San Francisco

Sargent Johnson

The Oakland Museum of Art has sought out, researched, and mounted a retrospective of the work of Sargent Johnson who died at the age of 80 in 1967. I had gotten to know him well in the last 15 years of his life. He remained active and his work was experimental to the end. In the mid-fifties he was in Mexico and was excited about with the black clay from Ceyotepec (near Oaxaca). The Zapotec Indians had been kilning this black earth since pre-Columbian times. It has been used many ways, for example as a hard armature at the core of third and fourth epoch artifacts with a slip of softer stuff for the surface details, but the way that appealed to Johnson was the popular method still being used for both folk art and utilitarian pots, with a hot wood fire, no temperature controls, and the smoke contained in the kiln. The clay is grayish, but with the infusion of smoke it turns black and the surface can be burnished to a shiny jet black without glaze. It makes a hard, elaborately-shapeable piece of earthenware which was eminently satisfactory for his full-form pieces with holes. This work was small because he was working with the pottery kilns and fired his work with the native craftsmen, but they were forms which would have been monumental in any scale. Back home in San Francisco he made zoo animals like camels and hippopotami. (He often worked with a circle of friends conversing around him.) He encouraged interested people to try their hand and was a natural teacher. He said near the end that 30 years of a happy marriage had been the greatest thing in his life—this though his wife was mad during her last years. I had known him for several years before he mentioned that he was a Negro; I hadn’t noticed. I was to learn that he had publicized his blackness during the political thirties and always acknowledged his dedication to raising his black brothers out of poverty and misery. His Negro Woman from the thirties is a fine exposition of black beauty with no Europeanizing of the features. But he was always a sculptor before a politician, and the work from that politically-oriented period is very strong and very experimental with a basic solid form in the round and simplified details strived on as a drawing.

Knute Stiles