The Huntington to Present Major Exhibition on Sargent Claude Johnson

Posted on Tue., Oct. 3, 2023

The “Sargent Claude Johnson” exhibition features work in various media spanning the artist’s career, from the Harlem Renaissance through the Civil Rights Movement.

Feb. 17–May 20, 2024

MaryLou and George Boone Gallery

A carved and painted wood sculpture of a woman looking up.

Sargent Claude Johnson, Forever Free, 1933, paint and wood, 36 × 11 1/2 × 9 1/2 in. Courtesy of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art , gift of Mrs. E. D. Lederman. Photo: Don Ross. | © Estate of Sargent Claude Johnson.

Terracotta figure of a hand cradling a head.

Sargent Claude Johnson, Chester, 1931, terracotta, 8 1/2 × 5 1/2 × 7 in. Courtesy of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, Albert M. Bender Collection, bequest of Albert M. Bender. Photo: Don Ross. | © Estate of Sargent Claude Johnson. 

Drawing of a woman and a child embracing.

Sargent Claude Johnson, Mother and Child, ca. 1932, chalk on paper, 37 5/8 × 26 5/8 in. (95.5 × 67.6 cm). Courtesy of San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, Albert M. Bender Collection, gift of Albert M. Bender, 36.599. Photo by Don Ross. | © Estate of Sargent Claude Johnson.

 Glazed terracotta sculpture of a boy.

Sargent Claude Johnson, Head of a Boy, ca. 1928, glazed terracotta, 7 1/2 × 4 3/4 × 6 in. | © Estate of Sargent Claude Johnson. The Huntington Library, Art Museum, and Botanical Gardens.

Three screens on a wall that form a semicircle.

Sargent Claude Johnson, Organ Screen, 1933–34, gilded and painted redwood, 105 × 264 × 2 in. Photo: © 2014 Fredrik Nilsen. | The Huntington Library, Art Museum, and Botanical Gardens.

Copper mask

Sargent Claude Johnson, Mask, 1933, copper, 10 7/8 × 7 7/8 × 2 3/8 in. Courtesy of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, Albert M. Bender Collection, gift of Albert M. Bender. Photo: Don Ross. | © Estate of Sargent Claude Johnson.

Abstract painting of figures.

Sargent Claude Johnson, Singing Saints, 1967, tempera and enamel on steel, 30 3/4 × 25 1/2 in. Courtesy of Michael Rosenfeld Gallery LLC, New York. | © Estate of Sargent Claude Johnson.

Wood figure of a woman in a white dress with a belt around her waist.

Sargent Claude Johnson, Negro Woman, ca. 1935, paint and wood, 32 × 13 1/2 × 11 3/4 in. Courtesy of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, Albert M. Bender Collection, gift of Albert M. Bender. Photo: Katherine Du Tiel. | © Estate of Sargent Claude Johnson.

Stoneware figure bust of a young girl.

Sargent Claude Johnson, Elizabeth Gee, 1927, stoneware with glaze, 13 1/8 × 10 3/4 × 7 1/2 in. Courtesy of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, Albert M. Bender Collection, gift of Albert M. Bender. Photo: Mary Ellen Hawkins. | © Estate of Sargent Claude Johnson.

A brown teapot with gold handle and accents.

Sargent Claude Johnson, Teapot, 1941, earthenware with glaze, 5 × 8 1/2 × 4 in. Courtesy of the New Orleans Museum of Art, purchased with the William McDonald Boles and Eva Carol Boles Fund. | © Estate of Sargent Claude Johnson.

Black-and-white abstract sketch of a person reading a newspaper.

Sargent Claude Johnson, Dorothy C., ca. 1938, lithograph, 14 × 8 1/4 in. Private collection.

A crouching cat figurine.

Sargent Claude Johnson, The Cat, 1945, terracotta, 5 3/4 × 16 × 4 1/2 in. Courtesy of Black Art Auction, Saint Louis, MO. Photo: JW as of 6/21/2023, White/Studio Phocasso; Melvin Holmes Collection of African American Art, San Francisco. | © Estate of Sargent Claude Johnson.

Abstract painting in hues of gold, red, blue, and green.

Sargent Claude Johnson, Self Portrait, 1966, enamel on steel, 17 × 15 in. Courtesy of San Francisco African American Historical and Cultural Society, Sargent Johnson Collection #812. Donated by Pearl Johnson, 1974. | © Estate of Sargent Claude Johnson.

Vertical and horizontal lines and stripes in blue, burnt orange, black, and white with a gray background.

Sargent Claude Johnson, Sailing II, 1966, enamel on steel with sgraffito, 11 × 13 in. Courtesy of Michael Rosenfeld Gallery LLC, New York. | © Estate of Sargent Claude Johnson.

A copper mask of a woman with a headdress and necklace.

Sargent Claude Johnson, Mask (Negro Mother), 1935, copper and paint, 11 × 7 1/4 × 3 1/2 in. Courtesy of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, Albert M. Bender Collection, gift of Albert M. Bender. Photo: Don Ross. | © Estate of Sargent Claude Johnson.

Black-and-white photo of Sargent Claude Johnson in a jacket, tie, and hat, holding an art piece.

Sargent Johnson, ca. 1928, courtesy of the National Archives at College Park, Harmon Foundation Collection, 1922–1967, H-HNE-20-28 / no. 559180.

Sargent Claude Johnson stands on a tall ladder in front of a massive wall sculpture.

Sargent Claude Johnson working on clay model of sculpture for George Washington High School, Nov. 18, 1940, San Francisco History Center, San Francisco Public Library, San Francisco News-Call Bulletin Photo Morgue, SFP 39, MOR-0433, Box P370, Folder: Johnson, Sargent.


Updated on Feb. 13, 2024

SAN MARINO, Calif.—The Huntington Library, Art Museum, and Botanical Gardens will produce a major exhibition and companion book on the California-based Black artist Sargent Claude Johnson (1888–1967), whose powerful works—masks, portrait busts, and figural sculptures created in the 1920s and 1930s—have become emblems of the Harlem Renaissance. This will be the first exhibition devoted to Johnson in over 25 years.

Johnson dedicated his artistic practice to sensitive, ennobling portrayals of people of color. Though best known as a sculptor, he worked expertly in a wide variety of media, including ceramic, clay, oil, enamel, stone, terracotta, and wood. On view from Feb. 17 through May 20, 2024, the exhibition of 43 works represents the full breadth of Johnson’s career and draws from The Huntington’s important collection of works by the artist as well as key loans from institutional and private collections, some not seen publicly in decades. On view will be The Huntington’s Head of a Boy (ca. 1928) and monumental carved redwood Organ Screen (1933–34), which was created for the auditorium of the California School for the Blind in Berkeley, California. In this exhibition, the screen—which had been out of public view from 1980 to 2011, when The Huntington acquired it—will be reunited with the other parts of Johnson’s California School for the Blind commission for the first time in over four decades.

“Johnson’s work speaks volumes about the fragility of our shared cultural heritage and the critical role that institutions like The Huntington play in safeguarding this heritage for future generations,” said Christina Nielsen, Hannah and Russel Kully Director of The Huntington’s Art Museum. “With this exhibition, we are making the full range of his work accessible to the artists, researchers, and audiences of today. It is an enormous pleasure to present Johnson’s work and the accompanying book of essays, which offer rich new insights into the life and work of this important artist.”

Sargent Claude Johnson” is curated by Dennis Carr, The Huntington’s Virginia Steele Scott Chief Curator of American Art, with Jacqueline Francis (California College of the Arts) and John P. Bowles (University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill).

About Sargent Claude Johnson

Sargent Claude Johnson was born in Boston in 1888 to Eliza Jackson, a woman of African and Cherokee heritage, and Anderson Johnson, a Swedish American. A multiracial artist who identified as Black, Sargent Claude Johnson was orphaned at a young age and sent to live briefly with his uncle William Tecumseh Sherman Jackson, an educator in Washington, D.C., and aunt May Howard Jackson, a sculptor who was known for her naturalistic bronze and clay busts of Black people.

Around 1915, Johnson moved to San Francisco and studied art at the A.W. Best School of Art and the California School of Fine Arts (later the San Francisco Art Institute). He quickly established his reputation as an important sculptor, winning a series of awards in juried exhibitions, including multiple awards at the annual exhibitions hosted by the San Francisco Art Association (SFAA). In 1931, he won first place in sculpture at the SFAA for his portrait bust Chester (1931). His work also gained national recognition in touring exhibitions of African American artists’ work that were organized by the Harmon Foundation in New York.

Johnson drew from a range of international influences, including traditional and contemporary arts of Africa, Asia, Europe, and Latin America. He traveled to Japan and Mexico, where he met with Mexican modernist artists and learned traditional pottery techniques from Indigenous artists. Johnson was among the earliest of a generation of African American artists to travel to Mexico.

Exhibition Layout and Visitor Experience

“Sargent Claude Johnson” is organized into six sections: Johnson’s role in the Black Renaissance, featuring sculptures and masks that he made early in his career (1920s–30s); portraits of children (1920s–30s); Johnson’s California School for the Blind commission (1933–37); contributions to the federal Works Project Administration in California (1930s–40s); pieces inspired by Johnson’s travels to Latin America (1940s); and works made during a period of material experimentation (1950s–60s). In collaboration with the California School for the Blind, select wall text will be in English Braille; gallery guides in Braille will also be available. The exhibition graphics and identity are designed in partnership with Polymode, an LGBTQ+ and minority-owned graphic design studio based in California and North Carolina.

Artist of the Black Renaissance (1920s–30s)

The first gallery in the exhibition features a selection of Johnson’s most popular and widely renowned sculptural works, which he made early in his career (1920s–30s). These include the free-standing sculpture Forever Free (1933), a 36-inch-tall figure made of painted plaster over linen and wood that represents a mother with two children tucked beneath her arms. She stands erect and looks upward, conveying pride, hope, and love for her children, who are protected under her long arms. The gallery also displays a group of hand-hammered copper masks inspired by traditional African masks. Guided by his friend and writer Alain Locke, a leader of the Harlem Renaissance and author of the book The New Negro (1925), Johnson was profoundly influenced by African sculpture. Given the historical and social context in which he created these works, Johnson also felt it was vital to celebrate Black women and mothers, who were often stereotyped in negative and racist ways.

Portraits of Children

Johnson’s sculptural portraits of children were modeled after those who lived in his multiracial, middle-class neighborhood in Berkeley. Perhaps his best-known work, the terracotta Chester (1931) is joined by the stylized Head of a Boy (ca. 1928) in glazed terracotta. Both busts present realistic, individualized features and simultaneously display the hallmarks of modernist abstraction. Elizabeth Gee (1927), whose green, crackled glaze derives from celadon-style Chinese ceramics, is a portrait of his daughter’s Chinese American playmate, whose family lived a block from the Johnsons.

California School for the Blind Commission

In 1933, Johnson received a government commission to design a large sculptural installation to adorn the auditorium of the California School for the Blind in Berkeley. Once completed, the installation featured a gilded redwood relief of children, animals, and birds in a woodland setting covering the organ, carved lunettes above the arched windows, and a monumental proscenium over the stage where students performed. The work was removed around 1980, after the school moved to a new campus and the University of California, Berkeley, renovated the building. In the exhibition, the principal components of Johnson’s commission—now owned by The Huntington, the California School for the Blind, the African American Museum and Library at Oakland, and UC Berkeley—will be reunited and displayed publicly for the first time in over four decades. Organ music and other interactive elements will help bring the installation to life in the galleries, and visitors will be able to interact with a 3D-printed replica of a panel depicting Louis Braille that Johnson had carved for the school.

Works Project Administration (WPA) Era

Following the California School for the Blind project, Johnson received further governmental commissions and became one of the few African American supervisors in the WPA nationwide. His largest work was a 185-foot-long mural (1942) that he made for the George Washington High School football field in San Francisco. A panoramic video of the mural, Athletics, will take up an entire gallery wall, providing visitors with a sense of the work’s scale and setting. Johnson’s maquette for the project, made in 1941, will be on loan from George Washington High School.

Latin American Influences (1940s) and Material Experimentation (1950s–60s)

The exhibition’s last galleries feature work from the 1940s through the 1960s. Johnson’s art from this period shows the influence of his travels to Mexico, where he studied ancient and modern art, traveled to archaeological sites, and met with contemporary artists. He was especially impacted by the work of Diego Rivera, whose large-scale murals from the early 1930s and 1940s included Pan American Unity (1940), a famous mural painted for the Golden Gate International Exposition that Johnson would have seen in San Francisco.

A selection of pieces from the 1950s and ’60s, a period during which Johnson began to experiment with such industrial materials as fired enamel, will be on view, in addition to a touchable display of the materials he used. Although he worked extensively in enamel for large public artworks and was one of the few African American enamel practitioners, he has not been recognized in histories of American enamelwork. Made just a year before his death, Johnson’s enamel Self Portrait (1966) is characterized by masklike facial features, abstracted shapes, and bright colors in a depiction of the artist as his younger self.

Public Programs

An array of public programs and a scholarly conference will complement the exhibition. Upcoming programs include:

Shaping Black Modernisms: Art, Culture, and Community in California

Fri., Feb. 23, 8:30 a.m.–4 p.m. | Sat., Feb. 24, 9 a.m.–4 p.m.

General: $25 (long-term fellows and students free) | Optional lunch: $20 (each day)

Conference registration includes free entrance to the grounds and galleries.

This two-day conference celebrates Black creativity in California’s past, present, and future with talks by academics and artists, performances of music from the archives by Black composers Harold Bruce Forsythe and William Grant Still, and tours of the exhibition. Topics in the conference address Black artists in the Bay Area—centered on the life and work of Sargent Claude Johnson—and in Southern California, especially the Black artistic community that developed in Pasadena, as well as California’s key position along the Pacific Rim. To purchase tickets and view the full conference schedule, visit

Second Sundays: Sargent Claude Johnson and the WPA

Sun., March 10, 11 a.m.–2 p.m.

Free with general admission

Celebrate the legacy of Sargent Claude Johnson and the WPA through artmaking, musical performances, and in-gallery talks at this free event for visitors of all ages. For more information, visit

Exhibition Catalog

The Huntington will publish a catalog by exhibition curators Dennis Carr, Jacqueline Francis, and John P. Bowles, with an essay by art historian Gwendolyn DuBois Shaw (University of Pennsylvania). A richly illustrated hardcover, Sargent Claude Johnson examines the prominent role of Johnson’s art in the Black Renaissance, his engagement with international cultures, and his experiments with a variety of materials. These scholars examine Johnson’s artistic evolution and offer fresh perspectives on his work, positioning his oeuvre within an expansive framework of global modernism. Distributed by Yale University Press, the book (ISBN: 978-0-300-27199-7) will be available in February 2024 for $40 at the Huntington Store and online at

Credit Line

This exhibition is made possible in part by the National Endowment for the Arts. Generous funding is provided by an anonymous foundation, the Henry Luce Foundation, the Philip and Muriel Berman Foundation, the Steve Martin Fund for American Art, and The Ahmanson Foundation Exhibition and Education Endowment. Support for the catalog is provided by Furthermore: a program of the J. M. Kaplan Fund.

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[EDITOR’S NOTE: High-resolution digital images available on request for publicity use. Request Images]

About The Huntington

The Huntington Library, Art Museum, and Botanical Gardens is a cultural and educational institution of global significance. Building on Henry E. and Arabella Huntington’s renowned collections, The Huntington supports research and promotes education in the arts, humanities, and botanical science through the growth and preservation of its collections; the development of a community of scholars, school programs, and partnerships; and the display and interpretation of its extraordinary resources for diverse audiences. The Huntington is located at 1151 Oxford Road, San Marino, California, 12 miles from downtown Los Angeles. Visitor information:


Thea M. Page, 626-405-2260,

Miranda Claxton, 626-405-3557,