FRAMINGHAM — One of the things you notice first in “Eternal Presence,” a terrific career survey of John Wilson at the Danforth Museum of Art, is how attentive Wilson is to the faces of children. From his earliest days sketching his brother to his most recent large-scale drawings in charcoal, the impulse has remained the same: It is an impulse toward clarity, toward truth. He doesn’t sentimentalize or caricature children. He doesn’t give them false or generic expressions. He gets them just so.
What you notice later is the high number of pictures showing children in the arms of adult men and women. But here again, even with this most hackneyed of subjects — a staple throughout art history and across cultures — you don’t feel the motif is clichéd or generic.
Yes, Wilson is after something elemental and profound. But the resulting image is not just another mother and child, or dad with young kid. There is instead, each time, something tender and hard-won about what you are looking at. A hope, a promise, a lament all in one.
Wilson, 90, is one of Boston’s most esteemed and accomplished artists. He was born in Roxbury, the son of parents from British Guiana (now the nation of Guyana), was admitted to the School of the Museum of Fine Arts in 1939 after developing a natural aptitude for art at the Roxbury Boys Club, where he attended classes taught by SMFA students.
He was a star pupil at the museum school, where he was taught by Karl Zerbe, the German-born Boston Expressionist who played such a vital role in Boston art during this period.
Wilson was unable to enlist in the US military during World War II because he had a heart murmur. But he was very much alive to the consequences of the global conflict, not only abroad but at home, where he saw his African-American community make extraordinary sacrifices for the war effort.
There are 84 drawings, prints, sculptures, and oils in the Danforth show (which is complemented by a smaller Wilson show at Martha Richardson Fine Art on Newbury Street). One of the handful of paintings at the Danforth is a portrait of the artist’s brother, according to the show’s curator, Danforth director Katherine French. Called “Black Despair (Black Soldier),” it shows a man with his head down on a table, one fist clenched in anguish.
Coming just five years after the two small pencil portraits Wilson sketched of another brother on the eve of the war, it seems intimately connected to those images — and yet separated by a gulf of unwanted experience.
Wilson, as an African-American artist trying to make his way, needed to know that he was not alone during this crucial formative period. He found inspiration in the example of Allan Rohan Crite, a dynamic Boston artist who had graduated from the SMFA before Wilson. And he took heart from Alain Lock’s 1940 anthology, “The Negro in Art: A Pictorial Record of the Negro Artist and the Negro Theme in Art.”
Between 1943 and 1945, Wilson was exhibiting nationally. His work was reproduced in Time magazine and Art Digest. He was on a roll.
After the war, having graduated from the SMFA, Wilson went to Paris on a traveling fellowship awarded by the school. He studied there in the studio of the great modern artist Fernand Leger.
Many of Wilson’s prints and drawings from this period, often in gouache, bear Leger’s strong influence: rounded, pneumatic figures, schematic modeling, dynamic composition, and blocks of color dissociated from the duties of description.
But they also show Wilson adapting Leger’s idiom inventively to his own purposes, and to subject matter that had always interested him — especially life on the street and outdoor labor.
Even before going to Paris, Wilson had fallen under the sway of the Mexican muralists. He saw their works in “100 Twentieth Century Prints” at the Boston Institute of Modern Art, a precursor to the Institute of Contemporary Art, and he traveled to New Hampshire to see Jose Clemente Orozco’s ambitious mural “The Epic of American Civilization” at Dartmouth College.
He now went to Mexico and became part of a circle of artists, many of them African-American, engaged in making overtly political art. Much of it was directly inspired by the great Mexican muralists, but adapted to US racial politics, and molded around all of Wilson’s earlier interest in the feel and texture of life for the working poor.
Wilson’s story did not stop there. He came back to the States in 1956, lived in Chicago and New York, and taught at Boston University between 1964 and 1986. He continues to make vital work. He took up sculpture relatively late, but has become well known for his sculptural heads of Martin Luther King Jr., one of which has pride of place in the Danforth show. (Another is in the Capitol Rotunda in Washington.)
The historical background to Wilson’s work is fascinating. And it is interesting to think of how this African-American artist relates to, and yet remains apart from, the predominantly Jewish circle of Boston Expressionists who loomed so large in this city in the ’40s and ’50s. (On seeing the work of one of those artists, Jack Levine, Wilson has said: “I was struck with the fact that he was doing largely in relationship to the Jewish people what I was attempting to do with the Negro.”)
But so many of the works in this show press back against stereotypes and generalities with unusually direct and personal force. The reason has only partly to do with Wilson’s impressive virtuosity in so many different media. It has just as much to do with the touching immediacy of his art.
The work may be involved in illustrating a dramatic story, as in the series of six illustrations for Richard Wright’s short story “Down by the Riverside.” It may be a jaunty expression of the crowd-pressed vitality of street life among the urban poor. Or it might deftly evoke the protective tenderness of fathers holding their children. But it is always speaking directly to you. It almost shivers with sincere feeling.
Nothing illustrates this better than the ink drawing “Self Portrait #4,” which, like many of the works here, has been lent to the show by Wilson himself. In its tangle of dark lines obscurely involved in the rendering of the artist’s own tilting, mortal head, it is reminiscent of Pierre Bonnard’s late, great self-portraits. It is a thing of simplicity, humility, and self-knowledge. It’s impressive.Sebastian Smee can be reached at email@example.com.