Monumental Work by Sargent Johnson to Stay in California, Just Further South

Sargent Claude Johnson (1888-1967), Untitled (screen for pipe organ),1937, carved, painted, and gilded redwood, 8 ft.  9 in.  tall at the highest point x 22 ft.  long x 2 in.  deep.  Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens.
Sargent Claude Johnson (1888-1967), Untitled (screen for pipe organ),1937, carved, painted, and gilded redwood, 8 ft. 9 in. tall at the highest point x 22 ft. long x 2 in. deep. Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens.
(© The Huntington)

UC Berkeley’s loss is a gain for the Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens, in regards to a spectacular 22-foot long carved wood relief created by African-American artist Sargent Johnson (1888-1967). 

Part of the Harlem Renaissance in the 1920s and 30s, Johnson was the first California based African-American artist to achieve a national reputation. 

His oeuvre covered a wide variety of media and the piece recently acquired by the Huntington is a huge redwood panel initially designed to cover organ pipes at the old California School for the Deaf and Blind at Berkeley.

When that school closed in 1980, the panel went into storage, not to emerge again for almost 20 years.  In 2009, the storage space was cleaned out and any artwork was transferred to the university’s surplus store to be sold—which the panel was, for a meager $150 plus tax, before eventually making its way to the Huntington collection. 

As the work was commissioned under Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Works Progress Administration (WPA), the legality of selling the piece was initially called into question.  However, the federal government does not retain ownership of WPA-commissioned art affixed to non-federal buildings, making the sale of the work legitimate.

The alert buyer at the surplus store was art and furniture dealer Greg Favors.  Favors sent the panels to Los Angeles to be restored by Dennis Boses, owner of Off the Wall Antiques. 

Favors also did a little Internet research on the artist, which led him back to Berkeley, and scholar Gray Brechin, whose specialty is historical geography related to the New Deal. 

At one point, Berkeley tried to buy back the art, but ironically could not afford to at the time, the price tag having jumped above $200,000—a sharp increase from the $150 that Berkeley sold it for. 

New York gallery owner Michael Rosenfeld purchased the relief sculpture, but before it could be shipped across country, the Huntington acquired the artwork for its collections in San Marino, California. 

Created in 1937, the monumental carved relief consists mainly of vegetative motifs and animals, with musicians also making up part of the scene. Johnson is best known for his imagery of animals and people.

(Report: Christine Bolli for ARTFIXdaily)

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