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Huntington is adding two 20th century works to its American art holdings

May 4, 2011 | 12:05 pm

The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens
has acquired its first major work by an African American artist and what it calls "a long-desired addition" to its paintings by the anti-academic group of American artists known as the Eight.

Sargent Claude Johnson's 1937 redwood screen for a pipe organ and Ernest Lawson's oil "Harlem Flats (Back Lot Laundry)," circa 1907, were purchased at the 17th Art Collectors' Council meeting last weekend.

"These are extremely important acquisitions that help us tell a more complete story about American art made in the first half of the 20th century," says Jessica Todd Smith, chief curator of American art.

Johnson was one of the first African American artists from the West Coast to develop a national reputation. He created the 22-foot-long screen for an organ at the California School for the Blind in Berkeley while working for the Federal Art Project, a part of the Depression-era Works Progress Administration. The school later relocated and the piece was eventually removed from the site, says Smith, who calls the purchase "an extraordinary opportunity to acquire a monumental WPA sculpture."

The untitled screen--which is carved, gilded, stained and painted--depicts what Smith describes as "a beautiful Garden of Eden-like setting with a tree of life as a focal point surrounded by people, animals and plants."

A painting by Lawson "has been on our wish list," says Smith, because the Huntington already displays works by many members of the Eight, whose portrayals of urban life helped to inspire the Ashcan School.Lawson "Harlem Flats" offers a glimpse of early 20th century New York that, she says,"clearly demonstrates Lawson's roots in the Ashcan School and the Eight. It's a lot more engaged in the working life of the city than many of his later, strictly Impressionist landscapes, but it's done with the beautiful, angled afternoon light and palette that is resonant of the Impressionists."

The Art Collectors' Council meeting is an annual event at which members view and vote on potential acquisitions suggested by curators. Purchases are paid for by council donations matched by funds from the San Marino institution. This year, before the voting began, the council was told that one member, business executive Kelvin Davis,  had said he would buy one of the offerings, "Harlem Flats," for the Huntington. The council then picked the Johnson sculpture.

The Johnson and Lawson pieces came from dealers, says Smith, who adds that the Huntington does not discuss prices. "However, we can say that thanks to the gift by Kelvin Davis we were able to acquire over a million dollars' worth of art for the collections."

The council includes more than 40 households who pay $7,500 in dues in exchange for two votes at the selection meeting. This year, curators focused on American art. Next year, they will look to Europe.

The Huntington's new acquisitions are scheduled to be on view in the Virginia Steele Scott Galleries of American Art through mid-May. The Johnson will undergo conservation before joining the permanent collection. The Lawson is set for display with Ashcan works in the Scott galleries.

--Karen Wada

Photos: Top: A 22-foot-long redwood screen for a pipe organ (1937) by Sargent Claude Johnson.  Bottom: "Harlem Flats (Back Lot Laundry)" (circa 1907) by Ernest Lawson. Credits: The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens