New York

Jacob Lawrence

Various Venues

Three recent shows together comprised the first retrospective view of Jacob Lawrence’s work in nearly a decade, offering a welcome reevaluation of his oeuvre. This impressive showing of 118 paintings testified to Lawrence’s ability to communicate with both art-world and non-art-world audiences—a quality that has predictably compromised his place in the still narrowly defined Modernist canon.

Perhaps Lawrence’s ambiguous position in the history of American art has something to do with the fact that his series “The Migration of the Negro,” 1941, completed when he was just 24, met with a critical acclaim unprecedented for a black artist. This response proved to be both a blessing and a curse, for while the series was clearly deserving of such praise, it became the yardstick by which all the artist’s subsequent work has been measured. Reassembled for the first time in 20 years in the show at MoMA, this series of 60 small-scale panels is certainly compelling. Vividly painted in tempera and accompanied by straightforward captions, each panel tells a chapter in the story of the African-American exodus from the rural South to urban points North between 1918 and 1930. Far from a plodding, objective history, the “Migration” series offers an intimate view of these events through a brilliantly economic, crazy-quilt cubism that is, despite its sophistication, marked by the kind of intuitive fearlessness often associated with autodidacts. Ranging from quasi-abstract Southern landscapes to crowded Northern cityscapes, Lawrence’s series unfolds like a musical composition, the narrative driven by the rhythm of migrant travelers in motion. Most compelling are a number of stark, melancholy scenes—men reading newspapers, a family at dinner, a washerwoman at work—in which Lawrence shunned melodrama in favor of a haunting, understated style that deftly reveals the profound in the quotidian.

Lawrence’s early, eclectic style—reflective of his self-imposed mandate to depict the unofficial, largely unwritten side of American history and social reality—evolves into a more complex, abstract mode in his series “War,” 1946–47, shown at the Whitney Phillip Morris. Comprised of 14 small panels that depict African-Americans in World War II—ranging from the upbeat, staccato cadences of soldiers marching (Another Patrol, 1946) to a somber view of the injured (Going Home, 1947)—this series testifies to Lawrence’s lifelong penchant for experimentation and his refusal to repeat earlier, albeit celebrated, strategies.

Providing a context for understanding “Migration” and “War,” Midtown Payson’s impressively conceived miniretrospective consisted of 44 paintings from the WPA years to the present. Beginning with the artist’s early works-lively, humorous Harlem street scenes such as the collage—like The Photographer, 1942—and progressing to his wildly fragmented, decorative works of the ’50s (including 16 panels of the clearly transitional “Struggle,” series 1955–56), this show presented an expansive view of Lawrence’s career. The otherworldly A Plan to Escape, from the series “Harriet and the Promised Land” (both 1967) represents the artist’s contemplative reprise of black history in the wake of the civil rights movement. Even more introspective are his gouaches, from 1968 and later, that use the image of the construction worker as a means of meditating on human nature. The standout works here were Lawrence’s most recent, loosely configured, allegorical gouaches in which he turns once again to urban life for inspiration. In several works from 1994, the American supermarket is presented as a site of integrated social interaction. A counterpoint to the artist’s early scenes of Harlem, the spiritual The Barefoot Prophet of Harlem, 1994, is a memory spun into an iconic fable-the wisdom of the monumental street preacher is quietly conveyed through his white robe, a large vacuum of negative space that seems to open onto the sublime.

Lawrence has indeed been one of the most respected black artists in America, but, given his penchant for narrative, the balance of his oeuvre has too often been viewed as a footnote to the art historically digestible cubism of “Migration.” Yet Lawrence has consistently proven that being a great storyteller and a great painter are not mutually exclusive endeavors.

Jenifer P. Borum