By Laura Compton | Special To The Observer

Mike Henderson
‘Mike Henderson: Before the Fire, 1965-1985’ Opens Jan. 30 at Manetti Shrem Museum

A new exhibition featuring pioneering artist Mike Henderson’s rarely seen contributions to the history of contemporary painting and filmmaking, radical Black politics and to the story of California art opens Jan. 30 at the Jan Shrem and Maria Manetti Shrem Museum of Art at UC Davis.

This ambitious exhibition, “Mike Henderson: Before the Fire, 1965-1985,” marks Henderson’s first solo U.S. museum exhibition in 20 years. He is a UC Davis professor emeritus of art. Henderson started exploring the role and responsibility of an artist early in his practice. His “protest paintings” — which he began while studying at the San Francisco Art Institute in 1965 — confront the anti-Black violence of the civil rights era. One of these figurative works, Non-Violence, 1967 — included in “Mike Henderson: Before the Fire, 1965-1985” — was shown at the Whitney Museum of American Art in 1969, and in “Soul of a Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power” at the de Young Museum, San Francisco, in 2019. Non-Violence and other large-scale works bridge the gap between the past and present, challenging and resonating with contemporary audiences as America continues to grapple with systemic racism and social justice issues.

Mike Henderson, Sunday Night, 1968. Oil on canvas, 73 × 63 in.
© Mike Henderson. Courtesy of the artist and Haines Gallery.
Mike Henderson, Sunday Night, 1968. Oil on canvas, 73 × 63 in. © Mike Henderson. Courtesy of the artist and Haines Gallery.

The Fire

Henderson’s subsequent works offer new ideas about Black life and utopian visions in a unique visual language that merges abstraction, Afro-futurism and surrealism. In 1985, a fire in his studio damaged much of Henderson’s work from the previous two decades and partially obliterated these vital ideas about a time of tumult and change in California and the world. After his studio catastrophe Henderson never returned to this subject matter again. Many pieces that were thought lost have been recovered and restored by the Manetti Shrem Museum and anchor this new exhibition.  A slideshow of destroyed artworks is included in the exhibition to illuminate dozens of paintings that were not able to be restored.

Henderson And UC Davis

Mike Henderson, Dufus (aka Art), 1970, revised 1973. Single-channel projection with sound, transferred from 16 mm film (6:00 min.) © Mike Henderson. Courtesy of the Academy Film Archive and Haines Gallery.

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 and had a profound effect on students. Henderson will take part in a featured conversation with UC Davis Chancellor Gary S. May at a public opening event on Jan. 29, 2:30 to 5 p.m.

“We are thrilled to give Mike Henderson’s work the showcase and scholarly attention it so richly deserves,” said Manetti Shrem Museum Founding Director Rachel Teagle. “‘Mike Henderson: Before the Fire, 1965-1985 offers visitors an integrated vision of Henderson’s politically striking contributions to both painting and filmmaking at a critical phase of his career. 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.”

Curator Sampada Aranke adds, “Henderson’s visions of identity, race and art history help us understand his place in American painting and filmmaking in the late 20th century while asserting his relevance to the vanguard of contemporary art as well as our own historical present.”

The museum has planned a slate of public events to accompany the exhibit.

The “Reckoning” in American Art History and Museums: A conversation among art historians and curators Bridget Cooks (UC Irvine) and Nana Adusei-Poku (UC Berkeley). Moderated by Stacey Shelnut-Hendrick, deputy director of public engagement and learning, Chrysler Museum of Art. (Feb. 9)

  • Book Launch and Signing: Death’s Futurity: The Visual Life of Black Power: Curator Sampada Aranke in conversation with Essence Harden, visual arts curator at the California African American Museum, about Aranke’s first book. (April 20)

For more events, visit

Comprehensive catalog

Mike Henderson, Self Portrait, 1966. Acrylic on canvas, 45 × 29 in. Collection
of John and Gina Wasson. © Mike Henderson. Courtesy of the artist and
Haines Gallery.
Mike Henderson, Self Portrait, 1966. Acrylic on canvas, 45 × 29 in. Collection of John and Gina Wasson. © Mike Henderson. Courtesy of the artist and Haines Gallery.

The exhibition is accompanied by a catalog, Mike Henderson: Before the Fire, 1965-1985 (UC Press, 128 pages), with a foreword by May. Exhibition curators Sampada Aranke and Dan Nadel; scholars Bridget Cooks (UC Irvine), Erin Gray (UC Davis), Justin Leroy (Duke University) and Carlos Francisco Jackson (University of Michigan); artists Ayanah Moor and Kambui Olujimi; and filmmaker and preservationist Mark Toscano consider the context of Henderson’s life, work and the dialogue it generates from a variety of disciplines and viewpoints.

About Henderson

Henderson (b. 1943) grew up in Marshall, Missouri, and studied at the San Francisco Art Institute, where he earned his B.F.A. (1969) and M.F.A. (1970). He retired from UC Davis in 2012 as professor emeritus and lives and works in the San Francisco Bay Area. Henderson has been the recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship (1973), two National Endowment for the Arts Artist Grants (1978, 1989), and was recently awarded the 2019 Artadia San Francisco Award. He is represented by Haines Gallery, San Francisco. Henderson’s paintings and films have been exhibited in the Whitney Museum of American Art, the Museum of Modern Art, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, the de Young Museum, the Studio Museum, and the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. He is also an accomplished blues musician.