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Sargent Claude Johnson: A Masterpiece Restored

Oct. 12, 2013 - Jan. 20, 2014


Best known for his imagery of animals and people, particularly African and Native Americans, rendered in Abstract Figurative and early modern styles, Sargent Claude Johnson (1888-1967) was one of the first African American artists in California to achieve a national reputation. He worked as a painter, printmaker, and ceramicist, but is best known as a sculptor. Under the auspices of the Federal Arts Project (FAP), Johnson carved a 22-foot-long redwood relief of musicians, animals, birds, and plants as a screen for a pipe organ in the music hall of the California School for the Blind in Berkeley.

The organ screen was removed from its original building after the California School of the Blind moved to a new campus in 1980 and was not seen by the public for more than 30 years. The exhibition presents this monumental sculpture, acquired by the Huntington in 2011, for the first time since its restoration, along with details of the restoration project. (right: Sargent Claude Johnson, 1888-1967. Untitled (screen for pipe organ), 1937, Carved, painted, and gilded redwood. The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens. Purchased with funds from the Art Collectors' Council, the Connie Perkins Endowment, and the Virginia Steele Scott Acquisition Fund for American Art in honor of George Abdo and Roy Ritchie. 2011.5)

Johnson was commissioned in 1937 by the Works Progress Administration of the New Deal to carve this screen for the California School of the Blind, then located in Berkeley. In the screen, one child reaches up and while the other plays a cymbal at the foot of a stylized tree, whose radiating branches seem to broadcast the sound into the forest. In the side panels, deer perk up their ears, as if listening to the concert in the central panel. Serving as a bridge between the animal and human worlds, music creates an Eden in which two rabbits and a fox-normally enemies-gather peacefully to hear the children and birds make song. The screen's subject matter echoes the stress that education for the blind once placed on music instruction, which is wholly appropriate given its original location. 

One striking aspects of the screen is Johnson's use of the color of natural redwood, red paint, and gilding to give a heightened sense of depth in an otherwise relatively flat relief sculpture. In a short but consequential interview with the San Francisco Chronicle in 1935, Johnson explains the relevance of color in his work:

I try to apply color without destroying the natural expression of sculpture, putting it on pure, in large masses, without breaking up the surfaces of the form I am concerned with color 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 it can be made. 

Although the simplified forms and the figures' almond shaped eyes are likely taken from African sculpture, "racial character" is not overtly at play in this screen's subject matter. However, the screen does illustrate the importance of color as a key component of sculpture. As such, this screen is vital for understanding his vast production of polychrome sculpture, including such works as Forever Free (1933), a painted work in which color both signifies race and articulates the solid cylindrical shape of the woman's body. 

Johnson carved the screen for the California School for the Blind's Music Hall. The Huntington's screen hung opposite another panel, also by Johnson and part of the same commission, which is now displayed in a classroom on the Clark Kerr Campus of the University of California, Berkeley. When the School of the Blind relocated in the late 1970s to Freemont, the Huntington's screen was removed and placed in storage. At that time, the screen was probably attached to a plywood panel. Thanks to this sturdy backing, the screen survived largely intact, though, as a period photograph shows, there were once two additional panels. Although the plywood saved the screen, it expanded and contracted at a different rate than the redwood, which exacerbated splitting. Indeed, there was enough damage that conservators constructed a metal armature to support loose pieces and provide a sturdy backing for the entire screen.

 Although we know that Johnson placed great weight on the color and finish of his sculptures, we have limited knowledge of the actual appearance of the original surface. The black-and-white photograph, now in the National Archives, is only known image of the screen at the school. However, we can be reasonably certain about how Johnson finished the screen's surface. In a 1964 interview, he stated that he oiled the wood, let it dry, then applied a thin layer of wax. Unfortunately, one cannot be certain of the visual effect this process had. Was it glossy or matte? To what degree did the oil bring out the redwood's russet tones? With little definitive information about how the screen looked in the 1930s, Huntington curators asked the conservators to largely leave the surface alone. They only addressed damaged areas, gently cleaned surfaces, and removed residues left from the plywood. Happily, during restoration conservators found a piece of the rough cloth that once backed the screen and were able to closely match the original weave, though the fabric's color undoubtedly had changed after many decades. By adopting a strategy of light restoration, the conservation process left open the possibility further work should more photographs or archival evidence emerge and insures that the public sees the work of Johnson's hand.

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