Mike Henderson Does It All

The multi-talented artist has been an influence in the art world for decades.

In the mid-1960s — long before he received a Guggenheim Fellowship, long before he was honored with grants by the National Endowment for the Arts, and long before he achieved widespread recognition as a visual artist, experimental filmmaker, and blues musician — Mike Henderson was a financially struggling art student who San Francisco police would harass as he walked home past midnight.

Patrolmen believed Henderson might be a criminal. He was a young African-American man strolling by himself from the San Francisco Art Institute through North Beach and other neighborhoods that had few Black residents, and police cars repeatedly stopped and questioned him. Henderson couldn’t afford to take the bus.

I walked from the school at North Beach and before I’d get to the Stockton tunnel, I’d been stopped twice,” Henderson tells SF Weekly. “The first time they stopped me they wanted to search me. And they asked me, ‘What’s that under your arm?’ And I said it was a piece of sculpture I was working on for a project. And [the officer] said, ‘You’re an artist?’”

That experience, parallel with that of other African-Americans in the volatile ’60s, stayed with Henderson as he embarked on his art career, and his artwork in “Soul of a Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power 1963-1983” — the exhibit that began at London’s Tate Modern and opens Nov. 9 at the de Young Museum — is a 1968 piece about police brutality called Non-Violence.

Henderson depicts a machete-wielding officer with a Nazi swastika on his arm about to unleash his fury on an already-wounded animal that appears to be an ape. The painting is a marked contrast with another 1968 work called Me and the Band, which has Henderson playing guitar with other musicians in a setting that’s joyful and full of color and verve.

Henderson does many things well, including abstract oil canvases that are like universes of textures and undulating horizontal and vertical planes. Every genre of his work is at the San Francisco Art Institute in a retrospective called “Mike Henderson: Honest to Goodness” that has a series of Henderson’s short films, which include biting social commentary about war and elliptical statements about love and relationships. Henderson’s movies screened last year at Belgium’s Courtisane Festival and in 2017 at the New York Film Festival (alongside the films of Agnes Varda, Jean-Luc Godard, Alex Gibney, Richard Linklater, and others).

At the San Francisco Art Institute, they’re free to watch, and many of them feature Henderson’s earthy blues riffs, which give the movies a depth of sound similar to Miles Davis’ vaunted soundtrack to Louis Malle’s 1958 film Ascenseur pour l’échafaud. In both cases, the music aligns and charges the characters’ movements. In both cases, the music was improvised to suit the moment, as in Henderson’s Look What Daddy Can Do where he sings the movie’s title against old 1950s-era footage of U.S. military maneuvers. The song gives Look What Daddy Can Do its farcical edge.

I couldn’t get anyone to do the voiceover,” Henderson says of his first film, The Last Supper from 1970. “So I had my guitar and the sound guy turned on the film and tape recorder and I just started to play not knowing it was on. . . .  It was for a class I was taking with [experimental filmmaker] Robert Nelson. And Bob says, ‘Let’s hear it.’ And he looked at the film and he said, ‘That’s it. You’ve created the first talking blues film.’ ”

As a blues musician, Henderson has performed with a Who’s Who of blues masters, including Albert King, Albert Collins, Bo Diddley, and John Lee Hooker, who once called Henderson “blues professor.” As part of “Soul of a Nation,” Henderson will perform at the de Young on Saturday, Nov. 16 from 1-3 p.m. in the museum’s Wilsey Court — just like he performed on the roof of the San Francisco Art Institute for the opening of “Mike Henderson: Honest to Goodness.” Art-goers swayed and danced to Henderson’s band that night. Some of them howled in delight.

Few other people have Henderson’s facility to excel in so many artistic directions — and to have stayed at that level for decades. Henderson, who taught art at UC Davis for more than 40 years (alongside William T. Wiley, Wayne Thiebaud, and others), is now in his late 70s. He grew up in poverty in an African-American neighborhood in Marshall, Missouri, where “you were lucky to be trained to be a servant, and you couldn’t dream about what you’re going to be,” and his appearance at the San Francisco Art Institute was a chance to return to a campus that he says changed the entire direction of his life. It was there at the art institute — in an environment where burgeoning visual artists, musicians, and activists mingled together — that instructors encouraged Henderson to find his voice. And it was there that two of the 20th century’s greatest Bay Area artists — Joan Brown and Jay DeFeo, who were teaching there — befriended Henderson and made the link between then-sparse opportunities for female artists and African-American artists.

“I’d talk to them about this notion that there weren’t any African-American artists of note — and that the only door that seemed to be open for African-Americans was the entertainment arts, not the fine arts,” Henderson says. “And they said, ‘Oh, it’s the same thing for women. There are only a handful of women artists that you see and hear about.’ And I’d ask them, ‘What’s of substance here?’ And each time, they would come back to me and say, ‘Fuck it. Just paint. You’re called to paint. This is what you’re called to do. Forget the art world and all that. Just use the gift that was given you.’ ”

Henderson got to know Brown and DeFeo because they taught at night and he worked on the school’s maintenance crew. “So I was cleaning up when everybody left,” he says. “One night I was talking to Jay DeFeo about painting, and different ways of looking at the world. I was talking to her about making the world better. And I had this idea about how if everything was silver, and everybody was silver, we’d look at each other and only see ourselves and there’d be no way to hate that person. I had silver paint. And there was an art opening that night. And I cleaned up and I confiscated some wine. And I’m drinking wine and talking with her — and the next thing we know we painted the cafeteria silver.” 

Henderson attended the San Francisco Art Institute because it was the only art school to admit him that didn’t practice segregation. The others were in the Midwest. “I’d get accepted,” he says, and when they found out he was Black, “they wouldn’t even talk to me.”

Whether he makes abstract art or plays blues music or makes experimental films, Henderson says his creations all flow from “wherever the inspiration takes me” — but that “everything pivots in my life to the paintings. I will say that. It’s the horse I rode in on. It’s what I went to school for. I did want to go to New York to study music but [after graduating from the San Francisco Art Institute], I had the job offered me at Davis. And I wanted to build a house for my parents that had running water and plumbing in it so they could have something like that to live in before they died.”

As an instructor at UC Davis, Henderson imparted the lessons he learned about his own life and his own art. He started making art films after the social upheavals following Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination. “I never made films but one day I came home from a demonstration at the Civic Center when Dr. King was killed, and I was going back to school and I kept thinking, ‘I want more movement in my paintings. I want them to have more strength.’”

And though his more recent paintings are large, abstract pieces, the rawness and violence of Non-Violence “really fits the show [at the de Young] because of what it’s about. To me, it’s also something very current, too.”

“Mike Henderson: Honest to Goodness”
Through Nov. 17 at the San Francisco Art Institute, 800 Chestnut, S.F. Free; 415-771-7020, sfai.edu

“Mike Henderson: At the Edge of Paradise”
Nov. 7 – Dec. 14 at Haines Gallery, 49 Geary, S.F. Free; 415-397-8114, hainesgallery.com

“Soul of a Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power 1963-1983”
Nov. 9 – March 15 at the de Young Museum, 50 Hagiwara Tea Garden Dr. (Golden Gate Park). $10-$25, 415-750-3600, deyoung.famsf.org

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