- The Washington Times - Saturday, May 26, 2001

Works by black artists are popular with museums, and the late Jacob Lawrence heads the list. Mr. Lawrence was the groundbreaker for blacks in the 1940s when Fortune magazine reproduced parts of his "Migration of the Negro" series.
His radically compressed artistic language — skewed linear designs, bold patterning, tilted geometric shapes and plunging perspectives — quickly caught the eye of the public. Distorted, even grotesque, images exuded emotive power for blacks and whites alike. His "Ironers" (1943) shows how effective his use of repetition can be in projecting a message.
Mr. Lawrence, who died last year in Seattle at age 82, became the first black American artist to achieve national and worldwide recognition. The Phillips Collection, especially, underlined his accomplishments with the traveling exhibits "Jacob Lawrence: American Painter" in 1986 and "The Migration Series" in 1993.
Tomorrow, the Phillips opens "Over the Line: The Art and Life of Jacob Lawrence." The museum organized the 200-work show to coincide with publication of the Lawrence catalogue raisonne — the standard reference on the painter — last year. This kind of effort is the highest honor awarded to artists.
Mr. Lawrence unquestionably was a fine artist, but the Phillips Collection need not hype the show as "the most complete assessment ever of Lawrences artistic development and creative process." Nor should it claim that "As Giotto was to the Renaissance, as Exekias was to the glory of Greece, so Mr. Lawrence shines with the clearest portrayal of our culture for the ages."
Consider other black artists such as Archibald Motley, who painted Chicagos "black belt," with works such as "Blues"; the realist Charles White; and poetic cubist Aaron Douglas. They all deserve more than one major traveling exhibition.
Closer to home look at contemporary Washington painters Sylvia Snowden, the late Alma Thomas, David Driskell, Sam Gilliam and Keith Morrison as candidates for extensive showings.
Museums often follow the safe path and show work by artists they know will draw crowds. This is especially important for the Phillips Collection, which is privately funded.
Admirers of Mr. Lawrence all too often have looked at him as a black artist with an angry and bitter story to tell. He was a remarkable storyteller, especially with his early series. These include "The Migration of the Negro" series, the Harriet Tubman series, the John Brown paintings and those of Frederick Douglass and Toussaint LOuverture.
The real fascination of his art, however, is how he transmits so much with so little. The exhibits 30 images from the total of 60 he painted for "The Migration of the Negro" from 1940 to 1941 are still among his best.
Mr. Lawrence was only 23 when he pictured the mass exodus of blacks from the rural South to the industrial North. He began using stylized geometric rhythms and flattened planes to show different kinds of struggles. The first panel shows black people pushing and shoving into a crowded railroad station with signs reading "Chicago," "New York," "St. Louis." He compressed the figures into flattened shapes and gave them a directional thrust.
Mr. Lawrence used exaggerated planes and shapes in the panel titled, "One of the largest race riots occurred in East St. Louis." He stretched an elongated black-clothed dead man across the back of the painting. A black man holds a severed head of a white person while brandishing a dagger.
The artist summed up sorrow and suffering in the panel, "Another cause was lynching." He propels a sharpened tree branch with a lynching rope into the painting from the right. A globular figure huddles below and hides its face.
Both the Phillips and the Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) in New York City wanted to buy what most felt to be an elegy. They compromised: MOMA bought the even-numbered panels, and the Phillips purchased the odd-numbered ones.
Mr. Lawrence believed that Duncan Phillips, a collector and founder of the Phillips Collection, gave him his start as a painter. Curiously, Mr. Phillips never acquired another Lawrence work.
That Mr. Lawrence succeeded as an artist is something short of a miracle. His father deserted the family when Mr. Lawrence was 7. His mother, Rosa Lee, placed Jacob and younger siblings William and Geraldine in foster care in Philadelphia while she looked for work in New York.
She was able to move her children to Harlem in 1930. They went to public school, but she made sure Jacob studied art at the Utopia Childrens House. The noted black artist Charles Alston taught at the after-school day care program, and the youngster was fortunate to study with him.
Mr. Alston saw the artists talent and encouraged him to get further training at the American Artists School and work at the Federal Art Project. Mr. Lawrence was the first artist to receive his complete training in Harlem.
His mother, however, was his most important influence. He remembers that she went to great lengths to create a beautiful home, despite the Depression.
"Our homes were very decorative, full of pattern, like inexpensive throw rugs, all around the house. It must have had some influence, all this color and everything… . I used to do bright patterns after these throw rugs; I got ideas from them, the arabesques, the movement and so on," he said in an interview with Ellen Harkins Wheat in 1983.
Geometric shapes, bold colors and dramatic patterns formed the crux of his art, even into his last years. The later series of "Builders" and "Carpenters" have less of a bite, but they still use his signature visual language. They definitely are more optimistic.
Mr. Lawrence had moved to Seattle in 1971 to accept a full professorship at the University of Washington. The violence of the civil rights movement was over, and his vision mellowed. He lived in Seattle until he died of lung cancer last June 9.
Near the end of his life, the artist painted a standing self-portrait. He shows himself as tall and thin and applying paint to a canvas on an easel. The studio is pitched, with a high ceiling.
The studio also has a window with a view of buildings. It shows a cityscape of Harlem, not Seattle. He may be saying, "The years in Harlem were the best and so were the paintings."

WHAT: "Over the Line: The Art and Life of Jacob Lawrence"
WHERE: Phillips Collection, 1600 21st St. NW
WHEN: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday, until 8:30 p.m. Thursday, noon to 7 p.m. Sunday, through Aug. 19
TICKETS: $12 adults, $9 seniors and students, and free for those younger than 18
PHONE: 202/387-2151
SPONSORS: ExxonMobil, AT&T;


Copyright © 2018 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

The Washington Times Comment Policy

The Washington Times welcomes your comments on Spot.im, our third-party provider. Please read our Comment Policy before commenting.

 

Click to Read More and View Comments

Click to Hide