SARGENT JOHNSON (1888 - 1967) Untitled (Head of an Athlete).
Painted plaster, circa 1942. Approximately 584x533x51 mm; 23x21x2 inches.
Provenance: private collection, New York.
This plaster bas-relief head by Sargent Johnson is a very scarce and exciting find - it is the only known surving plaster model from his 1942 frieze at George Washington High School. This monumental frieze, 12-feet high and 185-feet wide, was made in cast stone in 6x14 feet sections, and is easily the largest work by the artist. It spanned a retaining wall across the back of the high school football field, located at 32nd Street and Anza in San Francisco. This enormous neo-classical design depicts swimming, diving, rowing and leaping male and female athletes - each figure is larger than life size.
Johnson was awarded the job by the WPA and subsequently approved by the San Francisco Art Commission in 1940. He replaced the commission's original choice of his long mentor Beniamino Bufano. A political and contentious selection process and the eventual choice of Johnson over Bufano ended their long friendship. The 1941 maquette Johnson used to win his eventual selection is in the collection of the George Washington High School. This concrete maquette and a large drawing study in the collection of the Oakland Museum of California were both included in the 1998 exhibition Sargent Johnson: African-American Modernist at the San Francisco Museum of Art. Montgomery pp. 22-23; LeFalle-Collins/Wright pp. 82-83.