Woman stands in front of painting and audience

Erin Gray, assistant professor in the UC Davis Department of English, discusses Henderson’s work Last Supper, 1967. (Autumn Payne/UC Davis)

Recovered and Restored

by | Apr 28, 2023 | Culture, On Campus, Spring/Summer 2023

The so-called “world on fire” of the 1960s, with its eerie parallels to our present day, is the backdrop to Mike Henderson: Before the Fire, 1965–1985, now on view at the Jan Shrem and Maria Manetti Shrem Museum of Art.

A UC Davis professor emeritus, Henderson joined the groundbreaking UC Davis art faculty in 1970, teaching alongside Wayne Thiebaud, Robert Arneson, Roy De Forest, Manuel Neri and William T. Wiley. He taught for 43 years, but always saw himself as “not a teacher but a coach,” Henderson said during an public conversation with Chancellor Gary S. May in January.

Now, Henderson’s critical early works that were thought lost in a 1985 studio fire have been recovered and restored so his contributions to the history of contemporary painting and filmmaking, radical Black politics and to the story of California art can finally be seen together. Henderson’s large-scale oil paintings and experimental films are presented in three thematic clusters — The Question of Violence, Biblical and World-Making and Self-Making and Self-Composition. An introductory video about Henderson creating art in the 1960s greets visitors in the lobby.

Mike Henderson portrait

Artist and UC Davis Professor Emeritus Mike Henderson (Autumn Payne/UC Davis)

UC Davis faculty, museum staff and other museum and academic colleagues began to consider how to present and center Henderson’s voice in a way that is meaningful to today’s audiences, and properly showcase these rarely seen works at a seminar in May 2019. That fall, Henderson’s work, Non-Violence, was included in Soul of a Nation at San Francisco’s de Young museum. (That work, one of the “protest paintings” that anchor the exhibition, is now part of the university’s Fine Arts Collection.) On opening weekend, 30 faculty, scholars and catalog essayists — including exhibition co-curator Sampada Aranke, Ph.D. ’13, and Assistant Professor of English Erin Gray — gathered again for a capstone seminar in the study of Mike Henderson.

Collaboration with curators, artists, university leaders, donors, colleagues and many advisors in addition to faculty resulted in an innovative, inclusive new model of how to make an exhibition, according to Manetti Shrem Museum Founding Director Rachel Teagle. A UC Press catalog contributes important scholarship about Henderson’s life, work and the dialogue it generates. Faculty in different disciplines have integrated the exhibition into their winter and spring quarter curriculum and research.

Teagle said she considers Mike Henderson: Before the Fire, 1965-1985 the museum’s most ambitious and collaborative effort to date. “With this exhibition, the museum fulfills one of its highest purposes: to recuperate the art of a major California artist who is central to UC Davis’ legacy,” she said.

Mike Henderson: Before the Fire, 1965-1985 runs through July 15, 2023, at the Manetti Shrem Museum of Art.