Whitehot Magazine

Sargent Claude Johnson at the Huntington Library, Art Museum and Botanical Gardens

Sargent Claude Johnson, Mother and Child, 1932, Photo credit The Huntington Library, Art Museum, and Botanical Gardens 


Sargent Claude Johnson
The Huntington Library, Art Museum 
February 17, 2024 to May 20th, 2024
1151 Oxford Road, San Marino, CA 91108

By GARY BREWER March 21, 2024

An art museum holds a very special place in our world. Works of art are, in a sense, cultural life forms that carry encoded within them the hearts and minds of artists from our collective history. The artist’s imagination opens doors to ours, and symbiotically we feel the living thoughts, ideas, passions and philosophical worldview of the artist.

At its best, an art museum is an act of love, both for the heights reached in the creation of art and in the desire to share this love with others.

The exhibition of Sargent Claude Johnson’s work at the Huntington Library, Art Museum and Botanical Gardens beautifully embodies this. It is an elegant and thoughtful installation of his work, curated by Dennis Carr, the Chief Curator of American Art at the Huntington, and art historians Jacqueline Francis and John P. Bowles. Though Sargent Johnson is not unknown, with works included in many museum collections across the country, he is not as renowned as other African American artists of the modernist period. Painters such as Jacob Lawrence and Romare Bearden, or writers like Langston Hughes and Nora Zeale Hurston are much better represented in the historical canon. So it is a great joy to see an exhibition championing his work and bringing him the attention he deserves.

Installation, Photo credit The Huntington Library, Art Museum, and Botanical Gardens


Johnson was born in 1888 to mixed-race parents. His mother was Cherokee and African American, his father Caucasian of Swedish decent. Though some of his siblings chose to pass as white, Johnson identified as Black. His mixed-race background would guide his journey as an artist to study and absorb a range of cultural influences. His art was influenced in part by the Mexican masters, especially Diego Rivera. The murals Rivera created in San Francisco, where Johnson spent his adult life, would influence his work and inspire him to spend time in Mexico, learning the craft of ceramics from Zapotec artists in Oaxaca.  

Entering the first room of the Boone Gallery, one is struck by the formal power of the two polychrome sculptures first encountered. The simplification of form and the folk-art-like style work together to convey a classical grandeur, dignity and grace. When I first moved to San Francisco, I remember seeing these works for the first time at SFMOMA. The fineness of his craft, the use of form to express human character, strength and will, moved me and made me curious to know more. In “Forever Free” (1933), a woman looks up, holding her two children close; she gazes toward a future that in the making. The work touches the viewer with the care and attention focused on what all people hope to see: a better world.

Mask, 1935, Photo credit The Huntington Library, Art Museum, and Botanical Gardens


A work of art crafted to such a fine degree reflects the intent for it to endure into the future. Beauty is a form of power and grace that can communicate ideas. Johnson used this power to shape a vision of the future he hoped to see.  

One can sense a nod to Diego Rivera in the sculptures, and in the drawing “Mother and Child” (1932), behind them. The sculptures were made by creating a wooden structure, wrapping layers of fine linen around the form, then applying plaster to be sculpted. The process allowed Johnson to achieve a smooth, highly refined surface that accentuates the viewer’s sensual response to the shapes and the delicate lines incised into the plaster to delineate figures of children, or hands.

In highly finished works like these, the interaction of the surface with the bold form fills space with an essential power, a kind of magical aura. Johnson was using the language of early modernist abstraction, with reductive forms conveying a universality and timelessness. Johnson’s reductive approach imbues his sculptures with a love for both the craft of creation and the human race. He was a humanist who created art meant to uplift and inspire. In his words, Johnson wanted to “show the natural beauty and dignity in that characteristic lip and that characteristic hair, bearing and manner” of African Americans.

In the main gallery five wooden bas-reliefs made for the California School for the Blind in Berkeley fill the room with an air of innocence and wonder. The play of flora and fauna, the arabesques, symmetry and asymmetry, enchant with an effect of childlike wonder. The reliefs bespeak a deep understanding of the rhythmic power of pattern and form. Indeed when I first saw the one now owned by the Huntington, the emotion it evoked reminded me of the lightness and joy one experiences in Matisse’s late paper cutouts.

This is the first time in 45 years that these five works have been displayed together. The curator and exhibition designer made the wise choice to give ample space for each one to inhabit and fully exude its aura. The room with the bas-reliefs is open, with only a bench for viewing and one other work displayed. It allows these mounted wall pieces to interact with each other and fill the room with their visual music. As they were made to adorn the upper part of high walls in a large space, the carving is less refined than in Johnson’s other work. There is a handmade quality to these pieces, a rustic air. The metal leaf that first gilded them has lost some of it luster, and several of them, unlike the one Huntington owns, have not been restored.

The large work in the Huntington collection, “Organ Screen” (1933–34), is a monumental 22-foot-wide, fan-like triptych of carved and gilded redwood. Plants, animals and two children are conveyed in a simplified style. Its charm and playfulness prance across the arc of the form. The rubbed metal leaf shimmers, animating the elements at play. With a dynamic energy as it spreads across the wall, it has that rare quality of expressing lightness and joy together with a timeless classical power. In some ways, it reminds me of the rhythmic designs and images seen in Minoan art. Indeed much of Johnson’s work draws from the art forms of ancient cultures: pre-Columbian influences can be detected in some of his sculptures, and Greek and Sumerian bas-reliefs in the work he created for Washington High School in San Francisco.


Sometimes, serendipity plays a role in the journey of an artist’s legacy. This exhibition contains many examples of how one person’s mindfulness can protect and preserve an important work, or how a forgotten and misplaced artwork, through good fortune, can be rediscovered and find a home in a major museum. The piece owned by the Huntington has been fully restored to its shimmering beauty. It had a long and capricious journey to find its way into the collection.

Organ Screen, 1933-34, Photo credit The Huntington Library, Art Museum, and Botanical Gardens


Commissioned in 1933 by the federal Public Works of Art Project during the New Deal, “Organ Screen” was part of the students’ daily lives until the building was renovated in 1980. UC Berkeley had taken over the property when the School moved to a new facility and decided to convert the space to faculty housing. Luckily, the work was saved, after being crated and stored in a warehouse for 30 years. At some point the warehouse was full and its contents had to be cleared out. Lacking the resources for the arduous task of looking through each crate to assess its contents and value, the university decided on a per-pound price and scheduled a sale. The person who bought the crate with Sargent Johnson’s masterwork could only peer into the crate without opening it for a full view. He thought it looked valuable, possibly a piece from the art deco era. He purchased it for a modest sum and when he pulled it out he could see that, though damaged, it had serious value. He sent it to an expert restorer, who recognized it as an important work, probably by an African American artist of the Harlem Renaissance era. The restorer knew of a gallery in New York that specialized in African American modern art. He sent them a photograph, and they immediately recognized it as a major work by Sargent Johnson. The gallery purchased it and contacted the Huntington, knowing that they were looking for work by early modernist African American artists for their collection. Its final purchase price was a far greater sum than the per-pound cost, and as fate would have it, the bas-relief now graces the walls of this beautiful museum.


In a small room, five portrait busts on pedestals are displayed in a single row, done in either wood, terra-cotta or glazed ceramic. Each work is a delicate, finely captured, realistic likeness of a child. The darkened room with spotlights highlighting each bust lends them a theatrical presence. Again, one feels the artist’s desire to speak of the human condition and the nobility of the human soul. They bring to mind the Benin Bronzes of West Africa.

Another wall displays a group of hammered-copper portraits, or stylized masks. Johnson’s multidisciplinary skills are exquisitely expressed here. His overarching desire to represent the beauty and nobility of African American people and their ancestry is evident in every work he creates. There is a power that refined craft brings to a work of art. The patience and time-consuming care it takes to make of a work of art like Johnson’s is a form of love, it speaks to the soul of the maker and to their connection to their community and the world. The presence of the human hand can be felt in his work, each object made with skill that comes only from years of shaping matter into form. Touch becomes as important as seeing. One feels that Johnson arrives at a point of resolve and completion in his work as much from how it feels in his knowing hands as from how it looks. His fingers have become extensions of thought and emotion conveyed from his soul into the very matter with which he creates his works.

One more story of fate, grace and the way one person’s care can be a gift to the future. In 1940–42, Johnson was commissioned to create a frieze for George Washington High School in San Francisco. During these years, he rented an apartment and studio in San Francisco from fellow artists John and Margery Magnani. In a later visit, staying in the bedroom of their son, Johnson left the original drawing for the project rolled up in a cardboard tube under the son’s bed. When the Huntington was organizing the exhibition project, they learned that the drawing was still in the family. It was in pristine condition, and a section of it is now being exhibited for the first time. It is a beautiful drawing of a procession of athletes, monumental figures moving with the cadence of ancient Greek friezes.

This exhibition is filled with more works in many different mediums. In his later years Johnson created luminous baked-enamel works of art, continuing to explore and expand his creative potential until his death in 1967, in San Francisco.

Johnson fought against racism using the poetry of art.  The exhibition lifts one’s spirit, the artist’s soul animating matter with a profound nobility and grace. One can feel Johnson’s desire to create art that will uplift and empower the lives of African Americans. His iconic images express the monumental power of a love supreme. WM


Gary Brewer

Gary Brewer is a painter, writer and curator working in Los Angeles. His articles have appeared in Hyperallergic, Art and Cake, and ART NOWLA.

Email: garywinstonbrewer@gmail.com 


Website: http://www.garybrewerart.com

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