SAN MARINO, Calif.— May 4, 2011. The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens added to its holdings a significant work of American art. At the annual meeting of its Art Collectors’ Council, the institution acquired a 22-foot-long sculpture carved as a screen for a pipe organ by the prominent African American artist Sargent Claude Johnson (1888–1967) in 1937.
“We were faced with a very impressive slate of works to consider this year,” said John Murdoch, Hannah and Russel Kully Director of Art Collections at The Huntington. “It was clearly imperative that we add the striking, architecturally significant Johnson relief, which will be a focal point of our American art installation. We are delighted beyond words to be able to present [this] impressive works to our visitors.”
Organ Screen for the California School for the Blind
Best known for his imagery of animals and people, particularly African and Native Americans rendered in Abstract Figurative and Early Modern styles, Sargent Johnson was one of the first African American artists in California to achieve a national reputation. He worked as a painter, printmaker, and ceramicist but is best known as a sculptor. Under the auspices of the Federal Arts Project, the visual arts division of the Depression-era Works Progress Administration (WPA), Johnson carved a monumental relief of musicians, animals, birds, and plants as a screen for a pipe organ in the hall of the California School for the Blind in Berkeley, Calif. Made of redwood, adorned with paint and gilding, the sculpture was backed with plywood in order to preserve it following its removal from the building after the school relocated and the building became part of the University of California campus.
Works of art created under the Federal Arts Project or WPA are now governed by the General Services Administration, which made a legal and policy decision that the federal government does not retain an ownership interest in site-specific works of art, where the building in which the art was located is not federal property. It thus determined it would not object to the sale of the piece.
“This was an extraordinary opportunity to acquire a monumental WPA sculpture,” said Jessica Todd Smith, Virginia Steele Scott Chief Curator of American Art at The Huntington. “It will join our growing collection of American art from the 1930s and will be the first major work by an African American artist to enter The Huntington’s art collections.”
Born in Boston, Mass., to a father of Swedish descent and a mother of African American and Cherokee ancestry, Johnson was orphaned in 1902 and lived for a time with his uncle, Sherman Jackson Williams, and his aunt, the artist May Howard Jackson, who probably introduced Johnson to sculpture. In 1915, Johnson moved to the San Francisco Bay area. The same year, he married Pearl Lawson and began studying at the A. W. Best School of Art. From 1919 to 1923, he attended the California School of Fine Arts (now the San Francisco Art Institute), where his teachers included the sculptors Beniamino Bufano and Ralph Stackpole.
From early in his career, Johnson explored the use of modernist forms to create positive representations of African Americans. Like many of his contemporaries, he also studied African carvings and created sculptures that referenced African masks. For Johnson, the purpose of these formal borrowings was to suggest racial continuity and dignity. He began showing his work with the Harmon Foundation of New York in 1926. This distinguished organization, committed to supporting African American art, exhibited many of Johnson’s pieces and helped him earn a national following.
As an employee of the Federal Arts Project in the late 1930s, Johnson held a number of positions, ranging from staff artist to unit supervisor. During this time he produced several monumental works, the first of which was the 22-foot-long screen. In the book that accompanied the exhibition “Sargent Johnson: African American Modernist” at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art in 1998, Lizzetta LeFalle-Collins suggests that the figures were derived from the iconography of Saint Francis of Assisi, though she does not cite any specific references. The faces of the musicians recall some of Johnson’s earlier mask-like sculptures. The tree that serves as the background for the figures also seem to suggest the iconography of the Tree of Life—a metaphor for common evolutionary descent that illustrates the inter-relatedness of all life on earth.
The Art Collectors’ Council
The Huntington’s Art Collectors’ Council is a group of major donors who support the growth of the collections through active involvement in the acquisition process. They meet every spring to select works for acquisition.