Sargent Claude Johnson (Oct 7, 1888 – Oct 10, 1967) was one of the first African-American artists working in California to achieve a national reputationHe was known for Abstract Figurative and Early Modern stylesHe was a painter, potter, ceramist, printmaker, graphic artist, sculptor, and carverHe worked with a variety of media, including ceramic, clay, oil, stone, terra-cotta, watercolor, and woodHe was in the Communist Party for most of his life.
Sargent Johnson was the third of six children, born to a father of Swedish descent and mother of African-American and Cherokee ancestryHis father died in 1892, leaving the kids to be raised by their motherIn 1902, when his mother died, the boys of the family were sent to an orphanage in Worcester, Massachusetts and the girls to a Catholic school for African American and Native American girls in PennsylvaniaAt a young age, Sargent and his siblings went to live with their uncle, Sherman Jackson Williams, and his wife, May Howard JacksonMay was a famous sculptor specializing in Negro themes, and she undoubtedly influenced Sargent Johnson at an early ageSome of his siblings did not identify themselves as African American, and chose to live as either Native Americans or Caucasians, though Sargent identified as African American.
Johnson’s transition from practicing artist to professional is largely undocumented, though some say he left from Boston to Chicago to live with some relativesIn 1915, Sargent Johnson moved to the San Francisco Bay areaThe Panama-Pacific International Exposition, which had a stimulating influence on California art, took place shortly after his moveThe same year, Sargent Johnson married Pearl Lawson and began studying drawing and painting at the AWBest School of ArtHe attended the California School of Fine Arts (now the San Francisco Art Institute) from 1919 to 1923, where his teachers included the sculptors Beniamino Bufano and Ralph Stackpole.
Consuelo Kanaga, a photographer of that time, knew him well and said of Johnson, “He was beautiful in his spirit, the way he talked, the way he thought, the way he worked, the way he feltI don’t mean he didn’t have problemsHe did—terrible problems—but he was still beautifulIt was his spirit, the way he looked at everything.”
Sargent Johnson began showing his work with the Harmon Foundation of New York in 1926Through the foundation, known for its support of African-American art, he exhibited many of his pieces and became locally and then nationally known.There was a total of 87 pieces displayed at the show and a $150 prize for most outstanding work went to Johnson, “showing a porcelain head of a Negro child, Pearl, and two drawings, one of which, Defiant, is massively constructed and as simple in its planes as is so much of the modern Mexican work.”He was usually not included in as “American art” because of how his pieces ignored traditional western techniques and was inspired by foreign cultures, such as Mexican muralists Diego Rivera, José Clemente Orozco, David Alfaro Siqueiros and others.
In 1928, Johnson’s award-winning artwork garnered him fame amongst artists in the Harlem Renaissance movement.
In the late 1930s, Sargent Johnson commissioned his work with the Federal Arts Project (FAP).As a member of the bohemian San Francisco Bay community and influenced by the New Negro Movement, Sargent Johnson’s early work focused on racial identity.
Johnson said, “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 himselfUnless I can interest my race, I am sunk.”According to Johnson, “Negroes are a colorful race; they call for an art as colorful as they can be made.”
Beginning in 1945, and continuing through 1965, Sargent Johnson made a number of trips to Oaxaca and Southern Mexico and started incorporating the people and culture, particularly archeology, into his workOther subjects included African American figures, animals, and Native Americans.
On February 23, 2010, Swann Galleries auctioned Sargent Claude Johnson’s Untitled (Standing Woman), a painted terra cotta sculpture, c1933-35, for $52,800 – an auction record at the time for the artistIn 2009 the University of California, Berkeley unwittingly sold a work by Johnson for $164.63, that was later valued at more than a million dollarsThe 22-foot carved redwood relief panel was eventually purchased by the Huntington Library and will be displayed in its new American wing.