Sargent Johnson (1888-1967) Works in the Melvin Holmes Collection of African American Art
Sargent Johnson (1888-1967) Works in the Melvin Holmes Collection of African American Art
Tyler Fine Art
407 Jackson Ave.
University City, MO
elvin Holmes was born in New Iberia, Louisiana on July 16, 1944. His father was a Bishop in the Pentecostal Church of God in Christ. When Melvin was two years old, his father had a vision and moved the congregation and his family to Monrovia, California, where, because of their impoverished state, they started out living in a tent city. Melvin was a voracious reader, like his mother, and also a high school athlete. He received a track scholarship to San Jose State College, and ran on the same team as Tommie Smith and John Carlos (well known for their blackgloved, black power salute at the Olympic games in Mexico City, 1968). Melvin moved to San Francisco from San Jose in 1967. In 1977, he was working as a civil servant, and frequently took his lunch outdoors at the Civic Center plaza in San Francisco. One day he was passing by the San Francisco Art Commission Gallery (“Capricorn Asunder”) at 165 Grove Street and saw an exhibit of Sargent Johnson’s work, along with a reading by beat poet, Lawrence Ferlinghetti. (September 2125, 1977; San Francisco Arts Festival). Johnson’s work impacted him and when he happened across the artist’s work again at a gallery in 1990, he was moved to buy a sculpture on installment payments. That work, titled, The Cat, is still in the collection today. He continued to acquire works by Sargent Johnson, and the collection eventually included 32 examples, in a variety of mediums. At the time of his passing, Melvin had amassed more than 300 artworks by various artists, ranging in date from the mid-19th century to contemporary. Long before Melvin Holmes collected art, he collected Black memorabilia; he had an “addiction”, as he described it in an interview, for collecting objects which spoke to him in some way. When you listened to Melvin speak about his collecting methodology, he was truly passionate, but equally, he insinuated a responsibility toward the artist
for acknowledging and preserving a proper representation of a body of work. That is also seen in Melvin’s interest in collecting— when possible—“in depth”, as he put it. As a collector of an artist’s work, he attempted to procure a good representation, and if circumstances allowed for it (availability, cost, time, etc.), he tried to find additional examples of any variation of style or subject the artist might have produced over his or her lifetime. Melvin bought his second work by Sargent Johnson three years after he acquired The Cat. His love for the sculpture encouraged him to seek additional works by the artist, and he simultaneously ran ads in newspapers looking for works by Johnson. One response he received came from another artist named Phyllis “Pele” De Lappe, who was living in Petaluma, California. De Lappe (1916-2007) was primarily a labor cartoonist and social activist. She had known many famous artists in her lifetime, including Diego Rivera, Frida Kahlo, and Sargent Johnson. Melvin became friends with De Lappe, and bought Johnson’s sculpture, Mother and Child from her. De Lappe also aided Melvin in locating another sculpture that had originally been exhibited in 1971, and was now with a family in Chicago. That is how he was able to acquire the bronze, Girl with Braids. Eventually, Melvin expanded his interest to include the many mediums in which Johnson worked— oil painting, enamel, terracotta, bronze, gouache, lithography, and stone. After acquiring The Cat, Melvin located a rare copy of the exhibition catalog of the Sargent Johnson retrospective that was held at the Oakland Museum in 1971. His plan was to attempt to locate donors to the exhibit and see if they were interested in selling their work. That is how he met De Lappe, and eventually, the Polakoff family in Chicago. The San Francisco Museum held another retrospective of Johnson’s work in 1998, Sargent Johnson, African American
SARGENT CLAUDE JOHNSON (1888-1967) Photo by Consuelo Kangaa, courtesy Brooklyn Museum, 1934.
had first met Sargent Johnson during the so-called depression of the 1930s, around the time of the early part of the Art Project days; but, in Sargentâ€™s case, there was no depression, only wonderful opportunities to do his best work, opportunities to allow the spirit to be free to soar wherever it might, but with the restraint and compassion for his craft and subject matter that he felt these things needed most. Evangeline Montgomery Sargent Johnson Retrospective The Oakland Museum, 1971, p. 30
argent Claude Johnson was born in Boston, Massachusetts on November 7, 1888, one of six children. His mother, Lizzie Jackson, was African American and Cherokee Indian and his father, Anderson Johnson, was SwedishAmerican. Both his parents had died by the time he was 14, and he was sent to live with his maternal uncle, William Tecumseh Sherman Jackson, and his wife, sculptor May Howard Jackson, in Washington, D.C.
Sargent’s mother and her brother, William, were born into a family of farmers around 1860, living in southeastern Virginia. By 1880, they had migrated north to Alexandria and had accumulated land and property. It was likely in Alexandria where Eliza met Anderson, Sargent’s father. William, Sargent’s uncle, had studied at the Virginia Normal and Collegiate Institute (now Virginia State University) and went on to attain both a bachelor’s and master’s degree from Amherst College, located in central Massachusetts, by 1897. Sargent’s father died of an unknown cause in 1897, and his mother died of tuberculosis in 1902. May Howard Jackson had been awarded a scholarship through the Philadelphia public
schools to attend the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Art (she attended in two stints, 1895-1898, and 1900-1902). She had just moved to Washington, D.C. in March of 1902, and married William, who was now the principal of the M Street High School when the Johnson kids arrived. May maintained a studio in the home, which was surely an early influence on Sargent, despite his brief stay there. The Johnson children were next sent to their maternal grandparent’s (Lindsey and Jane Jackson) house in Alexandria, Virginia, but were almost immediately separated and sent to orphanages. It is reasonable to believe that neither the Jacksons, who were newlyweds, nor the children’s grandparents were prepared to care for six children. Sargent, and his two brothers, Lindsey and Walter, went to the Sisters of Mercy of Providence (specifically to their Boy’s Home in Holyoke, Massachusetts). The idea has been presented that this location was chosen for its proximity to Amherst, of which William was familiar. 3 The girls were sent to Pennsylvania to a Catholic school for Indian and colored girls.
1 King-Hammond, Leslie, and Tritobia Hayes Benjamin. “May Howard Jackson.” Three Generations of African American Women Sculptors: A Study in Paradox, The AfroAmerican Historical and Cultural Museum, Washington D.C., 1996, p. 22. 2 ibid. “Portrait Bust, Bronze.” 3 DuBois Shaw, Gwendolyn. “Creating a New Negro Art in America.” Transition, no. 108 (2012): 75-87. doi:10.2979/transition.108.75. 4 ibid. “William Tecumseh Sherman Jackson and the Amherst College Track Team, 1892.” Courtesy of Amherst College Archives and Special Collections.
Sargent attended a public school, studying music and mechanical drawing. He also attended the School of Fine Arts in Boston, where he studied music. Sargent lived for some time with relatives in Chicago, but they were “not favorably impressed with his decision to be an artist.” 5 Johnson said later in life: “I come from a family of people who thought all artists are drunkards and nothing else.” 6 In his late twenties, Sargent left for the West Coast, arriving in the San Francisco Bay Area in 1915, about the time of the Panama-Pacific International Exposition. He met and married Pearl Lawson the year he arrived. Pearl, whose ancestry was English and Black French Creole, was originally from Georgia, and when she met Sargent, she was employed as a maid in San Francisco. Johnson, soon after arriving, found employment working as a framer, first for Schussler Bros., and later for Valdespino Framers. Johnson continued his studies at the A.W. Best School of Art and the California School of Fine Arts (now the San Francisco Art Institute). There he worked with sculptors Ralph Stackpole and Beniamino Bufano, and began to earn a local reputation by exhibiting through the California School of Fine Arts and the San Francisco Art Association. He won a gold medal for Pearl at the FortyEighth Annual Exhibition at the SFAA in 1925. Sargent Johnson’s first and only child, Pearl Adele, was born in 1923.
Johnson first exhibited with the Harmon Foundation in 1926 and continued through 1939. The Harmon Foundation increased the visibility of regional artists on a national stage by creating traveling exhibitions of work by African American artists. Johnson won the Foundation’s Otto H. Kahn prize ($250) in 1927 for his sculpture, Sammy.
Although he produced some of his most important work in the 1930s, the artist struggled financially. His job as a framer ended in the first few years of the decade and he was unsuccessful in landing a job with the WPA. He worked as an assistant to his old teacher, Bufano, who was working for the Federal Arts Project for a number of years, and continued to produce independently as well. Johnson was awarded a medal for Chester from the San Francisco Art Association in 1931. He was awarded a medal by the NAACP in 1935, and that same year, in the Harmon Foundation’s catalog, Negro Artists: An Illustrated Review of Their Achievements, he was described as, “one of the outstanding Negro sculptors in the country..” His work was
5 Johnson, Sargent, and Evangeline J. Montgomery. Sargent Johnson, Retrospective: the Oakland Museum, Art Division Special Gallery, February 23 to March 21, 1971. The Oakland Museum, 1971. 10. 6 McChesney, Mary. “Oral History Interview with Sargent Johnson 1964 July 31.” www.aaa. si.edu/collections/interviews/oral-history-interview-sargent-johnson-11474#transcript. Accessed 8 July 2019. Mary McChesney (b.1922) is a sculptor, art historian, and author in San Francisco. 7 Reynolds, Gary A., et al. “Sargent Johnson, Sammy, Ca. 1927, Ceramic Sculpture.” Against the Odds: African-American Artists in the Harmon Foundation, The Newark Museum, Washington D.C., 1989, p. 110.
presented in a show with the sculptures of Richmond Barthe and paintings by Malvin Gray Johnson sponsored by the Harmon Foundation at Delphic Studios in New York (1935). Sargent and Pearl experienced marital problems in the mid-1930s and were separated in 1936. His daughter, Pearl Adele, remained with her mother, and Sargent begun to spend most of his time in San Francisco’s North Beach. This area of San Francisco was home to a diverse crosssection of the population—a center of artistic activity—and eventually became associated with the beatnik sub-culture. Johnson once said, “I think North Beach, California is the most interesting place in America.” 8 In the late 1930s and early 1940s, Johnson secured four important public commissions. The first, in 1937, was for the Federal Arts Project, at the California School for the Blind. He carved two large redwood organ screens. Two years later, he was named supervisor to the Aquatic Park project in San Francisco (now the San Francisco Maritime Museum).
This was his first project for the FAP in which he wielded complete creative authority. He created colorful mosaics and carvings in slate of abstracted scenes. Johnson created a series of large cast stone sculptures for the Golden Gate International Exposition, held in 1939 on Treasure Island in San Francisco Bay. These included two eight foot high sculptures of Incas seated on Llamas for the Court of Pacifica. It was here he met John Fredericks, who was also working on the project’s Elephant Tower. The two later traveled to Mexico together and remained
8 Johnson, Sargent, and Evangeline J. Montgomery. Sargent Johnson, Retrospective: the Oakland Museum, Art Division Special Gallery, February 23 to March 21, 1971. The Oakland Museum, 1971. 9. 9 ibid, “Figures by Sargent Johnson in the Court of Pacifica, Golden Gate International Exposition, 1939, cast stone.” 19. 10 ibid, “Redwood panel for California School for the Blind, 1937, work in progress.” 19. 11 ibid, “Plaster cast for Aquatic Park, 1939, exhibited at 1939 Golden Gate International Fair.” 20 12 ibid, “Neptune’s Daughter, 1939, painted plaster cast, designed for Aquatic Park.” 20.
friends. (Sargent painted Breakfast in Fredericks’ mother’s kitchen in 1945.). In 1940, he became involved in controversy with his friend and former teacher, Bufano, over designing a frieze for George Washington High School. Eventually, Sargent won the commission and executed the work in 1942. It was made of carved stone and depicted athletes of various sports, covering the entire length of the retaining wall at the end of the field.
Johnson initially had trouble getting hired by the W.P.A. until his friend, artist Hilaire Hiler, helped him, but then had great success with the program, and in a later interview praised the program, claiming it was highly effective—especially for Black artists. 14 During World War II, Johnson’s work with the W.P.A. ended and he instead worked for the war industry. His friend, John Fredericks had taken a chief draftsman position aiding electrical engineers at the Kaiser Shipyard in Richmond (CA), and Sargent needed a job, so Fredericks hired him for his staff. 15 Beginning in 1945 and continuing for the next two decades, Johnson made trips to
Mexico. He had seen the work of Diego Rivera in 1930, when Rivera came to San Francisco to paint the fresco at the Pacific Stock Exchange, but that was the extent of his direct exposure to the Mexican muralist works until 15 years later. In Mexico, Johnson visited archaeological sites, museums, and the village of San Bartolo Coyotepec, where the locals specialized in ceramics and sculpture made from the black clay found in the area. John Fredericks traveled with Johnson on his first trip to Mexico and in a later interview described the experience with the Zapotecs: “Clay pieces were placed inside the ovens and surrounded by a teepee of kindling sticks. When the sticks finished burning, and piles of ashes were left, the clay piece was removed from the oven. By taking an agate and rubbing it on the pot before it is fired, it formed its own glaze that designs could be scratched into. After removing the ash from the pot, the result was a beautiful black burnished glaze.” 16
In the late 1940s, Johnson was introduced to the practice of using porcelain enamels
13 “A Section of the Athletic Field Frieze, 1942, Cast Stone.” Sargent Johnson Retrospective, The Oakland Museum, 1971, p. 23. 14 Oral history interview with Sargent Johnson, 1964 July 31. Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution. 15 Hoffman, Joyce M. “Oral History Interview with John Fredericks.” 1994. Unpublished transcript in the collection of Melvin Holmes’ personal papers, gift of Ms. Hoffman. 16 ibid 17 Diaz, Topiltzin. Oaxacan Pottery.
over steel in the sign-making industry. He adopted this technique to create about 100 plates and panels of various subjects over the next 20 years. In 1949, he assisted the Paine-Mahoney Company in creating two enamel murals for Harolds Club in Reno, Nevada, and The Western Club in Las Vegas, Nevada.
The previous year, Johnson produced a large mahogany panel for the Matson Navigation Company ship, the SS Lurline , depicting Hawaiian leaders and warriors, and he was commissioned by Matson to do a second project on a ship, the SS Monterey in 1956, and that involved two large painted tile walls. Johnson had completed two other commissions in 1948-49: the first was an enamel and iron mural for the Richmond City Hall, based on a map theme of the city; the second was for the Nathan Dohrman Company Store, which sold glass and crockery, located on Union Square, in San Francisco. 19 He continued to work in various mediums throughout the 1950s and 1960s, but one
of his goals was to bring color back to sculpture. “Sculpture was never meant to be colorless. There is no reason why it should be. Most ancient sculpture, with the exception of the late Greek, was polychrome.”20 In addition to its historical precedent, he believed color was a way to elevate the racial character of his work: “In all artistic circles I hear too much talking and too much theorizing. All their theories do not help me any…I am concerned with color, not solely as a technical problem, but also as a means of heightening the racial character of my work. The Negroes are a colorful race; they call for an art as colorful as they can be made.” 21 In 1958, with the aid of a benefactor, Sargent traveled to Japan to study Shintoism and Japanese art. He had been working at Maxwell Galleries part-time as a framer, and sold his art there. Around this time he had befriended Paul and Irma Desch, who acquired several of his works, including, Christus Rex, Salamander, Jesus Raising Lazarus from the Dead, Seduction, and an untitled abstract enamel—all of which were eventually acquired by Melvin Holmes. In an interview with Irma Desch, she stated that Johnson was religious. 22 In 1964, his wife, Pearl, died in the Stockton State Hospital, California’s first psychiatric hospital. Sargent moved into a room at the Sequoia Hotel, 520 Jones St., in San Francisco. Sargent Claude Johnson passed away on October 10, 1967 in San Francisco after suffering a heart attack. s
18 Sargent Johnson. “The Bull.” Enamel on steel. Sargent Johnson African American Modernist. San Francisco, CA: Museum of Modern Art, 1998. 19 Oral history interview with Sargent Johnson, 1964 July 31. Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution. 20 Edises, Pele. “Meet Sargent Johnson Artist in Touch with the People.” Daily People’s World, 2 Feb. 1950. 21 “San Francisco Artists.” San Francisco Chronicle, 6 Oct. 1935, p. D3. 22 Hand-written transcript of an interview with Irma Desch and Lizetta LeFalle-Collins, personal papers, Melvin Holmes. Photocopies of original photographs of the Desch residence, picturing some of the works were also included
izzetta LeFalle-Collins, a noted scholar regarding the work of Sargent Johnson, astutely makes the point in her essay which accompanied the exhibition, Sargent Johnson African American Modernist (San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, 1998) that Johnson’s career may be divided roughly into three periods: the early works, which reveal Johnson’s classical training and emphasize realism (pre-1930); the middle period (1930-1939) which are “consumed with a desire to portray only the ‘pure American Negro’”; and the final period (1940-1967) mostly abandoning both realism and the stylized view of African Americans for a greater concern with Abstract Expressionism and multiculturalism. 1 With the exception of Rural Landscape with Plow Horses (c. 1921), the works by Sargent Johnson in the Melvin Holmes collection come from the middle period and (predominantly) the later period. Johnson’s early paintings are consistent in style with the early 20th-century California School of painting. Rural Landscape with Plow Horses is the earliest work included in the Melvin Holmes collection and is similar in style to the untitled landscape illustrated in Sargent Johnson African American Modernist, (p. 10, fig. 2). Rural Landscape with Plow Horses was painted while Johnson was still a student at the California School of Fine Arts (now the San Francisco Art Institute) in the very early 1920s. He was a skilled painter, and similarly to his sculpture of the 1920s, this painting reveals his training and talent, but does little to define his identity as an artist.
Enter the New Negro in 1925 and the Harlem Renaissance, a large part of African American art was an exhibition of skill, attempting to prove to the white public that Black artists were appropriately educated and equally talented. Much of the sculpture was Neoclassical, in style, if not in subject. This was problematic, and perpetuated the myth that black people had no artistic history, because the connection to European art was indeed fabricated (Locke acknowledges European modernists were influenced by African art, but believed the African American artist should look to the history of African art directly—not through a European lens—for inspiration). Locke encouraged the African American artist to embrace his or her own genuine art history of African art, and alluded to a separate, Negro School of Art, being formed, celebrating the differences of the race rather than trying to “fit in” to the existing white circles. Johnson echoed Locke (as he often did in the 1930s) by saying: “Too many Negro artists go to Europe and come back imitators of Cezanne, Matisse, or Picasso; and this attitude is not only a weakness of the artists, but of their racial public.” 2
Prior to the publication of Alain Locke’s 1 LeFalle-Collins, Lizzetta. “Sargent Claude Johnson and Modernism: An Investigation of Context, Representation, and Identity.” Essay. In Sargent Johnson African American Modernist, 9. San Francisco: San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, 1998. 2 “San Francisco Artists.” San Francisco Chronicle, 6 Oct. 1935, p. D3. 3 Johnson, Sargent. “Divine Love.” Lithograph. Sargent Johnson African American Modernist. San Francisco, CA: Museum of Modern Art, 1998.
Melvin originally owned the etching Divine Love, 1935, but the work was deaccessioned prior to the writing of this book. In this image, the artist presents a stylized image that is not academic, but racially apparent. Johnson’s quote from that year has been reproduced often when discussing his art, but as LeFalle-Collins accurately points out—that philosophy is much more relevant to a single stylistic period of his art—the middle period:
Gwendolyn DuBois Shaw contends that the recurring images of mother and child in Johnson’s work of the 1930s and 1940s was personal: “Johnson repeatedly created works of art focused on black women’s fullyclothed, maternal bodies, with or without children in tow, in an elegant, dignified, and formally modern way. I would argue that these are more than generic stereotypes of nurturing womanhood; these images make visible Johnson’s pain over the loss of his own mother, Eliza Jackson Johnson, at an early age. By returning again and again to the image of the ‘Negro mother’ Johnson struggled to recover the profound maternal absence that had served to shape
am producing strictly a Negro Art, studying not the culturally mixed Negro of the cities, but the more primitive slave type as existed in this country during the period of slave importation. Very few artists have gone into the history of the Negro in America, cutting back to the sources and origins of the life of the race in this country. It is the pure American Negro I am concerned with, aiming to show the natural beauty and dignity in that characteristic lip and that characteristic hair, bearing and manner; and I wish to show that beauty not so much to the white man as to the Negro himself. 4
Divine Love relates closely to several works in different mediums executed the same year: Mother and Child, Negro Woman, and of course, Forever Free, the artist’s best-known work.
4 “San Francisco Artists.” San Francisco Chronicle, 6 Oct. 1935, p. D3. 5 Sargent Johnson. “Mother and Child.” Chalk on paper. Against the Odds: African American Artists and the Harmon Foundation. The Newark Museum, 1989. San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. 6 ibid. “Negro Woman.” Wood with lacquer on cloth. 7 Sargent Johnson. “Forever Free.” Wood with lacquer on cloth. Sargent Johnson African American Modernist. San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, 1998. San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.
his childhood and the trajectory of his entire life.” 8 Johnson participated in exhibits sponsored by the Harmon Foundation regularly from 1926-1939. While the Harmon Foundation created opportunities and was generally seen as a tremendous contributor to the advancement of African American art, it was not without controversy, and some of the points of contention may relate to the nature of work Johnson had done during the years he exhibited there. The Foundation was very successful in connecting Black artists with one another in all areas of the country, and by 1935, more than 400 artists were in regular contact with the organization. The Harmon exhibition platform claimed to accept all kinds of art—traditional, naive, abstract, academic, and experimental, and although disclaiming any point of view, the catalogs urged black artists “to create a genuine interpretation of racial background” and published Locke’s essay on “ancestral arts” in the catalog.9 African-American artists clamored to be included in the Harmon shows and juried competitions which promised widespread exposure for their work. They understood implicitly that the five-member (four whites and one black) Harmon jury, which included Locke, would favor works of art that espoused the Osgood style of black form and content. As a result of the foundation’s preferences, many artists who
would otherwise have painted landscapes, religious motifs, marine pictures, and floral still life chose instead to create portraits and genre scenes of blacks or, at the very least, to include some visual reference to Africa in their compositions. Those who were drawn to Modernist abstraction were careful to present their avant-garde techniques in a naif manner, so as to not seem overly sophisticated. 10 Other criticisms came from James Porter, claiming the selections for prizes showed “too liberal taste in subject matter and too little concern for execution” (although Porter was impressed with aspects of the exhibits and believed “intelligent work dominated the shows.” 11 Romare Bearden complained against the “outmoded academic practices of the past, which most black artists were following in seeking acceptance as artists.” He also accused the foundation of being “coddling and patronizing”. 12 Gwendolyn Shaw is convinced, one way or another, Sargent got his hands on a copy of Locke’s The New Negro prior to his involvement with the Harmon Foundation exhibits. She suggests that Johnson would have had virtually no other opportunity for exposure to West African art other than the six reproductions from the Barnes collection found in the book. It is impossible to say for sure, but there is absolutely no doubt
8 Dubois Shaw, Gwendolyn. “Creating a New Negro Art in America.” Transition, no. 108 (2012): 75–87. https://doi.org/10.2979/transition.108.75. 9 Bearden, Romare, and Harry Henderson. “The Twenties and the Black Renaissance.” Essay. In A History of African-American Artists from 1792 to the Present, 124. New York: Pantheon, 1993. 10 Farrington, Lisa E. “Modernism and the Harlem Renaissance.” Essay. In African-American Art: a Visual and Cultural History, 118–19. New York: Oxford University Press, 2017. Charlotte Osgood Mason (1854-1946), an influential white patron of black art. Osgood preferred primitivism in art produced by African American artists. 11 Porter, James A. “The New Negro Movement.” Essay. In Modern Negro Art, 97. Washington, DC: Howard Univ. Press, 1992. 12 Bearden and Henderson. A History of African-American Artists from 1792 to the Present, 125.
that Johnson’s rhetoric paralleled Locke’s during his “middle period”. She also points out that Professor Locke chose to reproduce Sargent Johnson’s Mother and Child for the frontispiece of his The Negro in Art, A Pictorial Record of the Negro Artist and of the Negro Theme in Art, published in 1940. He included images of three additional works by Johnson (Anderson, Forever Free, and Mask ).
racial feeling”. 14
It is completely reasonable to conclude, as Shaw does, that Johnson’s work of the late 1920s through the late 1930s was influenced by Locke’s agenda. She stops short, however, in pointing out that those years coincide exactly with his participation in Harmon Foundation exhibits—of which, Locke had enormous influence, as part of the jury and with his connections with important patrons. Locke gave the inaugural address at the Clark-Atlanta Annual in 1942 (Sargent Johnson exhibited there in 1944), praising “a healthy and representative art of the people with its root in its own native soil rather than a sophisticated studio art divorced from the racial feeling and interest of the people.” 13
The next three works, chronologically, included in the Holmes collection are Singing Saints (lithograph, 1940), Female Egyptian Head (glazed terra cotta, 1940), and Seated Woman (wood, 1940). These works, both in two and three-dimension, reveal a transition in Johnson’s style. Still clearly rooted in figurative subject matter, the images show a divided concern between the figure itself and the abstraction of the composition. Seated Woman depicts a (presumably African American) female figure, her features less racially defined than a similar subject the artist may have rendered five years previously. Singing Saints also presents two African American figures as its subject, but critical reviews of the work focus more on the “lyrical feeling” of the composition and the artist’s concern with music than a racially-specific approach to the rendering of the figures. 15
Ann Gibson, in her essay, Two Worlds: African American Abstraction in New York at MidCentury, points out that James Porter, in Modern Negro Art (1943) criticizes Locke (and this break was echoed by Woodruff, Lewis, and Bearden): “It is evident that all the propagandistic criticism of the New Negro Movement failed to formulate an aesthetic program for the Negro artist. The admonition to imitate the ‘ancestral arts’ could only foster academicism, and tended, moreover, to confuse the special geometric forms of African sculpture with specific
Similarly to the situation with Hale Woodruff (who traveled with Barnes and Locke buying African art in 1927 and then invited Locke to contribute to his newlyformed Atlanta show in 1942), a separation begun to develop with Locke’s restrictive aesthetic agenda for Johnson by the early to mid-1940s.
Female Egyptian Head relates directly to a very similar work titled, Head of a Negro Girl (c.1935; illus: Sargent Johnson Retrospective , The Oakland Museum, 1971, p.13), but the facial features have been softened and the physical method of creating the features has changed; in Head of a Negro Girl , the artist carved the distinctly African
13 Alain Locke, “Exhibition of Paintings by Negro Artists of America,” as quoted in “Two Worlds: African American Abstraction in New York at Mid-Century.” The Search for Freedom: African American Abstract Painting, 1945-1975, by Ann Eden Gibson, Kenkeleba House, 1991, pp. 11–39. 14 James Porter, Modern Negro Art as quoted in Gibson, The Search for Freedom: African American Abstract Painting, 1945-1975. 15 Johnson, Sargent, and Evangeline J. Montgomery. Sargent Johnson, Retrospective. The Oakland Museum, 1971.
American features (as described in his words previously), and in Female Egyptian Head, c.1940 (p. 27) he chose to draw the hair and eyes. The differences between the two works are not great, but they are enough to reveal the artist’s shift in priorities. James Porter stated that his portraits were “closer to Egyptian portraiture of the Amarna period than to Ivory Coast or Sudanese forms.” This comment would support Gwendolyn Shaw’s suggestion that Johnson’s exposure to African art was limited. 16
A contemporary of Sargent Johnson working in the Bay Area was Thelma Johnson Streat. Ann Gibson, in her essay written for Abstract Expressionism, The International Context (edited by Joan Matter) states, “unlike their white counterparts, however, African American multiculturalists like (Sargent) Johnson, Streat, and the East Coast’s Hale Woodruff were not in retreat from their assumed racial heritage, but engaged in projects of ethnocultural redemption and retrieval.” 18 Works such as The Cat (1947), Teapot and Cups (1941), and The Knot and the Noose (1948) are further examples of Johnson’s
interest in multicultural symbolism as well as a continuation of leaning toward abstraction. In 1945 Johnson received an Abraham Rosenberg Scholarship from the San Francisco Art Association, and traveled to Mexico. He visited the city of Oaxaca and the village of San Bartolo Coyotepec. These “hands-on” experiences enhanced his extant interest in the cultures and crafts of other people. A striking example of a figure Sargent made from the famous black clay of the area is Mother and Child, c. 1945-1949 (p. 59). Johnson spent hours in his hotel room making these figures and brought back with him to the United States only a relatively small number. He embraced the techniques and significance of the decorative arts, although he was to an extent dismissed by James A. Porter for that very reason: “his work leans more to the decorative side, and his talent is more precisely that of a ceramic artist. The greater part of his production has been in glazed terra cotta or porcelain. Ingenuousness is the dominant factor in his portraits and figure studies, a characteristic agreeable with but not inherent in Negro personality.”19 Of course, Porter wrote this in 1943, and Johnson had been a recent advocate of Locke, with whom Porter fundamentally disagreed. It is possible as well that Porter was actually criticizing earlier work of Johnson’s, made in the 1930s, and iconic examples of the New Negro aesthetic. One might do well to keep in mind that 1946 was the year Picasso visited Vallauris for the annual pottery exhibition and became highly impressed by the quality of Madura works, and spent the next 25 years creating ceramic pieces, both sculptural and utilitarian.
16 Porter, Modern Negro Art, p. 95 17 Johnson, Sargent. “Head of a Negro Girl.” Sargent Johnson: Retrospective, The Oakland Museum, 1971, p. 13. 18 Pegg, Thom. Thelma Johnson Streat: Faith in an Ultimate Freedom. Tyler Fine Art, 2014, p. 9. 19 Porter, Modern Negro Art, p. 127
Neither artist felt that it was a lesser form of expression, but simply another. Johnson exhibited at the Eleventh National Ceramic Exhibition, Syracuse Museum of Fine Arts, in 1946 and a year later at the Contemporary American Ceramics: Selected from the Eleventh National Ceramic Exhibition , San Francisco Museum of Art. In 1947, Johnson became interested in enamels and a considerable amount of his artistic production throughout the 1950s and 1960s was created in this medium, although he also executed highly-abstracted figurative bronzes (pp. 51 and 53) and welded iron sculptures after he met Claire Falkenstein, who taught metal sculpture at the California School of Fine Arts from 1947-48. LeFalleCollins suggests that the enamels offered Johnson a “less restricted form in which to work”. She also points to the influence of the philosophy of Carl Jung (which was largely adopted among North Beach artists of the 1960s) on Johnson’s work. This cerebral evolution was not atypical among African American artists in the mid-20th century. LeFalle-Collins states, “These works exhibit an introspection, which may indicate Johnson’s attempt to come to terms with his racial identity , not on focusing how black people look but his own inner self.”20 She continues, “Johnson is drawing from the unconscious and does not adhere to the generational expectations of his viewers for black representation. Instead, his work shows a growing tendency to withdraw from observed objects. Because the ‘inside’ of which Jung writes is situated behind consciousness, it is invisible and cannot be imagined, even though it affects the consciousness. Jung further writes that the aim of this type of abstract expression
is to make the contents of the unconscious accessible and bring them forward to the conscious.” 21 Clement Greenberg wrote about the necessity of letting go of past identities and agendas (self-recognition) in order to experience a true self-discovery. Simply stated, the artist, or anyone for that matter, should recognize the past but not let it control or define them. For the Abstract Expressionist, he saw any preconceived notion—even the existence of a subject—as interference to the process of self-awareness, and ultimately, emancipation. Johnson had, in fact, moved on from the strict agenda of the New Negro Movement and his insistence on “producing strictly a Negro Art” and had turned his gaze inward; he had discovered a less restrictive medium in which to work, and had begun producing non-objective compositions. Evangeline Montgomery called them “geometric designs” when discussing Johnson’s choice of subject matter for his enamels. But she noted his subjects also included, “animals, musician(s), mother and child, multi-racial subjects, children, religious subjects, and the atom bomb…”. Ann Gibson, in her essay for The Search of Freedom: African American Abstract Painting 1945-1975, discusses a similar duality in the work of Hale Woodruff and Beauford Delaney:
oodruff’s alternation between abstraction and more mimetic representation from painting to painting and even within the same work implied a rejection of the existential authenticity of gestural brushwork as a guarantor of sincerity.
20 “Sargent Claude Johnson and Modernism: An Investigation of Context, Representation, and Identity.” Sargent Johnson African American Modernist, by Lizzetta LeFalle-Collins, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, San Francisco, 1998, p. 22. 21 Jung, C. G. The Spirit of Man, Art, and Literature. New York, Pantheon Books, 1966, p.136.
Woodruff said about his own vacillation between the styles:
think abstraction is just another kind of reality. And although you may see a realistic subject like a glass or a table or a chair, you have to transpose or transform that into a picture, and my whole feeling is that to get the spectator involved it has to extend that vision, not having to, say, verify that which he already knows, but extending his vision and his way of seeing, so that…a wider experience opens up to him, and this is the way I work.22
By the 1950s, Delaney had begun to paint totally abstract canvases but continued to paint portraits his entire life. (It is ironic to note that Delaney was condemned by the WPA as being an abstract painter and denied employment when he was living in New York in a freezing apartment with no power23, but in some circles, his willingness to create representational subjects after 1950 would be equally condemned. Delaney said: “The abstraction, ostensibly, is simply for me a penetration of something that is more profound in many ways than the rigidity of form. A form if it breathes some, if it has some enigma to it, [then] it is also the enigma that is abstract, I would think.” 24 Gibson writes, “Willem de Kooning shared the insistence of both Woodruff and Delaney that representation and abstraction are equally valid ways of approaching art” and points to a quote from W.E.B. Du Bois in his Souls of Black Folk:
ouble consciousness, this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity. One ever feels his twoness—an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings.”25
Perhaps an accurate way of looking at the different styles, or progression of Sargent Johnson’s career, would be to understand that the changes illustrate an evolution not a revolution. Johnson was not driven by rejection, but rather he embraced an expanding perspective and succeeded in creating a harmony of these styles. Other than a brief chronological discussion of Johnson’s later work by Evangeline Montgomery for the Oakland Museum’s retrospective catalog, only Lizetta LeFalleCollins explores the psychology that defined the shift of the artist’s styles, and posits Sargent Johnson with the Abstract Expressionists of the San Francisco Bay Area in the late 1940s. The countless surveys of African American art which include a single page entry about Sargent Johnson’s life and work for the most part focus entirely upon his Harmon Foundation-era work of the 1930s, and dismiss nearly all of his work done after 1945. Perhaps it was because Johnson was less vocal about the dynamic of his change than his African American contemporaries in New York, or, in fact, maybe it was because he was on the West coast rather than the East. His geographical (African American) contemporaries, such as Thelma Johnson
22 Fraser, C. Gerald. “Hale Woodruff Looks Back on a Lifetime of Painting.” New York Times, 6 May 1979. 23 Oral history interview with Don Freeman, 1965 June 4. Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution. 24 Interview with Richard Long, 1970 as quoted in Gibson, The Search for Freedom: African American Abstract Painting, 1945-1975, p. 25. 25 Du Bois, W. E. Souls of Black Folk. Greenwich, CT, Fawcett Publications 1903/1961, pp.16-17.
Streat and Harlan Jackson have received equally lacking attention than comparable artists who worked in New York (ironically, Streat was one of the very few black artists represented in a mainstream New York galleryâ€”Raymond & Raymond in 1942). As Evangeline Montgomery points out in her description of Sargent Johnson, the man, and his body of work; he had an amazingly positive attitude in the face of great adversity and he demanded excellence from himself throughout his life. He never compromised on the quality of his artistic output throughout all his stylistic periods, and he never became stagnantâ€”he was ever searching for new mediums and opportunities to create and challenge himself. s
Landscape With Plow Horses, 1921-23 oil on board 17-1/2 x 23 inches signed
Landscape with Plow Horses was done while Johnson was at the California School of Fine Arts, likely between 1921-1923, after he had taken a job at Valdespino Framers. Johnson won first place awards for painting at the CSFA in 1921 and 1922. The frame in which it is currently housed is original, and likely one Johnson himself carved and gold-leafed at the Valdespino Framers. His early painting style, highly impressionistic, broadly painted and colorful, is typical of the California plein-air painters active in the early 1900s. Another example of his early landscape painting may be seen in Sargent Johnson African American Modernist, Lizetta LeFalle-Collins and Judith Wilson, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, 1998; p. 10.
Exhibited and illustrated: Sargent Johnson: Retrospective, Oakland Musem, Art Division Special Gallery, February 23-March 21, 1971, p. 25 In the Spirit of Resistance: African American Modernists and the Mexican Muralist School, The American Federation of Arts, 1996, Cat. No. 55, p. 136. Sargent Johnson African American Modernist, 1998, Cat. No. 24, No. 17. Illustrated: A History of African-American Artists from 1792 to the Present, Romare Bearden and Harry Henderson, p. 224.
Singing Saints, 1940 lithograph 12 x 9-1/2 inches signed and titled
African American Art and Artists, Samella Lewis, University of California Press, 1990; p. 82. “Johnson’s interest in lithographs grew during this period (early 1940s), and he created Singing Saints in 1940. One hundred and fifty copies were made of this print which sold to museums as well as collectors. It has a truly lyrical feeling; the full tone of the voices and guitar are felt through simple sincerity of line. The triangular forms of the bench and floor serve to break and compose the movement developed in the figures as well as to give space and dimension. The theme was used in later years for several of his polychrome enamel steel panels.” 1 1 Evangeline J. Montgomery, Exhibition Curator, Sargent Johnson: Retrospective, Oakland Museum, p.22.
Exhibited: Sargent Johnson African American Modernist, Cat. No. 26, p. 82.
Seated Woman, 1940 carved wood 4 x 2-1/2 x 4 inches
Seated Woman is a rare example of the artist’s work in wood. Johnson had a great deal of experience carving wood from his days of making frames for Valdespino (1921-1931), and his commission for the California School for the Blind (1937). Some of his best-known images were at least partially made of wood, such as Forever Free (1933) and Negro Woman (1935), but his wood sculptures are nonetheless rare. Seated Woman illustrates the transition of Johnson’s figurative work of the 1930s into a slightly more abstract, slightly more minimal approach in the depiction of features seen in his work after 1939. Delilah L. Beasley, a writer for the Oakland Tribune wrote this about his work: “compared to the work of other black artists across the country, Johnson displayed a smooth surface and an economy of line that gave his subject, an everyday black person, a quiet, dignified, but not romanticized, presence.”1 Beasley’s observation came around the mid-point of Johnson’s career (1933), but he continued along that stylistic path until reaching pure abstraction later in his career. 1 Delilah L. Beasley quoted in “News of Happenings in the Field of Negro Art,” Exhibition of Productions by Negro Artists (exhibition catalogue), The Art Center, New York, Feb 20 - March 4, 1933, p. 17.
Female Egyptian Head relates to another sculpture, Head of a Negro Girl, which was included in the 1971 retrospective exhibition at the Oakland Museum. Johnson used a similar overall shape to convey the female head, but changed the facial features to differentiate between the African American image and the Egyptian image. Head of a Negro Girl was likely executed in the mid1930s, when the artist was concerned with a strict study of “New Negro Art”. Johnson stated that year:
Female Egyptian Head, 1940 glazed terra cotta 4 x 2-1/2 x 4 inches signed Provenance: William Abbenseth to George Johnson to Melvin Holmes Exhibited and illustrated: Sargent Johnson American Modernist, Cat No. 25, No. 19.
“I am producing strictly a Negro Art, studying not the culturally mixed Negro of the cities, but the more primitive slave type as existed in this country during the period of slave importation. Very few artists have gone into the history of the Negro in America, cutting back to the sources and origins of the life of the race in this country. It is the pure American Negro I am concerned with, aiming to show the natural beauty and dignity in that characteristic lip and that characteristic hair, bearing and manner; and I wish to show that beauty not so much to the white man as to the Negro himself.” By 1939, the artist’s ideas on race and representation had shifted in two ways: he became interested in the aesthetic of other cultures—Egypt, Greece, and Mexico, and he also began leaning toward more simplified, abstract designs in his art. The facial features of Female Egyptian Head are less defined and more universal. His choice of decoration was more delicate. Although undated, Female Egyptian Head was likely executed in the early 1940s. The differences of these two similar works exemplify the transition from the middle to final stage of Johnson’s work as described by Lizetta Lefalle-Collins in Sargent Johnson African American Modernist.
Judith Wilson discusses Johnson’s modern approach to his sculptural portrait, Elizabeth Gee (1927), “violating high art norms and embracing decorative properties” through his choice of color and materials. Conversely, in these works, he chooses the utilitarian subject (teapot and cups) and approaches them in a completely “non-utilitarian” way, resulting in, ironically, high art. Wilson points to the “promiscuous mixing of modes consistent with canonical modernism…seen in Brancusi’s 1917 Cup” made from solid wood.1 Johnson did not travel to Mexico until 1945, but his teacher and colleague, Ralph Stackpole, had brought Diego Rivera to San Francisco in 1930 to paint the fresco at the Pacific Stock Exchange.2 Teapot, 1941 ceramic 4 x 2-1/2 x 4 inches signed and dated Exhibited and illustrated: Sargent Johnson African American Modernist, Cat. No. 28, No. 20. Sargent Johnson: Retrospective, Oakland Museum, Art Division Special Gallery, February 23-March 21, 1971, p. 24.
Johnson chose abstracted animal symbols from Mexican folk art to function as the handle and lid to the teapot. The combination of Johnson’s shift of priorities and subjects (away from racialized imagery of the New Negro movement) and his newfound interest in ceramics (after the Aquatic Park project of 1939) led him to produce and exhibit decorative arts in the early 1940s, including teapots, cups, and plates, although few examples have survived. 3
1 Sargent Johnson African American Modernist, Lizetta Lefalle-Collins and Judith Wilson, 1998, San Francisco Museum of Art, p. 30. (From Judith Wilson’s essay, Sargent Johnson, Afro-California Modernist. 2 Sargent Johnson African American Modernist, Lizetta Lefalle-Collins and Judith Wilson, 1998, San Francisco Museum of Art, p. 16. (From Lizetta Lefalle-Collin’s essay, Sargent Claude Johnson and Modernism: An Investigation of Context, Representation, and Identity. 3 ibid, p. 20
Exhibited and illustrated: Sargent Johnson African American Modernist, Cat. No. 28, No. 20.
Teacups, 1941 ceramic 2-1/2 x 4-1/4 x 2-1/2 inches signed and dated
Johnson chose images of Latin music as the decoration for the cups. A photograph of the Court of Pacifica, at the Golden Gate International Exposition (1939-40), reveals what might well have been the inspiration for the decoration of the teacups. The image depicts a female Mexican dancer and male guitar player performing in costume next to Johnson’s sculptures Incas on Llamas. The artist would have undoubtedly witnessed this scene while visiting the Expo. The teacups date from the following year. Lizetta LeFalle-Collins points out that the handful of black artists working in California, including Thelma Johnson Streat, Lester Matthews, Harlan Jackson, and Johnson were interested in modernism, and that “this took the form of experimentation and a departure from classical traditions as they delved into art forms from other cultures, especially non-European ones.” 1 1 Lizzetta LeFalle-Collins; Modernism: A West Coast Interpretation. Nka 1 May 2013; 2013 (32): 36–49. doi: https://doi. org/10.1215/10757163-2142251 2 ibid
Dancer and guitar player in the Court of Pacifica, Golden Gate International Exposition on Treasure Island, 1939-40. Courtesy San Francisco History Center, San Francisco Public Library. Photo: Roberts and Roberts 2
Misery, 1941 terra cotta 7 x 5 x 2-3/4 inches
This sculpture, similarly to Seated Woman, dates from the very early 1940s. It is glazed terra cotta, executed prior to Johnsonâ€™s experiments with Oaxacan clay, and reveals a simplification of line and a diminished concern for a racially-specified subject. The work instead conveys the emotion of the subject foremost. The form is powerfully elegant and the dark green glaze warms the terra cotta and increases the moodiness of the subject.
Breakfast, 1945 oil on board 16 x 11-1/2 inches Inscribed verso, I hereby give notice that I witnessed Sargent Johnson painting this panel in my motherâ€™s house in the year 1945. Passed on to Melvin Holmes March 14, 1996. John Fredericks Box 22823 Road 88, Winters, Calif. 95694 Provenance: John Fredericks to Melvin Holmes, 1996.
Exhibited: Sargent Johnson African American Modernist, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, 1998, Cat. No. 35. Johnson, moving increasingly into abstraction, which was the trending aesthetic of the Bay Area by the 1940s, executed a number of these oil and lacquer works. The compositions are orderly and sculptural, and the while the subject matter is abstracted, it is not non-objective. An almost identical example is seen in African-American Art 20th Century Masterworks, VII, Michael Rosenfeld Gallery, NY, 2000, p. 36. That work is titled Cocktails and is oil and lacquer on panel, the same size, and was executed in the same year.
John Fredericks and Sargent Johnson, Winters, CA, 1945.
Exhibited: Sargent Johnson: Retrospective, Oakland Museum, 1971 San Francisco Arts Commission Show, Capricorn Asunder, 1978 United States Department of Interior Show, March 1983 Sargent Johnson African American Modernist, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, 1998, Cat No. 36.
The Cat, 1947 terra cotta with a faux hammered copper finish 5-3/4 x 16 x 4-1/2 inches signed Provenance: The artist to Henri Lenoir, 1955; to Melvin Holmes.
In 1945, Johnson began a series of trips to Mexico. He was very interested in the native crafts as well as the fine arts. He spent days on his first visit to Mexico at the National Museum of Anthropology and traveled to Veracruz and the Pyramid of Tenayuca. This exposed to Johnson both the techniques of ceramic-making there but also the symbols and subjects. The Cat, presumably a jaguar, was a popular symbol in Mexican art. Johnson, like his teacher, Beniamino Bufano, was fond of animal subject matter, executed in a stylized manner. Although choosing to use ceramic as the medium for the work, the artist covered the surface with tiny marks, adding texture, and emulating the strikes of a ball-peen hammer on copper, a popular medium in the Arts & Crafts movement (1900-1915). A very successful craftsman in the Bay Area was Dirk van Erp (18621933), who crafted lamps, vases, and other decorative arts by hand-hammering copper. Johnson used that technique in some of his masks, but also mimicked the aesthetic in ceramic.
The Knot and the Noose, 1948 terra cotta 9 x 17 x 3 inches signed Exhibited and illustrated: Sargent Johnson African American Modernist, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, Cat. No. 39, No. 25. The Knot and the Noose once again illustrates the intersection of Johnsonâ€™s interest in abstraction, symbols of other cultures, and his tendency to gravitate to figurative subjects. Strictly speaking, a noose is a loop at the end of a rope which tightens under load and has come to be seen as a racist symbol because of its connection to lynchings. A knot is an intentional manipulation to secure a rope to another object, but only where the end is in a position that the loop can be passed over. The knot could be seen as a symbol of strength in unity.
There are multiple visual references occurring simultaneously in this work; one end looks like the knob of a knot and the opposite end looks like a noose. The entire shape is reminiscent of an ancient Egyptian boat (similar to what was used on the Nile River) and the head adornment is similar to what was worn by the Pharaohs. Vessels like this were also used by west African slave traders to transport captives to be sold to Europeans. 1 Egyptian pharaoh 2 West African Native Canoe With Captives to Be Sold as Slaves. Hand Colored Woodcut of a 19th Century Illustration by Kemble. n.d. Photograph.
Dance Hall II (Study for the San Francisco Housing Authority Mural), c. 1950 mixed media on paper 11 x 8 inches signed Exhibited and illustrated: Sargent Johnson African American Modernist, Cat. 42, No. 24
Dance Hall I (Study for the San Francisco Housing Authority Mural, c. 1950 mixed media on paper 11 x 8 inches signed Exhibited and illustrated: Sargent Johnson African American Modernist, Cat. 41, No. 23
Johnson returned to San Francisco from Mexico in 1945 and was offered a teaching job in Junior City, a Housing Project at Hunter’s Point, San Francisco (sponsored by the San Francisco Housing Authority). He taught sculpture, drawing, and woodwork to children every day and ceramic classes to adults two nights a week. “Mr Johnson has the welfare of his students so dearly at heart that the hours he spends on preparing clay for them, planning their pleasure, are completely out of keeping with the monetary returns he receives.” 1 1 Yvonne Greer Thiel, Artists and People, Philosophical Library, Inc. New York 1959, Sargent Johnson, 109-115.
Exhibited: Sargent Johnson: Retrospective, Oakland Museum, 1971
Seduction, c. 1950 enamel on steel 11-1/2 x 13-1/2 inches signed Provenance: The artist to Paul and Irma Desch; thence to Melvin Holmes
In Seduction, Johnson revisits an animal motif, which was prevalent as a subject throughout his entire career, in his newly discovered “favorite” medium of enamel over steel. Perhaps the most significant quality of this work is that it appears it was created for the artist’s personal enjoyment. It is easy to overlook the competition between artists for recognition and prizes, as well as paying commissions, and the level of stress that may have accompanied it. Johnson’s later period of work reveals a much higher degree of experimentation in medium and subject matter, and with it, an indication of personal happiness.
Mother and Child, c. 1945-49 black Oaxacan clay 9-3/4 x 3-3/4 x 1-3/8 inches signed
â€œWhile in Oaxaca, Sargent became acquainted with the Zapotec Indians and Mexicans living in the village of San Bartolo Coyotepec, where the famous black clay pots are made. This location is just outside the city of Oaxaca, and Sargent would acquire some of this black clay and work on it in his hotel room in late afternoons, making grotesque and interesting black clay figures. This is a very low fired clay, using a wood reduction firing process which creates the black smokey color of the clay body. Sargent would work long hours on his pieces, polishing and burnishing them with pumice before firing. A number [of the subjects] are Indian women, the family, and others are abstract forms.â€? 1 1 Sargent Johnson Retrospective, The Oakland Museum, Evangeline Montgomery, Exhibition Curator, 1971, pp. 23-24.
Sailing I, c. 1950 enamel on steel with elements of sgraffito 13-1/2 x 16-1/2 inches signed
â€œSargent was always interested in advanced techniques. Shortly after World War II, about 1947, he met Mahoney from the Paine-Mahoney Company, a company that generally produced porcelain enamel signs on steel. In his spare time he would visit their shop and experiment with this technique on small wooden panels. He produced from 1947 to 1967 about 100 panels and plates. The scenes depicted were abstract, surrealistic and impressionistic. Some were of animals, musician, mother and child, multi-racial subjects, children, religious subjects, the atom bomb, and geometric designsâ€”all in vivid bright colors and exciting in movement.â€? 1 Paine-Mahoney received a commission to execute a large-scale enamel mural in Reno, Nevada, and Johnson was employed to do some of the finely detailed figurative work. 1 Sargent Johnson Retrospective, The Oakland Museum, Evangeline Montgomery, Exhibition Curator, 1971, p. 26.
Untitled (Abstract Composition), c. 1950 enamel on copper 9 x 12 inches signed
In this work, we see Johnsonâ€™s willingness to delve into purely non-objective work, signifying an artistic liberation and also his awareness of the work of his Bay Area contemporaries working in the abstract expressionist mode.
Untitled (Standing Woman), 1958 bronze 9 x 2 x 2 inches
In the later 1940s, Clyfford Still and Mark Rothko taught at the California School of Fine Arts, and the Abstract Expressionist movement saturated the Bay Area aesthetic, but only for about five years. David Park, who also taught at CSFA, tossed all of his Ab-Ex works at the city dump in 1949, and became, along with Richard Diebenkorn, a leader of the Bay Area figurative movement. Claire Falkenstein taught at the CSFA in 1947-48, and Sargent Johnson studied metal sculpture with her, which led to him making a series of small bronzes in the Ab-Ex style. 1 1 Sargent Johnson Retrospective, The Oakland Museum, Evangeline Montgomery, Exhibition Curator, 1971, p. 28.
X=Y, 1958 bronze 9 x 2 x 2 inches signed Provenance: The artist to Paul & Irma Desch
Exhibited: Sargent Johnson Retrospective, The Oakland Museum, 1971 Purportedly one of only two bronzes of this series executed by Sargent Johnson. The other example is in the Melvin Holmes Collection of African American Art, p. 51.
Girl With Braids, c. 1945-49 black Oaxacan clay 8-1/2 x 2 x 2 inches signed Provenance: The artist to Lawrence Pitt, 1965.
Exhibited: Sargent Johnson Retrospective, The Oakland Museum, 1971
Exhibited: Sargent Johnson Retrospective, The Oakland Museum, 1971
Sailing II, c. 1950 enamel on steel with elements of sgraffito 11 x 13-1/2 inches signed Provenance: The artist to Paul And Irma Desch; thence to Melvin Holmes
In Sailing II, Johnson uses sgraffito within the two horizontal strips. In the upper black strip, he has drawn recognizable outlines of figures, on either side the figures are black and in the center he has washed over them in white. The strip below in blue contains outlines that are less distinguishable. Perhaps they are also figures, but jumbled and more chaotic. Is it possible that these represent cramped bodies of slaves in the bow of a shipâ€”or are they merely waves below the ship? Many African American artists at the mid-20th century believed that abstraction allowed the artist an even more effective way of making a statement than narrative art, because a single image could have multiple interpretations and was not bound by a single timeline.
Mother and Child, c. 1945-49 black Oaxacan clay 7-1/2 x 2-1/2 x 3-1/2 inches signed
Exhibited: African American Historical Society Show, 1982.
Provenance: The artist donated this work to a fund raiser for Peopleâ€™s World newspaper in the 1940s. It was won in the fund raiser raffle by Pele De Lappe. Melvin Holmes then acquired the piece from De Lappe.
Exhibited and illustrated: In the Spirit of Resistance: AfricanAmerican Modernists and the Mexican Muralist School, The American Federation of Arts, 1996, No. 58, p. 138.
Untitled (Abstract Composition), c. 1950 enamel on steel 11 x 12-1/2 inches signed
Exhibited and illustrated: Exhibition of Contemporary Religious Art by California Artists, M.H. DeYoung Memorial Museum, San Francisco, CA, October-November 1952, No. 118. Exhibited: Sargent Johnson Retrospective, The Oakland Museum, 1971 Christus Rex, 1952 mixed media assemblage 26 x 19 x 1 inches Provenance: The Artist to Paul and Irma Desch, 1958
In contrast with a monumental bronze submitted by well-known sculptor Antonio Sotomayor, Miriam Duncan Cross of the Oakland Tribune had this to say, “For us, this did not have the impact of a small enamel crucifix of utter simplicity by Sargent Johnson which was hung on a handwoven cloth of rich red and gold.” 1 1 “Exhibition of Religious Art Draws Throngs to de Young”, Oakland Tribune, Miriam Dungan Cross, 16 Nov. 1952, p. 6-C
Exhibited: Sargent Johnson Retrospective, The Oakland Museum, 1971 Untitled, 1955 carved stone (diorite) 8-1/4 x 9 x 6 inches Provenance: The artist to Margaret and William Abbenseth, neighbors of Sargent Johnson; to George Johnson (their nephew), 1974; to Melvin Holmes, 1994.
A similar example to this work was in the collection of Johnson’s friend, John Magnani. Magnani was a ceramicist and shared a studio with SJ in the 1930s. “Shaped diorite rocks, which Sargent and his friends picked up on their visits to the Big Sur seashore, became a favorite material of his as well as the cast rock for animals and abstract forms.” 1 1 Sargent Johnson Retrospective, The Oakland Museum, Evangeline Montgomery, 1971, pp. 28-29.
Exhibited and illustrated: In the Spirit of Resistance: African American Modernists and the Mexican Muralist School, The American Federation of Arts, 1996, Cat No. 54, p. 135. Lovers, 1957, is a molded piece and Johnson presented it in various painted and glazed (and unglazed) finishes. Lovers, 1957 red (unglazed) terra cotta 5-1/4 x 6-3/8 x 2-1/2 inches signed Provenance: Sargent Johnson gifted this sculpture to John Franklin, his guitar instructor, in 1957.
By now, Johnson is solidly committed to abstract imagery, although he does not object to retain a figurative subject. Similar examples of this image are illustrated: Sargent Johnson: Retrospective, Oakland Museum, 1971, p. 29. (This example, from the collection of Henri Lenoir, is described as unglazed terra cotta) Sargent Johnson African American Modernist, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, 1998, Cat No. 45, No, 26. (This example, from the collection of Mrs. Gilbert Blockton, is described as painted terra cotta, and dated 1957.)
Salamander (Rape), c. 1960 black Oaxacan clay 2-1/4 x 3 x 2 inches signed Provenance: The artist to Paul & Irma Desch
Salamander(Rape), 1960, is a smaller version of the carved diorite sculpture of the same subject. 1 The title of this work is unclear: Johnson referred to it in a note to Irma Desch as “Salamander”, but the larger diorite version is titled, “Rape”. The latter title would lead one to believe it is a reference to the mythological rape of Medusa by Poseidon. Medusa was a priestess in the temple of Athena, and Poseidon raped her to antagonize Athena. Athena then turned Medusa into the familiar image of the serpent-headed monster. Thelma Johnson Streat, who shared a mixed-race heritage with Sargent, executed a work titled Salamander Totem about 1945. Streat used the salamander as the totemic representation of transformation and natural intuition. In Streat’s version, the salamander is biting the foot of the white man in the image. In either case, the act of transgression was met with resistance and vengeance. 1 Illustrated in Sargent Johnson African American Modernist, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, 1998, Cat. No. 47, No. 30-31. Thelma Johnson Streat (1912-1959), Salamander Totem, c. 1945, watercolor and graphite on paper. (Thelma Johnson Streat: Faith in an Ultimate Freedom, Thom Pegg, 2014, p. 25)
Jesus Raising Lazarus From the Dead, 1963 terra cotta bas relief 4-1/2 x 4-1/4 x 2 inches Inscribed, To Paul and Irma Desch, From Sargent Johnson 1963. Provenance: The artist to Paul & Irma Desch, 1963
Exhibited: Sargent Johnson: Retrospective, Oakland Museum, 1971 Sargent Johnson did not make all that many works with overtly religious themes, but in an interview by Lizetta LeFalle-Collins of Irma Desch (Melvin Holmes personal papers), Mrs. Desch described Johnson as â€œreligiousâ€?.
Untitled (Abstract Figure),c. 1960-65 terra cotta 8-3/4 x 2-3/8 x 3 inches signed
By the 1960s, Johnsonâ€™s figures became highly abstracted, as seen in this untitled sculpture of a female figure. A very similar example of a mother and child may be seen in African-American Art 20th Century Masterworks VI, catalog from the Michael Rosenfeld Gallery, 1999, p. 37. A similar aesthetic may be seen in Mother and Child, 1965, illustrated in Sargent Johnson African American Modernist, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, 1998, Cat No. 50, No. 34. In all of these examples, the figure has been simplified to a threedimensional gesture, thereby representing humanity in the universal, rather than on specific racial, individual terms, as his works from the 1930s did.
Exhibited: Sargent Johnson: Retrospective, Oakland Museum, 1971 Exhibited and illustrated: Sargent Johnson: African American Modernist, Cat No. 49, No. 33. Girl With Braids, 1964 bronze 12-7/8 x 4-1/2 x 2 inches Provenance: Mr. and Mrs. Leonard Polakoff; thence to Melvin Holmes. Mr. and Mrs. Polakoff were friends of Sargent Johnson and were present during Mary McChesney’s interview of Johnson for the Smithsonian Archives of American Art. In 1971, they loaned Girl With Braids to the retrospective held at the Oakland Museum. With the help of mututal acquaintance, Phyllis “Pele” De Lappe, Melvin Holmes was able to locate and acquire the bronze.
In the Spirit of Resistance: African American Modernists and the Mexican Muralist School, The American Federation of Arts, 1996, Cat. No. 59, p. 138. Girl with Braids, 1964 is an excellent example of Johnson’s final aesthetic stage of his career, as described by Lizetta LeFalleCollins: “In later works such as The Bull (c. 1960) and Girl with Braids (1964), Johnson for the most part dropped both the realism of his earliest works and the racialized images of his middle period for a style that was a response as much to Mexican and African art as to the Abstract Expressionism of his Bay Area contemporaries.” Sargent Johnson African American Modernist, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, 1998, Lizetta LeFalle-Collins’ essay, Sargent Claude Johnson and Modernism: An Investigation of Context, Representation, and Identity, pp 9-10.
Exhibited and illustrated: Sargent Johnson African American Modernist, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, 1998, Cat. No. 55, No. 18.
Singing Saints, 1967 tempera on enamel 31-1/2 x 25 inches signed and dated
â€œJohnson welcomed the growing attention that senior artists often received. While suffering from heart problems, he participated in exhibitions and made appearances and continued to work. This recognition sometimes encouraged Johnson to revisit themes of past works such as Singing Saints. He painted an updated version, also titled Singing Saints, in 196667. In this painting, the front figure strums a stringed instrument, but his choir robe resembles a dashiki, with a red shieldlike shape forming the lower part of the garment. The figures are more angular, seeming to meld into one rather than remain two distinct forms. Behind the head of the figure in the foreground is a series of masks, one with facial features but another broken into abstract planes, much like a Fang head. A gesturing white arm comes out of nowhere from the background echoing a triangular shape on the right - is it waving to the beat of the music? In the original Singing Saints (c. 1938-40) the background is blank - in the late 1960s version, it is more decorative, broken up with angular shapes.â€? 1 1 Lizzetta LeFalle-Collins; Modernism: A West Coast Interpretation. Nka 1 May 2013; 2013 (32): 36â€“49. doi: https://doi. org/10.1215/10757163-2142251 2 ibid
Forty-eighth Annual Exhibition of the San Francisco Art Association
Exhibit of Fine Arts: Productions of American Negro Artists. Harmon Foundation and the Commission on the Church and Race Relations, Federal Council of Churches, International House, NY
Fifty-first Annual Exhibition. San Francisco Art Association, San Francisco School of Fine Arts.
Fifty-sixth Annual Exhibition of the San Francisco Art Association. San Francisco Museum of Art
Exhibit of Fine Arts by American Negro Artists. Harmon Foundation, NY
Annual Exhibition of Drawings and Prints of the San Francisco Art Association, San Francisco Museum of Art
Exhibit of Fine Arts: Productions of American Negro Artists. Harmon Foundation and the Commission on the Church and Race Relations, Federal Council of Churches, International House, NY
Frontiers of American Art. Works Progress Administration, Federal Art Project, M. H. de Young Memorial Museum
Exhibition of the Work of Negro Artists. Harmon Foundation at the Art Center, NY Fifty-third Annual Exhibition of the San Francisco Art Association. Palace of the Legion of Honor
Exhibition of Productions by Negro Artists. Harmon Foundation Inc. with the National Alliance of Art and Industry, Art Center, NY
Negro Artists : An Illustrated Review of Their Achievements, Including Exhibition of Paintings by the late Malvin Gray Johnson and Sculptures by Richmond BarthĂŠ and Sargent Johnson. Harmon Foundation with Delphic Studios, NY Opening of the San Francisco Museum of Art, with the Fifty-fifth Annual Exhibition of the San Francisco Art Association
Golden Gate International Exposition
California Art Today. Palace of Fine Arts, San Francisco
The Art of the American Negro, 1851-1940. The American Negro Exposition, Chicago
Art of Our Time. San Francisco Museum of Art.
Eleventh National Ceramic Exhibition. Syracuse Museum of Fine Arts and the Onondaga Pottery Company, Syracuse, NY
Two Centuries of Black American Art. Los Angeles County Museum of Art
Contemporary American Ceramics: Selected from the Eleventh National Ceramic Exhibition. San Francisco Museum of Art
We Came in Style. Sanderson Museum, San Francisco AfricanAmerican Historical and Cultural Society
Seventy-first Annual Exhibition of the San Francisco Art Association. San Francisco Museum of Art
The Seventh Annual Festival: Art in the Open Square. The San Francisco Art Commission.
Second Annual Outdoor Exhibition. Eric Locke Galleries, San Francisco
The San Francisco Collector. M.H. de Young Memorial Museum
New Deal Art: WPA Works at the University of Kentucky. University of Kentucky Art Museum.
The Negro in American Art. The California Arts Commission and University of California, Los Angeles
The Federal Art Project: American Prints from the 1930â€™s in the Collection of the University of Michigan Museum of Art. Ann Arbor, MI
Dimensions of Black. La Jolla Museum of Art, La Jolla, CA
Richard Dempsey: 1940 and the Sargent Johnson Legacy. EvansTibbs Collection, Washington D.C.
Sargent Johnson: Retrospective. The Oakland Museum
New Deal Art: California. De Saisset Art Gallery and Museum, University of Santa Clara, CA
Sargent Claude Johnson, 1887-1967, Sculptor; Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Poet, Publisher; San Francisco Art Commission Honor Award Show. San Francisco Art Commission Painting and Sculpture in California: The Modern Era. San Francisco Museum of Modern Art
Art in Washington and Its AfroAmerican Presence, 1940-1970. Washington Project for the Arts, Washington D.C.
Harlem Renaissance: Art of Black America. Studio Museum of Harlem, NY
Black Printmakers and the WPA. The Lehman College Art Gallery, City University of New York, Bronx
Sargent Johnson: African American Modernist. San Francisco Museum of Modern Art
Black Art: Ancestral Legacy: The African Impulse in African American Art. Dallas Museum of Art
The Great Migration: The Evolution of African American Art, 1790-1945. Taft Museum of Art, Cincinnati, OH
Against the Odds: AfricanAmerican Artists and the Harmon Foundation. The Newark Museum, New Jersey; Gibbes Museum of Art, Charleston, SC; Chicago Cultural Center
Masterpieces of African American Art: An African American Perspective. M. Hanks Gallery, Santa Monica, CA
Graphic Excursions-American Prints in Black and White, 19001950: Selections from the Collection of Reba and David Williams. The American Federation of Arts, Washington D.C.
Challenge of the Modern: African American Artists, 1925-1946, Studio Museum in Harlem, NY
Free Within Ourselves: AfricanAmerican Artists in the Collection of the National Museum of American Art. National Museum of American Art, Smithsonian Institution, Washington D.C.
The Harmon and Harriet Kelley Collection of African American Art: Works on Paper, Amon Carter Museum, Fort Worth, TX
Alone in a Crowd: Prints of the 1930s-1940s by African-American Artists from the Collection of Reba and David Williams. The Newark Museum, NJ
Collected: Stories of Acquisition and Reclamation. Museum of the African Diaspora, San Francisco, CA
In the Spirit of Resistance: AfricanAmerican Modernists and the Mexican Muralist School. The American Federation of Arts, NY
African American Art: Harlem Renaissance, Civil Rights Era, and Beyond, Smithsonian Museum of American Art, Washington D.C
Rhapsodies in Black: Art of the Harlem Renaissance. Hayward Gallery, London
Originally compiled by Gwendolyn Shaw for Sargent Johnson: African American Modernist, 1998
Saranah Walden and Kenya Holmes for graciously allowing us the opportunity to share your father’s collection with the world.
Photo Credits: John Wilson White Studio Author: Thom Pegg, Tyler Fine Art Catalog layout: Renée Yeager, Tyler Fine Art Thank you to the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art Library, The Oakland Museum Library, and The Bancroft Library at the University of California, Berkeley for their help with research materials. ©2019
Tyler Fine Art
407 Jackson Ave.
University City, MO
Tyler Fine Art
407 Jackson Ave.
University City, MO
Beginning with The Cat, Melvin Holmes went on to amass a collection of more than 30 works by Sargent Johnson, in addition to the rest of his...
Published on Jul 31, 2019
Beginning with The Cat, Melvin Holmes went on to amass a collection of more than 30 works by Sargent Johnson, in addition to the rest of his...