Published: December 26, 2000
Jacob Lawrence Memorial Retrospective at D.C. Moore
NEW YORK CITY – Jacob Lawrence has been widely considered one of America’s preeminent painters for the last six decades. He passed away in June 2000 and the retrospective exhibition from February 6 to March 3 will be presented in his honor and dedicated to his memory at D.C. Moore Gallery. It will include more than 30 paintings selected from over 60 years of Lawrence’s career. Chronologically the works range from the 1937 paintings “Christmas” and “Junk” to some of the artist’s last paintings from the 1998 “Builders” series.
“Jacob Lawrence occupies an unusual position in the history of American Art,” observes Peter Nesbett in the introduction to the recently published book Over the Line: The Art and Life of Jacob Lawrence. “He is an iconic figure, one of the great modern painters of the Twentieth Century…He has walked a careful line between abstract and figurative art, 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.”
This exhibition leads the viewer on a journey which roughly parallels the artist’s own experience, New York City’s Harlem is represented in works from virtually every decade from the 1930s through the 1980s. Lawrence’s move to Seattle, Washington in the early 1970s is symbolized by the “Builders” theme, represented by works dating from 1971 through 1998.
Lawrence was born in 1917 in Atlantic City, N.J. His family moved to New York City’s Harlem in 1930, where young Lawrence came into contact with some of the greatest artistic and intellectual minds of his generation. During the previous decade, Harlem had experienced the rich period known as the Harlem Renaissance, and the neighborhood was still the focal point of African-American culture. Before he was 20 years old, Lawrence had developed a powerful, concise style that expressed all of the vibrancy and pathos of the neighborhood and its occupants.
Lawrence became a nationally known figure virtually overnight when his “The Migration Series” was shown at New York’s Downtown Gallery in 1941. The 24-year-old artist became the first African American to be represented by a New York gallery. Fortune magazine published a lengthy article on the series that reproduced 26 of series’ 60 panels, and the entire series was purchased jointly by the Museum of Modern Art and the Phillips Collection.
Lawrence was drafted into the Coast Guard during World War II and was assigned duty as a combat artist. Following his discharge, the artist returned to Harlem and resumed painting vignettes of neighborhood life. He was invited to teach at Black Mountain College in 1946 – the first of many teaching posts he would take over the years. Lawrence received a Guggenheim Foundation grant to paint the “War” series in 1946 and 47, and in 1947 Fortune Magazine commissioned him to do ten paintings examining postwar conditions in the American South. His next major series was “Struggle: From the History of the American People,” produced in 1955-56.
During the 1950s and 60s, Lawrence’s work was characterized by stylistic experimentation and everyday imagery. In the late 1960s, he returned to a more straight forward style and optimistic outlook. In 1971, Lawrence was offered a permanent position teaching art at the University of Washington, and he and his wife, artist Gwendolyn Knight, moved to Seattle. Thematically, he concentrated on the topic of “Builders.” Within the wide field of development offered by the “Builders” subject, Lawrence underscored a life-long vision of man’s labor and struggle as his major theme.
Over the last decade, a number of major traveling exhibitions of Lawrence’s work have been presented in museums across the country. These include: “Jacob Lawrence: American Painter,” organized by the Seattle Museum of Art; “Jacob Lawrence: The Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman Series of 1938-40,” organized by the Hampton University Museum in Virginia; and “Jacob Lawrence’s The Migration Series,” organized jointly by the Phillips Collection in Washington, D.C. and the Museum of Modern Art in New York.
“Over the Line: The Art and Life of Jacob Lawrence,” a major traveling exhibition which opens at the Phillips Collection in May of 2001, will be seen in museums across the country from 2001 to 2003, including the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York City, the Detroit Institute of Arts in Michigan, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art in California and the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston, Tex. A definitive two volume catalogue raisonne and examination of Lawrence’s life and work, also titled Over the Line: The Art and Life of Jacob Lawrence, was published in the fall by the University of Washington Press.
D.C. Moore Gallery is located on the eighth floor of 724 Fifth Avenue between 56th and 57th Streets and is open Tuesday through Saturday from 10 am to 5:30 pm. For information 212/247-2111.
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