Detroit artist James C. Harrison finds love after life

Michael H. Hodges
Detroit News Fine Arts Writer

James C. Harrison graduated from Detroit’s Cass Tech High School in 1943, spent a semester apiece at the Cranbrook Academy of Art and Olivet College. And then — like so many young artists of his era — he headed for New York City as fast as his legs could carry him.

“James C. Harrison” at the Detroit Design Center Gallery in Midtown highlights the artist’s multilayered, crowded, “painting-drawing,” as he termed it — a vision that resembles the collage-and-scribble approach of contemporaries and friends Robert Rauschenberg and Cy Twombly, two of the towering figures in post-war American art.

On view Friday through Sunday at the gallery is a collection of Harrison’s later assemblages, most from the 1980s. In Harrison’s rough aesthetic and early use of found objects, some spot an important precursor to Detroit’s Cass Corridor school.

But Rauschenberg and Twombly went on to be world-famous. Harrison struggled to be seen.

In New York City, the Detroiter supported himself by working for a textile designer, had a stormy relationship with the New York art world and died in obscurity.

“In New York, things didn’t sell, and he resented galleries telling him what to do,” says Chuck Schmidt, co-owner of Schmidt’s Antiques, which is handling the Harrison estate and organized this weekend’s show.

Schmidt says they’ll also take some Harrison paintings to the annual Michigan Modernism Exposition April 9-10 in Southfield.

Harrison is important not just because he hints at the future Cass Corridor movement, says artist rep Isabelle Weiss, but also because he’s an interesting example of “the cross-dialogue between Detroit and New York.”

In many ways, Harrison lived New York’s dark side, battling alcohol and heroin. “However, he had a couple of artistic rebirths after recovery,” Schmidt says, noting that the artist had a couple shows in New York in the 1980s.

In 2006, the Luise Ross Gallery in Chelsea, hosted a posthumous retrospective. The New York Times praised Harrison’s “strange yet eerily familiar” 1970s and 1980s paintings.

Certain totems, often obscured under crisscrossing lines, appear time and again — the triangle, an emerald door, a river or tree. Appropriately for an artist like Harrison, Weiss suggests, they’re “all suggestive of rebirth.”

Indeed, many of the canvases on display are topped by pediments of one sort or another that call to mind classic temples, with their implicit promise of passage and redemption.

‘James C.


Detroit Design Center Gallery, 4225 Third, Detroit

7–10 p.m. Fri.; 11 a.m.–3 p.m. Sat. and Sun.

(313) 330-2259