By Amy O’Hair
When the old gymnasiums at the City College of San Francisco Ocean Campus were torn down in 2008, as the new Wellness Center was built, three pieces of artwork by Sargent Johnson attached to the structures had to come down too. Fortunately they were preserved, though their destiny remains undetermined.
Mounted over the entrances of the old gyms were three bas-reliefs Johnson created when it was built in 1940. Architect Timothy Pflueger commissioned the works, just as he commissioned art for almost every building he designed, even something as modest as a gym.
The gyms (one for women, one for men) were two of the first three buildings designed by Pflueger and constructed for the campus, the third being Science Hall. That building’s colorful murals are much better known as public art, and still stand. Johnson’s works were removed before the gyms were demolished, and have been in storage since then.
The Sports Figures
The three reliefs depict sports-related subjects: a group of female ball players; a female tennis player; and a group of male athletes. They are made of cast concrete.
On the South Gymnasium (women’s) there were two figures. First, a set of three women playing medicine ball. (See the end of this article for an explanation of medicine ball.)
Also on the women’s gym, there was a tennis player–an almost comic figure.
On the North Gym (for men), the third work was located over the entrance, a set of three men, a shot putter, discus thrower, and football player.
Preserving the Works
These three City College works were saved through the efforts of Will Maynez, a retired physics teacher who is currently leading the Diego Rivera Mural restoration and relocation. He stepped in to make sure these works were removed, measured, and stored carefully before the old gymnasiums were demolished. Casts of the works were also made before going into storage.
A California Modernist
Sargent Claude Johnson (1888-1967) was a preeminent African American artist working in California. Many of his works are in the collection of San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.
He is recognized for his striking figures and sustained attention to Black subjects, while also borrowing forms from a wide range of cultural traditions such as Asian and Mexican art—a quintessential California Modernist.
He is recognized as part of the Harlem Renaissance, yet spent the greatest part of his career in the Bay Area. His working life spanned the period between the 1910s and the 1960s. He trained and worked with Ralph Stackpole and Beniamino Bufano in San Francisco.
Other Public Art by Sargent Johnson
Johnson did work during the Golden Gate International Exposition, including two playful llama sculptures.
He also worked there with muralist Herman Volz, whose marble mosaics can still be seen on north and south porticoes of Science Hall at City College.
Johnson did much work that is still part of the public sphere in San Francisco. As a WPA artist he worked on the Maritime Museum in the late 1930s, doing bold mosaic murals inside and the slate bas-relief frieze that covers the front of the building. More photos of Johnson’s work at the Maritime Museum here and here.
Johnson also created the massive frieze next to the athletic field at George Washington High School in 1942. This project was due to go to Benny Bufano, but rumors of Bufano’s intention to incorporate an image of labor leader Harry Bridges into the frieze proved too radical for the powers that be, and so it was offered to Johnson instead, who was known to avoid overt political stances in his work.
You Can’t Do That
One remarkable innovation that Johnson was responsible for originating in the modern era that has not been properly credited to him is the incised columnar form. In 1933, he created the striking work called Forever Free, which is now at SFMOMA. The sculpture is a smooth column in form, yet also has inscribed figures in the skirt, combining three-dimensional sculpture with bas-relief work.
When Benny Bufano saw this, he said to Johnson, “You’re not allowed to do that!”
Then Bufano promptly copied the new form and used it for the rest of his career, without ever acknowledging the intellectual and artistic debt he owed to Johnson. Bufano was a difficult person to work with, as Johnson recounted in an oral history in 1964 (see link at end of this article). Bufano’s most famous works make great use of this combined form that Johnson originated, such as his many St Francis figures.
Uneven Stewardship of a Powerful Legacy
Although the SF Museum of Modern Art held an important retrospective in 1998 that helped re-establish Sargent Johnson’s deserved reputation, some of his work has been undersold or mishandled.
A scandalous example was in 2015, when a massive log carving of his was ‘found’ in a public park in the Western Addition, much decayed. It was promptly hauled off by the SF Arts Commission into storage. Its fate is currently unknown. More about that in the Links section at the end of this article.
In 2009, UC Berkeley sold a Johnson work for a trifling $164, which was subsequently valued at something approaching a million dollars. The work is now in the Huntington Library Art Museum. Read more about it here.
The Future Fate of the Johnson Gym Reliefs
After being put into storage, the City College bas-reliefs were at one point slated to become part of the north retaining wall behind the new soccer field, built in 2012, but that wall was too low to be a good site for them.
Perhaps the new construction planned for the CCSF Ocean Campus in the near future will find a place where the gymnasium bas-reliefs can be placed in public view.
These works by this remarkable and significant twentieth-century African American artist deserve to be once again enjoyed by the public.
What is medicine ball?
The type of ball handled by the women in the gym bas-relief has been the subject of some dispute. Johnson did not leave notes explaining his work. Some think it is a basketball, but I find the argument for it being a medicine ball more convincing. It lacks the characteristic lines of a basketball, and the manner in which the women are handling it suggests it is heavy, like a medicine ball.
This type of weighted ball is used for strength training, mostly in solo workouts now. But once it was more often used for games. This video of men playing volleyball with one shows just what kind of serious strength was needed to play with it. Johnson chose this game for his artwork, thereby foregrounding female strength.
Sargent Johnson: Links for further reading:
- An oral history with Sargent Johnson (1964): https://www.aaa.si.edu/collections/interviews/oral-history-interview-sargent-johnson-11474
- About the relationship and work of Sargent Johnson and Beniamino Bufano:
- African American Citywide Historic Context Statement (draft; SF Planning Dept): https://commissions.sfplanning.org/hpcpackets/AfricanAmericanHistoricContextStatement.pdf
- “New Negro on the Pacific Rim: Sargent Johnson’s Afro-Asian Sculptures,” John P. Bowles. PDF: https://repository.si.edu/handle/10088/17973
- “Sargent Johnson and Bufano,” historical essay by Tommy L Lott on FoundSF.org https://www.foundsf.org/index.php?title=Sargent_Johnson_and_Bufano
- Essay and photos: Sargent Johnson (1888-1967) Works in the Melvin Holmes Collection of African American Art https://issuu.com/msmodular72/docs/instant-pdf-p14807014
- Historical essay by Tommy L Lott on Johnson, at Found SF: https://www.foundsf.org/index.php?title=Sargent_Johnson:_The_%22New_Negro%22_Artist
- Reportage about the log sculpture:
- SF Chronicle “Where’s the mysterious ‘log’ sculpture now?” 3 Jun 2016: https://www.sfchronicle.com/art/article/Where-s-the-mysterious-log-sculpture-now-7961844.php
- Post on Art and Architecture SF: https://www.artandarchitecture-sf.com/log.html
- The UC Berkeley sales debacle in 2012:
- An e-plaque for Sargent Johnson: http://berkeleyplaques.org/e-plaque/sargent-johnson/
- Book: Sargent Johnson: African American Modernist, Lizzetta LeFalle-Collins and Judith Wilson, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, 1998.
- Book: City College of San Francisco, Julia Bergman, Valerie Sherer Mathes, and Austin WHite, Arcadia, 2010.
- Quoted in “New Negro on the Pacific Rim: Sargent Johnson’s Afro-Asian Sculptures,” John P. Bowles, in East-West Interchanges in American Art: A Long and Tumultuous Relationship, edited by Mills, Cynthia, Glazer, Lee, and Goerlitz, Amelia A., 142–157. Smithsonian Contributions to Knowledge. PDF accessed Nov 2020: https://repository.si.edu/handle/10088/17973 ↑