PRINT September 1974

Jacob Lawrence: Carpenter Cubism

IN MILTON BROWN'S FUNDAMENTAL account of Jacob Lawrence’s career, prepared for the artist’s retrospective at the Whitney Museum, he arrives at the autumn of 1941 when Edith Halpert presciently agreed to exhibit Jacob Lawrence’s work:

Here was a Black artist dealing seriously and boldly with Black life, breaking through racial stereotypes and hackneyed artistic mannerisms, expressing himself in a contemporary idiom. But is it also true that the apparent primitivism, the child-like directness, the vibrant color conformed to a preconceived image of what Black art should look like?

The question is risked rhetorically; an affirmative answer is taken for granted, a response predicated—then as now—in white bourgeois liberal guilt. The issue, as I see it, is not just Lawrence’s black identity or black subject matter—the issue is how to equate these concerns with the artist’s familiar yet viable fusion of Synthetic Cubism and Expressionist representationalism.

Admittedly, access to these formal terms was difficult to the black artists of Lawrence’s generation. Still, what is particularly impressive about Jacob Lawrence’s career is not just the creation of a corpus that is compelling in formal terms. Even more impressive is his ability to imaginatively recreate the heroic and tragic narratives of black history. Toussaint L’Ouverture, Frederick Douglass, Harriet Tubman, the black migration from the South to Harlem—these were the historical and social questions Lawrence addressed himself to, issues largely neglected or misrepresented in conventional white American history. In this achievement, Jacob Lawrence strikes me as having made a still immeasurable contribution to American cultural values. His telling of these black episodes has become the visual primers upon which much contemporary black pride has been built. If we believe that major art can create forms capable of altering consciousness, then Lawrence’s pictorial syntax is as striking as his startling gift for transforming complex historical events into graspable narratives. Probably his skill at distilling history so simply and tellingly is allied to his boyhood gift for “pattern-making” as Romare Bearden and Harry Henderson call it in Six Black Masters of American Art, a children’s book aimed at instilling pride and awareness of racial artistic models in black children long deprived of such moral examples.

Equally striking is Lawrence’s pragmatic acceptance of a once standard Cubist-Expressionist mode. Lawrence is sublimely unconcerned with the Kantian doubt that underlies the evolution of Modernist art history—of which the central paradigm is Analytical Cubism’s transformation into Synthetic Cubism. Instead, Lawrence views Cubist-Expressionist representationalism in terms of a fundamental exploitation harnessed to straight narrative needs. In this, Lawrence demonstrates the vitality of a style which was long thought to be merely decorative. In Lawrence’s hands that conceptual complex is transformed into a Carpenter Cubism, as serviceable and as malleable as the situation warrants. In these terms, the bad faith underlying the argument that here at last was a modern black artist is rendered far more interesting.

Lawrence’s formal “modernity” is perhaps the element that most allies his paintings to a longer evolution of American art—from the Carpenter Gothic of the 17th century, to the pattern-making of the journeymen limners of the 18th century, to the regional folk styles of the 19th century. In discovering “black modernism,” Lawrence’s “modernity” paradoxically treads the same evolutionary pathways of earlier white American culture seeking its identity and syntax. A further irony: though out of phase, the formal problems of black art and white art in our national traditions are thus inextricably interlocked. A final irony: this interlocking may in the end provide the means for white art historians and critics to address themselves to issues of black art—and the converse—with insight, freed at last, of the onus of racial and class guilt on either side.

––Robert Pincus-Witten