The Art and Life of Jacob Lawrence Examined at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston
HOUSTON, TEX. – A major retrospective of works by Jacob Lawrence will open at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston on October 6. More than 200 works span the breadth of Lawrence’s career, life and creative process. The national tour “: The Art and Life of Jacob Lawrence,” organized by The Phillips Collection, Washington, D.C., will make its final stop in Houston, and the exhibition will be on view through January 5.
Lawrence (1917-2000), who was raised in Harlem, is known for his colorful paintings that often depict the struggle of African-Americans in urban society. Despite the critical acclaim and popularity of his work, the evolution of Lawrence’s long career had not been previously examined or understood. “: The Art and Life of Jacob Lawrence” is the first exhibition to examine the complex nature of his radical invention and to present to a vast audience the dynamic evolution of his style, technique, and methods.
“Jacob Lawrence may have been inspired by personal experiences and those around him, but his themes are universal,” said Peter C. Marzio, the museum’s director. “This exhibition depicts struggles for human dignity, freedom, and justice. These issues transcend racial lines and resonate among all Americans, despite their differences.”
Lawrence worked against a tide that, for his generation, turned overwhelmingly in favor of nonobjective art after 1945. He was insistent in addressing the human condition and embracing the figurative. His stylistic power comes not from description but out of abstraction, as it comprises both historical and contemporary subjects from the Civil War period to the civil rights movements and into the present.
“Jacob Lawrence chronicled the vast range of experiences in black America from the small daily events that give character to a community to the major chapters of American life that served to change modern history,” said the museum’s curator of modern and contemporary art Alvia Wardlaw, who is organizing the exhibition in Houston. “He captured aspects of black life with a brilliant assurance of design and a bold and original color scheme. It is this dynamic combination of content and visual approach in his art that defines the genius of Lawrence.”
The exhibition is organized around themes and series to demonstrate the artist’s stylistic development and experimentation within his treatment of a theme over time. These themes include “Interiors and Exteriors,” “Performance and Games,” “Work and Workers,” and “Struggle.”
Through the generosity of more than 80 lenders, including institutions, organizations, and about 40 individuals, many paintings that have rarely, if ever, been on view, have been made available for this exhibition. For example, the 1936 drawings Lawrence created while he was in the Civilian Conservation Corps and works completed in the last years of his life are being displayed for the first time in a major exhibition.
For more than 60 years, Lawrence addressed many social and philosophical concerns of the Twentieth Century. He used stark images and bold colors to illustrate the lives and histories of African-Americans, including migration, manual labor, war, family values, and education.
In Lawrence’s 1967 painting “,” he portrays Harriet Tubman crossing the border into Canada, but like the birds around her, she is not touching the ground. She is both above and beyond the line – “” in both senses of the term. In that depiction of Tubman crossing the border, a dynamic moment of transition and transgression alludes to the types of borders Lawrence crossed. He built pathways as he traversed between his commitment to telling the African-American story and presenting it in the highly segregated art world, which passionately received it.
Referring also in a concrete sense to Lawrence’s technique, in which he first created a detailed underdrawing then covered up the lines as he painted, the title, “,” acknowledges this artistic technique.
Lawrence’s sympathy for the working class, especially women, is evident in his works. The dire employment conditions in America made the lives of African-Americans particularly difficult. He witnessed this firsthand, as his mother struggled to work as domestic help and then returned home, tired, to raise three children by herself. His respect for black women was fostered in part by his deep friendship with and marriage, in 1941, to the artist Gwendolyn Clarine Knight.
While he was sympathetic to black women, he had great respect for their strength and perseverance. For example, in the painting “Ironers” (1943), Lawrence shows the female worker from several perspectives, that of a primary caretaker of her home, of an employed worker in service to a white family, and of a factory worker in the New York garment industry. The arms of the women show strength, but the bowed heads indicate resignation to the respective, boring work. The anonymity of the subjects, shown in many of Lawrence’s works, indicates the commonplaceness of this condition to all black women of that era.
Indeed, most of Lawrence’s work depicts struggle, hardships, and the quest for civil rights, especially during the 1960s; however, Lawrence painted other pictures as well – of people studying in libraries, socializing in pool halls, and having social exchanges. The painting “Dominoes” (1958) reveals a culture of endearing qualities. He aims to tell the story of working people’s lives, not just their struggles against oppression, but their small pleasures as well, their private moments. This remained the creative goal of Lawrence and his contribution to both history and art.
Lawrence was one of the first American artists trained in and by the black community in Harlem, and the first African-American artist to receive sustained support from mainstream art museums outside the black community during an era of legalized segregation. Lawrence received his earliest art instruction at an after-school care center from Charles Alston, then a graduate student at Columbia University Teacher’s College. Lawrence continued to study with Alston throughout the 1930s. During this time, he encountered notable artists, writers, and activists, such as Langston Hughes, Orson Welles, and Augusta Savage, all of whom had a profound effect on his artistic development. He gained national recognition by the age of 24 and continued throughout his 82 years to produce evocative and creative works. Lawrence never swayed from his commitment to the African-American experience.
Today his works can be found in nearly 200 museum collections nationwide, and his has been the subject to three retrospective exhibitions. The book, Hiroshima, 1983, illustrated by Lawrence and his painting, “1920…The Migrants Cast their Ballots,” 1974, can be found in the permanent collection at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston.
The museum is at 1001 Bissonnet Street. For information, 713-639-7300 or visit www.mfah.org.