Reflecting on Black Artistic Influence in California

Posted on Tue., Feb. 20, 2024 by Lauren Cross
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.

When most people think of a revival of creative expression by Black Americans in the 1930s, the Harlem Renaissance or the “New Negro Movement” usually comes to mind. New York’s Harlem was indeed a central hub of creative exploration for African Americans in the visual arts, music, dance, and literature. Yet there were other Black creative communities in California and elsewhere in the United States that participated in the movement. This Black creative resurgence also paralleled the Great Migration of African Americans from the American South to states in the North, Midwest, and West in pursuit of a better life. In particular, major cities in California, such as Los Angeles and San Francisco, provided places where Black artists could pursue creative freedoms that were not typically available to them in the Old South.

Those creative freedoms and the communities that fostered them are among the topics to be explored at the Huntington conference “Shaping Black Modernisms: Art, Culture, and Community in California” on Feb. 23–24 in Rothenberg Hall. Held in tandem with the “Sargent Claude Johnson” exhibition and the new Betye Saar commission Drifting Toward Twilight, the conference will feature panels, performances, and tours that highlight the vast history of Black art and culture in California.

The visual artist Sargent Claude Johnson (1888–1967) emerged in the 1930s as a crucial voice in the Harlem Renaissance, even though he lived in California. Johnson may have been influenced by the ideas of the philosopher Alain Locke, whose concept of the New Negro centered on the belief that African Americans possess the inventiveness to create works of art, literature, dance, and music inspired by their African origins, their experiences as Black Americans, or both. Works like Mother and Child (on view in the MaryLou and George Boone Gallery through May 20) highlight Johnson’s interest in depicting Black mothering in a transformative way that embodies Locke’s concept. Johnson, in turn, influenced other Black creatives, such as his friend William Grant Still (1895–1978), a composer who wrote a suite for violin and piano that was inspired, in part, by Johnson’s Mother and Child.

Two men looking at musical scores.

Pasadena City College’s Henry Shin and Solomon Cross examine scores composed by Harold Bruce Forsythe in The Huntington’s Ahmanson Reading Room, in preparation for performances that they will conduct at the “Shaping Black Modernisms” conference on Feb. 23, 2024. Photo by Lauren Cross. | The Huntington Library, Art Museum, and Botanical Gardens.

The Huntington’s archives include works by Still and his friend Harold Bruce Forsythe (1908–1976), the two major Black composers who shaped what historians call the “Los Angeles Renaissance.” The friends frequently collaborated, composing works that reflected their training in classical music through the lens of the African American experience. On the first day of the “Shaping Black Modernisms” conference, Pasadena City College faculty and students will perform works by Forsythe and Still, including Still’s “Mother and Child.”

During the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and ’60s, California continued to be an important site of African American creativity, even in the face of intense discrimination. African Americans in Los Angeles and Pasadena found themselves legally excluded from living in certain neighborhoods and faced limited career opportunities. In addition, the construction of the 210 Freeway displaced many who were part of communities with prominent Black businesses and churches.

Despite the impact of these injustices, Black enclaves that formed in Los Angeles, northern Pasadena, and Altadena emerged as important sites for African American leaders, activists, writers, performers, and visual artists. These enclaves served as places where they could build community and make professional connections.

A soldier painted in gold and red.

Charles White, Soldier, 1944, tempera on masonite, 30 x 25 in. (76.2 x 63.5 cm). Gift of Sandra and Bram Dijkstra. The Huntington Library, Art Museum, and Botanical Gardens. | © The Charles White Archives.

Artists Charles White, Betye Saar, Curtis Tann, John Outterbridge, Senga Nengudi, and Richmond Barthé were all Pasadena residents. They formed a supportive community that galvanized their creative activities and opportunities. “Lifting as we climb,” as the old mantra goes, served as the symbolic tenet of these artists. This was exemplified by the artist Charles White (1918–1979), a professor at Otis College of Art and Design who used his connections in the community to provide resources to his students and support area artists, such as the ceramist Doyle Lane. Lane’s Mutual Savings and Loan Mural, commissioned in 1964 for Mutual Savings and Loan’s Pasadena branch, is on view in the courtyard of The Huntington’s June and Merle Banta Education Center.

The Civil Rights Movement–era spirit of community building expanded among Black artists in the Los Angeles area, as art historian Kellie Jones recounts in South of Pico: African American Artists in Los Angeles in the 1960s and 1970s (Duke University Press, 2017). In this groundbreaking book, Jones unpacks the interconnections among African American artists in the region and delineates their impact. She writes about the careers of artists Noah Purifoy and John Outterbridge, who led the Watts Towers Arts Center, as well as the creation of art spaces and organizations like the Brockman Gallery, led by brothers Alonzo and Dale Davis. She also highlights the influential scholarship of artists and scholars Samella Lewis and Ruth Waddy, who worked to establish Black art as a genre of art history; Lewis was a founder of the Museum of African American Art. Black artists and scholars continue to create bridges that span the worlds of art and the surrounding community, influencing younger generations of artists. Among these are Mark Bradford and Lauren Halsey—artists who have created platforms to reflect on the LA-area Black communities that have influenced their art practice.

A wood canoe sits on top of a bed of dry branches in a blue room.

Betye Saar, Drifting Toward Twilight, 2023 (installation view). © 2023 Betye Saar. Photo by Joshua White / | The Huntington Library, Art Museum, and Botanical Gardens.

Their works and the works of other Black California artists demonstrate how they have put themselves in conversation with the past, allowing them to foreground lost and underrepresented histories that demand to be known.

Read more about the conference and register to attend.

Lauren Cross is the Gail-Oxford Associate Curator of American Decorative Arts at The Huntington.