Museum Celebrates Professor Mike Henderson and His Art ‘Before the Fire’

Mike Henderson artwork, "The Cradle"
On view beginning Sunday is “Before the Fire, 1965-1985”: Mike Henderson, “The Cradle,” 1977, oil on canvas, 71 inches by 120 inches. Fine Arts Collection, Jan Shrem and Maria Manetti Shrem Museum of Art. Gift courtesy of the artist and Haines Gallery. Copyright Mike Henderson. Courtesy of the artist and Haines Gallery. (Robert Divers Herrick photo)

Quick Summary

  • Painter, filmmaker taught at UC Davis for 43 years
  • Noted contributor to history of radical Black politics
  • Exhibition includes works thought lost, now restored

The Jan Shrem and Maria Manetti Shrem Museum of Art’s Winter Season Opening will be this Sunday (Jan. 29), free and open to the public, and featuring the debut of Professor Emeritus Mike Henderson’s first solo U.S. museum exhibition in 20 years.


  • WHAT: Winter Season Opening celebration
  • WHERE: Jan Shrem and Maria Manetti Shrem Museum of Art
  • WHEN: 2:30-5:30 p.m. Sunday (Jan. 29)

“Mike Henderson: Before the Fire, 1965-1985” will be on display through June 25. Catalog available. See box below for exhibition-related programming.

“Mike Henderson: Before the Fire, 1965-1985” brings to light the pioneering artist’s rarely seen contributions to the history of contemporary painting and filmmaking, radical Black politics, and to the story of California art. 

The opening festivities will include a conversation between the artist and Chancellor Gary S. May, starting at 3:30 p.m.

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, New York City, 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, “Love it or Leave it, I Will Love it if You Leave it,” 1976. mixed
media, 69 inches by 108 inches. Copyright Mike Henderson. Courtesy of the artist and Haines
Gallery. (Robert Divers Herrick photo)

The fire

Mike Henderson environmental, UC Davis faculty
The artist in studio. (Robert Divers Herrick photo)

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.

Sunday’s winter season celebration, 2:30-5 p.m., will mark the museum’s reopening after a closure for installation. Regular hours starting Monday (Jan. 30) are: 11 a.m.-6 p.m. Monday, Thursday and Friday, and 10 a.m-5 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. Admission is free. Read more about visiting the museum. See box below for other winter-spring exhibitions.

Henderson and UC Davis

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.

Mike Henderson artwork, "Self-Portrait"
Mike Henderson, “Self Portrait,” 1966, acrylic on canvas, 45 inches by 29 inches. Collection of John and Gina Wasson. Copyright Mike Henderson. Courtesy of the artist and Haines Gallery.

Last October, he received the Margrit Mondavi Arts Medallion in recognition of his many contributions over decades of teaching at UC Davis. Now comes this exhibition.

“We are thrilled to give Mike Henderson’s work the showcase and scholarly attention it so richly deserves,” said Rachel Teagle, the museum’s founding director. “‘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.”

Sampada Aranke, Ph.D. ’13, co-curator with Dan Nadel, added: “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.”


“Mike Henderson: Before the Fire, 1965-1985”-related programs:

  • The “Reckoning” in American Art History and MuseumsA 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, Norfolk, Virginia. (Feb. 9)
  • Death’s Futurity: The Visual Life of Black Power — Book launch and signing with the author, Sampada Aranke, co-curator of “Mike Henderson: Before the Fire, 1965-1985,” in conversation with Essence Harden, visual arts curator at the California African American Museum, Los Angeles. (April 20)
  • Check the museum's website for further details and additional related programming.

Other exhibitions (both opened last fall and will be on display through May 8):


This story is adapted from a news release by Laura Compton, communication specialist, Jan Shrem and Maria Manetti Shrem Museum of Art.

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Dateline Staff: Dave Jones, editor, 530-752-6556,; Cody Kitaura, News and Media Relations specialist, 530-752-1932,

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