
• January 29 through June 25, 2023