Sargent Johnson, Organ Screen, 1933-34. Gilded and painted redwood, 105 x 264 x 2 in. (266.7 x 670.6 x 5.1 cm). Huntington Library, Art Museum, and Botanical Gardens, Purchased with funds from the Art Collectors' Council, the Connie Perkins Endowment, and the Virginia Steele Scott Acquisitions Fund for American Art in honor of George Abdo and Roy Ritchie, 2011.5.

Sargent Claude Johnson and Black American Modernism

Dennis Carr, Jacqueline Francis, and John P. Bowles

As a mixed-raced American artist attempting to find new ways to represent the Black figure in art, Sargent Claude Johnson developed a rich iconography, catalyzed by his engagement with diverse cultures, artists, and people—both historical and contemporary—from whom he learned styles and techniques and whom he featured in his perennially human-centered work. He studied the art and history of ancient civilizations from Africa to Asia, made trips to Japan in the 1950s and Mexico in the 1940s. In Mexico, he conversed with leaders of the muralist movement and learned from Indigenous artists. Through these connections and a decades-long artistic practice, Johnson actively attempted to shape modernism into a diverse and inclusive space, creating art that upended stereotypes and forged new links across time and place.

Johnson’s early and award-winning work is distinguished by portraiture of people he knew from life and worked with. For instance, Sammy (ca. 1928) is a portrait of Edwin, the son of Walter Gordon, a prominent lawyer and head of the Berkeley chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). Pearl (circa 1923-1928) depicts the artist’s infant daughter. Dorothy C.  (1938) is likely a portrait of a San Francisco arts administrator.

Sargent Johnson, Chester, 1930. Painted terracotta, 11 1/2 x 4 1/2 x 4 /3/4 in. (29.2 x 11.4 x 12 cm). Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Gift of Mrs. William J. Robertson in memory of her father Adolph Loewi, AC1997.71.1.

In the award-winning work titled Chester (1930), Johnson used terracotta to create a sculpture of a Black boy, rendered beautifully, which emerges from a simple block of stained wood. The result demonstrates his commitment to the modernist practice of direct carving, an artistic ethos characterized by attention to the sculptural medium and the creation of simple, stylized, and expressive forms. Rejecting the narrative emphasis in academic sculpture, Johnson sculpted only the head and one hand of a boy, as if they were fragments. This sculpture draws attention to its forms and material qualities, and its meaning is ambiguous and contingent, depending not on the artist’s intentions but on the viewer’s experience of the work.

Not surprisingly, commentators offered multiple perspectives on Chester, with most emphasizing its qualities as an outstanding example of either Black or modernist sculpture. Upon seeing Chester in 1931, Alain Locke, an intellectual, a cultural critic, and the most vocal advocate for Black artists in America to study African sculpture for inspiration, asserted that Johnson’s allusions to African art were “direct,” but that Johnson’s “stylistic analogies” drew no essential connection between the artist and the “bygone African cultures” to which his work appeared to Locke to refer. Instead, Locke explained, Johnson’s study of African art is integral to a process of learning that the “New Negro” must undertake to see oneself honestly in relationship to Black history in America. In this way, Chester epitomizes the New Negro self-conception as the result of a process of conscious self-reflection and experimentation. In Locke’s analysis, Johnson’s Chester represents an imagined identification with Africa that marks the distance imposed by the history of slavery, the violent rupture of the Middle Passage, and geography.

Black women were among Johnson’s favorite subjects in the pre–World War II decades. In the 1930s, he represented them realistically and abstractly. As a polychromatic sculpture, the kneeling subject of Negro Woman (ca. 1935) relates to the female principal in Forever Free. These solid-looking figures are advancements in Johnson’s experimentation with coloring sculpture and his efforts to situate women as heroic subjects of popular visual culture. If narratives of Black motherhood are titularly carried forth in Johnson’s Untitled (Negro Mother) (ca. 1935) and Mask (Negro Mother) (1935), they sit alongside transcultural and transhistorical uses of face coverings in transformative activity, from celebration and performance to disguise and ritual ceremony.

Dennis Carr is Virginia Steele Scott Chief Curator of American Art at The Huntington Library, Art Museum, and Botanical Gardens.

Jacqueline Francis is the dean of the Humanities and Sciences division at California College of the Arts.

John P. Bowles is professor of African American Art at The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

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