Painter Jacob Lawrence Still Grips and Stings

The American painter Jacob Lawrence, who died last year at

the age of 82, had the good fortune to enjoy a long and cordial association

with the Phillips Collection in Washington, D.C.. The connection dated from

1941, when the museum’s founder, Duncan Phillips, acquired the 30 odd-numbered

panels from the artist’s 60-picture Migration

Series on its inaugural exhibition at Edith Halpert’s Downtown Gallery in

New York, one of the leading venues for the showing of 20th-century American

art at that time. The 30 even-numbered Migration

pictures were simultaneously acquired by the Museum of Modern Art.

This exhibition and the prompt purchase of its 60 paintings

would have been a capital event for an artist of any age or background, but

Lawrence was then 23 years old, and he was black. Indeed, this show is said to

have been the first to be devoted to the work of an African-American artist in

a major commercial gallery, and it instantly established Lawrence’s reputation

as an important American talent. Now, some six decades later, all of the 60

pictures in the Migration Series ,

also known as The Migration of the Negro ,

have been reunited at the Phillips Collection in a large retrospective exhibition

of the artist’s work organized by the museum’s senior curator, Elizabeth Hutton

Turner. Entitled Over the Line: The Art

and Life of Jacob Lawrence , the show contains more than 200 works, with the

earliest dating from 1936, and is timed to coincide with the recent publication

of The Complete Jacob Lawrence , a

large two-volume work that includes a catalogue

raisonné documenting an oeuvre of

900-plus paintings, prints and drawings.

In an attempt to account for the remarkable response that

Lawrence’s work met with in 1941, several things need to be understood. One is

the unusual character of the artist’s principal pictorial project-the

multi-panel narrative, conceived to be experienced as a single, continuous

work-that Lawrence appears to have invented for himself at an early age. Prior

to the creation of the Migration Series

in 1940-41, he had already produced multi-panel narratives devoted to the lives

of Toussaint L’Ouverture, Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman-“my heroes when

I was young,” Lawrence said, whose exploits he’d first heard of in his boyhood

from street-corner orators in Harlem. Thus, the painter whose work Duncan

Phillips encountered at the Downtown Gallery in 1941 was anything but a novice.

The style that Lawrence perfected for these pictorial

narratives was also a personal invention. Writing about this style on the

occasion of an earlier Lawrence retrospective (at the Whitney Museum in 1974),

I made some observations that may be useful to recall here. “Into each image,

executed in tempera, gouache or watercolor,” I wrote, “is distilled a dramatic

episode or emotion of great simplicity, yet the crowded succession of such

images traces a complex course …. Drawing is reduced to the delineation of flat

shapes and easily read gestures. Figures are seen as the sum of their actions,

never as individualized personalities. Color is generally somber, yet

illuminated by moments of gemlike intensity. There is an extraordinary velocity

in this style and an extraordinary empathy. It succeeds in creating a world,

and it holds us in its grip.”

Another thing that needs to be understood about this

pictorial style is its relation to the prevailing political atmosphere in which

the young Jacob Lawrence came of age as an artist in Harlem in the 1930’s. The

Depression era was, of course, the heyday of social-protest painting, much of

which scorned modernist innovation in favor of blatant illustration. Much of

this so-called Social Realism was also blatantly ideological in its abject

loyalty to whatever the Communist Party line on art and culture happened at the

moment to be, whether espousing the myth of proletarian virtue or the more

inclusive clichés of Popular Front progressivism.

It was yet another of Lawrence’s distinctions that in his

art he remained resolutely aloof from both the incendiary rhetoric and the

pictorial formulas of the Social Realist school, even when dealing with

subjects that easily lent themselves to Social Realist treatment. Thus, in the Migration Series , which recounts the

story of the African-American exodus from the Jim Crow South to the more

liberal, but by no means unsegregated, 

cities of the North, both the pictorial images and the terse,

unembellished texts that accompany them are remarkable for their self-imposed

simplicity and restraint. Nothing horrendous is omitted from this narrative,

neither the lynchings in the South nor the poverty, prejudice and exploitation

in the North. Yet the moral indictment that is implicit in the entire narrative

is all the more stinging because of the cool, almost storybook manner of its

depiction. Indeed, the deliberately understated style of the Migration Series gives to its account of

the heroism of the exodus story something of the quality of a traditional folk


In some of Lawrence’s later work, his use of multi-panel

narrative did not achieve the same quality, however. In my view, anyway, the Hiroshima Paintings (1983) and his Eight Studies for the Book of Genesis

(1989) are his least persuasive pictures. They have the look of subjects that have

been confected from social pieties remote from personal experience. The best of

Lawrence’s later paintings are genre scenes of contemporary Harlem life. So are

the best early paintings- Library

(1937), for example, a portrait of Arthur Schomberg, and Interior (Scene) (1937). These suggest, among much else, that the

young Lawrence had taken a hard look at Analytical Cubism and found in both its

formal structures and its limited palette aesthetic ideas that could be adapted

to his narrative project. In the later Builders

Paintings (1946-98), a similar but somewhat amplified Cubist imperative,

closer in color and structure to Fernand Léger and Stuart Davis, remains


About the role of Cubism in Lawrence’s oeuvre and the shift to more vivid color in the later work, Lowery

Stokes Sims writes very well in her essay on “The Structure of Narrative” for

the catalog of the Over the Line

exhibition. Among other things, she calls our attention to the influence of

Josef Albers on Lawrence’s use of color in the later pictures. Albers had

invited Lawrence to teach at Black Mountain College in 1949. “According to

Lawrence,” Ms. Sims writes, “Albers was the first person ‘outside the

community’ to have a significant impact on him as an artist.” All of which is a

salutary reminder of what Lawrence owed to the aesthetics of modernism for the

realization of a pictorial project that is seldom associated with it. But this

commitment to modernism is obviously something that Duncan Phillips and the

folks at MoMA recognized 60 years ago.

Lawrence was a remarkable artist-as remarkable for his

independence as for his pictorial gifts-and the exhibition that Ms. Turner has

organized at the Phillips Collection is surely the most ambitious ever to be

devoted to his work. It remains on view in Washington through Aug. 19, and will

then travel to the Whitney Museum of American Art here in New York (Nov. 18,

2001, to Feb. 3, 2002), the Detroit Institute of Arts (Feb. 23 to May 19,

2002), the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (June 16 to Sept. 8, 2002) and the

Museum of Fine Arts in Houston (Oct. 6, 2002, to Jan. 5, 2003). Painter Jacob Lawrence Still Grips and Stings