who died June 9, 2000 at the age of 82, was one of America's greatest
20th Century artists with a spectacular flair for composition
and social comment.
colored works are a blend of realism and abstraction and have
a kindred spirit with the oeuvres of Stuart Davis and Ben Shahn,
but his inventive eye places him with Monet in the pantheon of
those artists gifted with infinite riches of compositional creativity.
introduction to the exhibition catalogue, Peter T. Nesbett, founder
and director of the Jacob Lawrence Catalogue Raisonné Project,
and Michelle DuBois, observe that Lawrence "is an iconic
figure, one of the great modern painters of the twentieth century,
a distinction he earned early in his career when he gained widespread
recognition for the narrative painting series, 'The Migration
of the Negro in 1941.'"
has walked a careful line between abstract and figurative art,"
they wrote, "using aesthetic values for social ends. His
success at balancing such seemingly irreconcilable aspects of
art is a fundamental characteristic of his long and distinguished
career. Lawrence is one of the first American artists trained
in and by the black community in Harlem, and it was from the people
of Harlem that he initially obtained professional recognition.
He was also the first African American artist to receive sustained
support from mainstream art museums and patronage outside of the
black community during an era of legalized and institutionalized
segregation. In 1941, at the age of twenty-four, Lawrence joined
the Downtown Gallery, becoming the first artist of African descent
to be represented by a major commercial art gallery. There he
exhibited alongside such established modernists as Stuart Davis,
John Marin, Charles Sheeler, and Ben Shahn, all of whom later
became close friends. For over sixty years and with intentionally
limited means (water-based paints on boards or paper), he has
harnessed the seductive power of semi-abstract forms to address
many of the great social and philosophical themes of the twentieth
century, especially as they pertain to the lives and histories
of African Americans: migration, manual labor, war, family values,
education, mental health, and creativity. He made visible a side
of American history that includes the contributions of African
Americans; has presented scenes of daily life that provide a compassionate
counterpoint to stereotypical images of African Americans; and
painted poignant social commentary on the effects of racism and
bigotry in American culture."
numerous other fine African-American painters such Romare Bearden,
Horace Pippin, Robert Gwathmey, Robert Duncanson, and Osawa Tanner.
While the African-American experiences and history make up much
of the subject matter of Lawrence's oeuvre, a preoccupation with
the importance of racial interests takes much away from a full
appreciation of his art, which transcends its important subject
matter and is not limited by it. It is a bit unfortunate that
his materials were so inexpensive as they also tend to distract
a viewer from his always powerful and dynamic imagery. While there
is no question that Lawrence was a great "black" artist,
he was, more importantly, a great artist. While Lawrence unquestionably
was very focused on black concerns and issues and his oeuvre is
very important in its social statements, it wrongly marginalizes
his powerful artistic talents to view him merely as an ethnic
Jr. was born in Atlantic City, New Jersey in 1917. Lawrence's
mother and her children moved to Philadelphia in 1924. She moved
to New York City in 1927, but her children stayed in foster homes
in Philadelphia until 1930 when they joined their mother in Harlem
in an apartment at 142 West 143rd Street. Lawrence attended PS
68 and the Frederick Douglass Junior High School and after school
he studied arts and crafts with Charles "Spinky" Alston
at the Utopia Children's House at 170 West 130th Street. In 1932,
Lawrence attended the High School of Commerce and continueed to
study with Alston at the WPA Harlem Art Workshop in the 135th
Street branch of the New York Public Library and then at 306 West
141st Street and from 1934 to 1940 he rented space in Alston's
studio. In 1934 he dropped out of school and delivers newspapers
and liquor and works for a printing shop. The next year he meets
Charles Seifert, a lecturer and historian who encourages him to
make use of the Arthur Schomburg collection at the New York Public
Library and visits museums with him and sees Afrian Negro Art
at the Museum of Modern Art and he begins painting Harlem scenes
using commercial tempera (poster) paints on lightweight brown
Lawrence works for the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) near
Middletown, New York and watches Alston painted Magic and Medicine,
a WPA mural installed in 1937 at the Harlem Hospital.
Lawrence completes his first series, The Life of Toussaint
L'Ouverture, a group of 41 paintings about the establishment
of the first black republic in the Western Hemisphere in Haiti.
In 1937, he obtains a two-year scholarship to the American Artists
School at 131 West 14th Street, an organization that the catalogue
notes was "organized by the John Reed Club, a Communist organization."
He applies to the WPA Federal Art Project but is rejected because
of its age requirements. In 1938, he begins a series on the life
of Frederick Douglass, the Maryland slave turned abolitionist,
speaker and writer and is hired by the easel division of the WPA
Federal Art Project. The Douglass series of 39 paintings
is completed in 1939 and he gives it to the Harmon Foundation
as collateral against a loan of approximately $100 and he begins
work on a series about Harriet Tubman, a former slave who became
an abolitionist and an important figure in the Underground Railroad.
In 1938, Lawrence has a solo exhibition at the Harlem YMCA sponsored
by the James Weldon Johnson Literary Guild and he also exhibits
in the Twenty-one NYC Negro Artists at the Harlem Community
Center. In 1939, Lawrence exhibits with Samuel Wechsler at the
American Artists School and ARTnews notes that his "style
is easy to call primitive but closer inspection reveals draughtsmanship
too accomplished to be called naïve." The Toussaint
series is shown as part of the Contemporary Negro Art
show at the Baltimore Museum of Art and Newsweek singles
it out as a "discovery." The series is then shown at
the De Porres Interracial Council headquarters on Vesey Street
in New York and he is praised by Alain Locke in Opportunity
magazine as an "intuitive genius."
Lawrence wins second prize at Exhibition of the Art of the
American Negro, 1851-1940 at the American Negro Exhibition
in Chicago and the Toussaint series is shown at Columbia
University. Also in 1940, Lawrence gets a $1,500 fellowship from
the Julius Rosenwald Fund to do a series on "the great Negro
migration during the World War" and his application is accompanied
by recommendations by Alain Locke, Lincoln Kirsten, Helen Grayson
and Carl Zigrosser. In 1940 he moves to 33 West 125th Street,
a building where Romare Bearden also has a studio.
year, he works on 60 panels of the Migration series simultaneously,
completing them with the assistance of Gwendolyn Knight, an artist
who prepares the gesso panels and helps write the captions and
he marries her and soon joins the Downtown Gallery where he exhibits
regularly until 1953. The Migration is shown at the Downtown Gallery
and Fortune magazine publishes 26 of the panels. In 1942, Adele
Rosenwald Levy purchases the even-numbered works in the Migration
series for the Museum of Modern Art in New York and Duncan Phillips
agrees to exhibit the entire series at his Phillips Memorial Gallery
in Washington, D.C., and he purchases the remaining 30 panels.
Also in 1942, he is a summer art instructor at Wo-Chi-Ca (Workers
Children's Camp) in Port Murray, New Jersey, a camp loosely affiliated
with the IWO (International Workers Organization), a Communist
organization. According to the catalogue, Lawrence "is recruited
to join the Communist Party but never does."
Lawrence is inducted into the U. S. Coast Guard and the next year
he is assigned to the USS Sea Cloud, a weather patrol boat and
the first racially integrated ship in U.S. naval history. His
paintings of the Coast Guard are shown at the Museum of Modern
Art in October, 1944. In 1946, he teaches at the summer session
at the Black Mountain College in Asheville, N.C., at the invitation
of Josef Albers, who, the catalogue notes, "hires a private
train car to transport the Lawrences to and from Asheville so
they need not move to the 'colored' section of the train at the
Mason-Dixon Line." In 1947, Walker Evans of Fortune magazine
commissions him to do paintings of Negro Life in the South. In
1948, Lawrence voluntarily enters Hillside Hospital in Queens
for depression and Edith Halpert of the Downtown Gallery contributes
to his medical expenses. He stays at the hospital for almost a
Halpert decides to create a new gallery, the Alan Gallery, that
will represent the work of the Downtown Gallery's younger artists
such as Lawrence and Jack Levine, but Lawrence is unhappy with
the arrangement and when four years later the Alan Gallery "restructures"
itself, Lawrence is no longer represented by it, but that same
year, 1957, he serves as president of the New York chapter of
the National Institute of Arts and Letters. In 1958, he joins
the faculty of Pratt Institute where he stays until 1960 when
he is given a retrospective exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum.
In 1962, he joins the stable of the Terry Dintenfass Gallery "through
the encouragement of Robert Gwathmey and Philip Evergood, and
the following year serves as president of the artists' committee
of the Student Non-Violence Coordinating Committee (SNCC). In
1965 he works as artist-in-residence at Brandeis University at
the invitation of Mitchell Siporin, an artist with whom he had
exhibited at the Downtown Gallery.
Lawrence has a retrospective at the Whitney Museum of American
Art and Milton Brown wrote in a catalogue essay that Lawrence
was "the first wholly authentic voice of the Black experience
in the plastic arts," adding that "he avoided the appearance
of sophistication, though his use of 'expressionist' distortion
would indicate an awareness of modern art forms."
Lawrence is a co-founder of the Rainbow Art Foundation with Romare
Bearden, Willem de Kooning and Bill Caldwell to assist young printmarkers
and artists whose art is seldom seen including the work of "indians,
eskimos, asians, hispanics, and blacks."
is exhibited regularly and makes murals for the Joseph R. Addabbo
Federal Building in Queens and the Orlando International Airport
and the Times Square subway station. In 1990, President Bush awards
him the National Medal of Arts. Three years later, Robert Hughes,
the art critic of Time magazine observes that Lawrence's
Migration series, then on view at the Phillips Collection
in Washington, is "of far greater power than almost all the
acreage of WPA murals that preceded them in the 1930s."
In her catalogue
essay, "Inside-Outside, Uptown-Downtown, Jacob Lawrence and
the Aesthetic Ethos of the Harlem Working-Class Community,"
Leslie King-Hammond quotes Charles Alston as stating of Lawrence
that "there was always something very simple and direct about
is approach." She quotes Lawrence that "Our homes were
very decorative, full of pattern, like inexpensive throw rugs.
It must have had some influence, all this color and everything.
Because we were so poor the people used this as a means of brightening
their life. I used to do bright patterns after these throw rugs;
I got ideas from them, the arabesques, the movement and so on."
emphasis on Harlem as the primary subject matter in his nonserial
paintings of the late 1930's and early 1940s," King-Hammond
wrote, "is distinct from the art of many of his colleagues
and mentors at the time. Whereas Lawrence drew thematic inspiration
from his immediate environment, many other artists crated images
that strongly recalled their lives and experiences in the south.
Figurative imagery was important to African American artists and
their communities who longed for a representation that would honor
their likeness. However, the lure of abstraction and the question
of modernism charged the intellect of artists like Norman Lewis,
whose Umbrella tests abstraction's potential to convey
modernist interpretations of African American life. Alston, [Ernest]
Crichlow, Lewis, and Lawrence worked closely during the years
of the 1930s and acted as mutual catalytic forces on each other's
lives and art. From this small sample of images - all produced
in Harlem in the 1930s - it is clear that no two artists in Harlem
worked in the same style. The diversity of styles and approaches
available gave the artists freedom to express themselves individually
while having the support and admiration of their peers."
produces lithographs by Alston, Crichlow and Lewis that clearly
indicate that those artists are very worthy of more attention
points out that "pivotal to the success of the [Migration]
series were the complementary texts that accompanied each panel,"
adding that "Because looking at art was new to the New Negroes,
Lawrence tried, through the text panels, to underscore the message
of his art and to validate his viewers' newly found sense of literacy."
few artists have devoted much of their careers to large narrative
series of paintings, meant to be seen as an ensemble, as opposed
to a thematic series of independent works. Lawrence is certainly
the foremost American artist to have produced several important
narrative series and surely he was influenced to an extent by
the popularity of the Mexican muralists whose work inspired many
artists of the WPA period when large-scale public works required
grandiloquent, if not grandiose, visions.
sounds and music of the jazz age were not lost on Lawrence as
he incorporated the aural elements of rhythms, breaks, and changes
into the visual polyphony of Harlem's environment, people and
culture. Technically, his work in the medium of gouache became
more sophisticated through the assistance of Romare Bearden, who
had a studio in the same building and who also shared a love of
Harlem and jazz," King-Hammond observed.
In her catalogue
essay, "The Education of Jacob Lawrence," Elizabeth
Hutton Turner notes that Frank Lloyd Wright once observed that
Lawrence "would make a good architect" and that early
in his artistic training Lawrence "began making pictures
inside card-board shipping cartons." "Lawrence did not
keep the boxes, but he has described them. They were, as he said,
'places where I had lived.' He did not conceive of them as replicas
- like ships in a bottle. Rather, they were arrangements. He said
that he filled the boxes as one would design for the stage, though,
in his words, 'I didn't know about theatre at the time.' The idea
of people on a platform posing or performing like players would
be carried over to such paintings as Lawrence's migrants and builders
themes. Lawrence has confirmed that he did indeed discover an
analogue to painting while working within the present geometry
of the boxes. 'They were just like any two-dimensional painting
- only they were three-dimensional,' he said."
creating his earliest cycles," Turner wrote, "Lawrence
first wrote captions and completed sketches (sometimes as many
as ten to twenty) for each scene. Lawrence's first question, in
fact, when he met [José Clemente] Orozco making a mural
in New York in 1940 was, 'Where's your sketch, where's your detail?'
Orozco told Lawrence that he did not need one. By 1941 Lawrence
would eliminate the separate step of sketching on paper by drawing
directly on his same-sized gessoed panels of hardboard. He created
rhythms of horizontal and vertical panels as he laid out the narrative
sequence. As [Diego] Rivera said, 'The subject is to the painter
what the rails are to a locomotive.' Set down like a track on
his studio floor, the thirty to sixty panels of a given cycle
could be seen together and, most important, painted all at once.
Lawrence painted color by color, building up pattern and, in so
doing, buttressing dark to light. His choice of colors - black
and burnt umber moving to cadmium orange and yellow - achieves
an overall decorative unity and consistency in The Migration
of the Negro series, for example. Conceived as image and word,
the poetry of Lawrence's cycles emerges from the repetition of
certain shapes. The enlarged single spike or nail, the links of
chains, o lattice, the hand and hammer serve as refrains in the
lives, the decisions, the struggle of African Americans in the
face of injustice."
In her essay,
"The Critical Context of Jacob Lawrence's Early Works, 1938-1952,"
Lizzetta LeFalle-Collins provides the following commentary:
began his career during the waning years of the Harlem Renaissance,
an outgrowth of modernism, when primitivism was current in the
minds of an intellectual world that also included blacks. Harlem,
and its performers and artists who utilized and visually portrayed
black folk idioms, was perceived as exotic. Cabaret acts featuring
black performers who performed a black popular repertoire and
even sacred songs were sought as entertainment, in this country
and abroad, for largely white audiences. Second only to American
Indians, black people were valued in the white American consciousness
and culture only for their so-called primitive qualities. Although
Lawrence was too young to be considered an artist of the Harlem
Renaissance, he and many black artists of the time were met by
a critical reception that perpetuated such ideas. They faced a
dilemma as they concentrated on presenting their new modern black
communities and especially nationalistic folk themes. If not modern
- and they could not be that completely in the eyes of white modernists
- the Negroness expressed in their literature and art was perceived
as primitive by their white audiences. For members of an art world
that delved into the primitive only as voyeurs, Lawrence perfectly
fit the white notion of a black artist. He was not privileged
but poor; he was not light-skinned like his mentors but very black;
he was not university-trained but was characterized as self-taught.
Writing about The Migration of the Negro series in the
New York Sun in 1941, Henry McBride remarked, 'there is
little in Lawrence's work that departs from this saga of sadness.
Its appeal lies in the fact that in his emotional reactions to
it he has really gone native - has preserved the Negro's instinct
for rhythm and love for crude brilliant colors which he handles
with unfailing decorative felicity.' When he produced the Tubman
and Douglass series, these heroes were not yet well known outside
African American communities. His introduction of these characters
into art thus also introduced them to many Americans, and it called
for a bold style. In the Tubman paintings, for instance, Lawrence
shows Tubman's strength through her physical stature: broad, square
shoulders, large blocklike hands, and arms that work like machines.
The artist often stretched this figure beyond the confines of
the frame, expanding the viewer's scope. Lawrence used this abstract
pictorial device in other works, especially those that focused
on manual labor, such as the gouache on paper The Shoemaker.
When The Life of John Brown was first exhibited in 1945,
Lawrence's work - often compared to cartoon and poster work -
was viewed as stylistically similar to that of such other American
artists as Milton Avery. With this series critics began to cast
a more critical eye on Lawrence's compositional designs."
his stay at Hillside Hospital, critics noted that Lawrence's work
became more sophisticated and subtle with a more varied palette.
In his catalogue
essay, "Harmonizer of Chaos, Jacob Lawrence at Midcentury,"
Richard J. Powell minimizes Lawrence's hospitalization and analyzes
his evolving styles.
longer wedded to pictorial storytelling or sequential visual narration,
by the 1950s Lawrence had introduced into his work a heightened
compositional dynamism, bold geometries, and thematic ambiguity.
This shift is important, for it removed him from the social realist
painters and their emphasis on sociopolitical redress in art and,
instead, pushed him closer to the abstractionists and their preoccupations
with intellectual interiority and open-ended interpretations.
Not abstract by any stretch of the imagination nor part of the
roster of 'modernist' art masterpieces as formulated by the critic
Clement Greenberg, Lawrence's new paintings - figurative and anecdotal,
but also decorative and frenetic - put him in league with many
other midcentury American artist and intellectuals. These writers
(e. g., William Burroughs and Allen Ginsberg), musicians (e.g.,
Ornette Coleman and John Cage), and visual artists (e.g., Larry
Rivers and Jasper Johns) often sought refuge in intentionally
vague, indeterminate art vocabularies: devices and languages that,
although unresponsive to the particulars of a social reality,
performed on the fringes of contemporary life and employed elements
of abstraction as a way, ironically, of restoring some semblance
of meaning and order to a decidedly disaffected body politic.
Although it is more the custom to view Jacob Lawrence's art as
essentially humanitarian and stylistically conservative, a closer
look at work he produced during the 1950s reveals abrupt stylistic
departures from earlier formulas, subtle yet stinging observations
about life, and a compositional armature that defied the standard,
several specific paintings and notes that Lawrence's work begins
to convey "an existential blackness that was incidentially
'colored'" rather than blatant "heralding race consciousness."
Powell also observes that Lawrence begins to "compose in
a manner similar to that of many abstract painters [and] one stylistic
stream of painterly abstraction - specifically the investigation
of anthropomorphic, glyphic, and 'all-over' forms - was of growing
fascination to him."
the following commentary on "In the Garden," shown above,
a 1950 casein tempera on paper, 22 3/16 by 30 1/16 inches, which
is in a private collection and one of the most striking works
in the exhibition:
within the painting's humanistic themes are swaying and bending
plant stems, flying saucer-like blossoms, arabesque vegetation,
and miniscule insects buzzing overhead and crawling underfoot,
which collectively contribute to a discordant mood and the emotionally
charged subject. More than just establishing In the Garden's
outdoor setting, these organic elements, rendered with equal measures
of verisimilitude and license, impart a primordial energy and
life force that, ironically, counters the painting's 'work therapy'
subject and an assumed drudge-like and/or institutional subtext.
As with the works of many abstract artists, Lawrence's painted
and drawn lines - at times undulating, or other times staccato
- can be interpreted not solely in terms of what they represent
but, rather, in terms of their implied dynamism and space/time
expressivity; concepts that, in the context of the narrational
concerns of the hospital pictures, shift the painting's emotional
terrain from depression and convalescence to spiritedness and
is one of Lawrence's masterpieces and is worthy of Homer, Van
Gogh, Brueghel, Crivelli, Kirchner and Botticelli. Its persective
is low and looking slightly upwards. Its precision is delicate
but its composition is very strong and compressed. It is flooded
with sunlit air. It is mysterious and strenuous. It is an exuberant
nexus of man and nature, toil and celebration.
discusses another remarkable Lawrence painting of the same year,
"Slums," shown above, a 25-by-21 1/2-inch casein tempera
on paper in the collection of Elizabeth Marsteller Gordon of San
both a contrastive and a comparative way, Lawrence magnified the
actions of flies, cockroaches, and other vermin, while simultaneously
minimizing the painting's subject: crowded and substandard urban
housing. The ultimate visual effects are an amazing blend of social
documentary squalor, an almost surrealistic inversion of realistic
scale and proportion and, most important, compositional overtures
to diminutive, calligraphic- and grid-informed abstractions. Lawrence's
decision in Slums to deemphasize human suffering and underscore
the almost incidental presence of foraging insects denied spectators
the assurances of relying on a classic, social realist 'art script.'
Instead, Slums (like In the Garden) draws one's
imagination away from reality and its attendant social agenda
to a highly animated pictorial maelstrom that, though still grounded
in figuration and signification, resonates with abstract, value-free
conceptualizations and an art of linear tracings, visionary markings,
and arresting colors."
is compartmentalized horror. While it is brilliantly conceived,
it is not as superbly finished as "In the Garden." It
is, nonetheless, a wonderful work.
would soon shift his focus to performances as subject matter and
then in 1956 he completed another major cycle entitled "Struggle
From the History of the American People." These works are
markedly dynamic and forceful. No. 23 in the series, shown below,
entitled "if we fail, let us fail like men, and expire together
in one common struggle-Henry Clay, 1813," is quite astounding.
The 16-by-12-inch egg tempera and on hardboard, collection of
Dr. Kenneth Clark, is a stunning abstraction.
the following commentary on this work:
the explicit narrative in Struggle painting No. 23 was America's
military shortcomings during the war of 1812 (specifically, the
high death toll that resulted from an 1813 clash with the British
on Lake Erie), Lawrence's jagged 'building blocks' and accents
in black, white, gray, and red construct a pictorial space that,
like paintings by the noted abstractionists Robert Motherwell
and Franz Kline, can be interpreted as portraying something social
and/or behavioral (i.e., aggression, confrontation, and resignation).
The implicit narrative here is the universal, uphill 'battle'
with life, and the inevitable feelings of personal entrapment
and loss that all human beings experience."
a great painting.
Jacob Lawrence maintained that he was not a
"protest" painter but a depictor of scenes. He had ambitious
visions and experimented considerably with his styles over the
decades. Some of the works in the series are a bit clumsy, but
most likely intentionally so and always strong and there is little
ambiguity about his sympathy for his subjects.
This is a splendid show and an excellent catalogue.