Update: Sargent Johnson’s Untitled (Negro Mother) sold for $100,000–a record for the artist at auction.
What you see: Sargent Johnson’s Untitled (Negro Mother), a copper repoussé mask created circa 1935-36. It measures about 12 inches long and is estimated at $80,000 to $120,000.
Who is Sargent Johnson? He was a 20th century African-American artist who spent most of his career in San Francisco, and worked in a wide range of artistic media. He earned a national profile with his compelling, sensitive images of African-American subjects. “He worked to convey a more positive view of African-American femininity and womanhood in a time when the images were racist stereotypes,” says Nigel Freeman, director of the African-American fine art department at Swann Galleries. Johnson died in 1967.
What makes Untitled (Negro Mother) so intriguing? It’s one of perhaps ten copper repoussé masks that Johnson made, and most of those are in museum collections. Untitled (Negro Mother) is only the second Johnson mask to come to auction. Swann Galleries sold the first, a 1933 work simply called Mask, for $67,200 against an estimate of $30,000 to $50,000 in 2010. The consignor owned it for 50-odd years, having bought it as an unattributed mask and learning later who created it: “Somebody just sold it as a mask, and the owner discovered the signature on the back and discovered who Sargent Johnson was,” says Freeman.
What else makes Untitled (Negro Mother) a powerful work of art? “It has the character, stature, and dignity that all Johnson’s figures have,” says Freeman. “It’s beautifully proportioned, and you get a sense of the artist being very careful to have everything perfectly balanced. At the same time, you have a strong human presence. That’s what makes his work stand out.”
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Text is copyright Sheila Gibson Stoodley. Image is courtesy of Swann Galleries.