Published: June 26, 2001
Over the Line:
WASHINGTON, D.C. – A major retrospective of works by Jacob Lawrence is on view at The Phillips Collection through August 19. Bringing together over 200 works spanning the breadth of his long career, the exhibition is the most complete assessment ever of Lawrence’s artistic development and creative process and includes works that have never been exhibited before. Organized by The Phillips Collection, “Over the Line: ” will later travel to the Whitney Museum of American Art, the Detroit Institute of Fine Arts, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, and the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston.
The exhibition was planned on the occasion of the publication of The Complete Jacob Lawrence. This two-volume catalog raisonne is the definitive publication on the work of Jacob Lawrence and inspired the artist himself to invite The Phillips Collection, a leading institution on Lawrence scholarship, to organize this major retrospective. Through its exhaustive research, the project located a number of significant works in private collections, many of which will be exhibited for the first time in this retrospective.
“Even though Jacob Lawrence painted from personal experience and the experiences of those around him, his themes are universal,” said Jay Gates, director of The Phillips Collection. “His stories of struggle, discrimination, and the quest for freedom, justice, and human dignity transcend racial lines and reveal truths that resonate with us today.”
“Guided by mentors in his Harlem community, Lawrence found his own voice and vision in painting,” added Elizabeth Hutton Turner, senior curator at the Phillips and organizer of the exhibition. “By presenting a broad overview of his life’s work, in combination with a close examination of his creative process, this exhibition will allow us to see for the first time how the radical means of his teachers enabled Lawrence to invent his own, ultimately modern, pictorial language.”
“Over the Line: ” will underscore Lawrence’s special relationship to The Phillips Collection. His work has been represented in the holdings of The Phillips Collection since 1941 (then the Phillips Memorial Gallery), when Duncan Phillips purchased the 30 odd-numbered panels of Lawrence’s 60-picture epic “Migration Series” for the museum.
Following an exhibition of the work at Edith Halpert’s Downtown Gallery in New York, the first time an African American artist was represented by a major commercial gallery, the series was split by Phillips and the Museum of Modern Art. Phillips was impressed by Lawrence’s distinctive combination of abstraction and socially relevant subject matter, and saw the significance of incorporating Lawrence’s vivid palette and patterns into his ever-expanding definition of American modernism.
Despite the critical acclaim and popularity of his work, the evolution of Lawrence’s career has yet to be fully examined or understood. “Over the Line: ” will be the first exhibition to examine the complex nature of his radical invention and to present to a nationwide audience the dynamic evolution of his style, technique, and methods. The exhibition will be organized around themes such as “Interiors and Exteriors,” “Performance and Games,” “Work and Workers,” and “Struggle,” to demonstrate the artist’s stylistic development and experimentation within his treatment of the same theme over time.
Through the generosity of over 80 lenders, including institutions, organizations, and over 40 individuals, many paintings that have rarely, if ever, been on view are being made available for this exhibition. For example, his 1936 drawings executed while he was in the Civilian Conservation Corps and works completed in the last years of his life, including new treatments of the “Games” theme, are being exhibited for the first time in a major exhibition.
In addition, the exhibition will address questions regarding Lawrence’s creative process by presenting the results of a recent conservation study of his materials and techniques. Extended wall labels and case materials will consider Lawrence’s exclusive use of water-based paints and primary use of underdrawings as critical components of his working process.
For over 60 years, Jacob Lawrence addressed, in stark images and bold colors, many of the social and philosophical concerns of the Twentieth Century, especially as they pertain to the lives and histories of African Americans, including migration, manual labor, war, family values, and education.
Lawrence was born in Atlantic City, N.J., in 1917. Moving from there to Easton, Penn., and finally to Harlem in 1930, his family was part of the Great Migration of African Americans who relocated to the North from the South. Raised among the “New Negroes,” the emerging African American writers, artists, and poets who were a manifestation of the Harlem Renaissance, Lawrence was one of the first artists trained in and by the African American community in Harlem. At Utopia Children’s House, a community daycare center where his mother sent him after school while she worked, Lawrence received his earliest art instruction from Charles Alston, then a graduate student at Columbia University Teachers College.
Alston, using theories from Arthur Wesley Dow’s textbook Composition, taught Lawrence how to take charge of the picture plane, to invent his own pictorial language based on personal decisions about composition and how to use space. Lawrence continued to study with Alston throughout the 1930s at the WPA Harlem Art Workshop and at Alston’s studio at 306 West 141st Street. During this time he encountered notable artists, writers, and activists, such as Alain Locke, Addison Bates, Langston Hughes, Ralph Ellison, William Aaron Douglas, Orson Welles, and Augusta Savage, who had a profound affect on his development as an artist.
The people, sounds, movement, and color of the Harlem community were an unlimited source of inspiration for Lawrence. He refereed to his mother’s efforts to create a beautiful home for her family despite the financial stress of 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.” Influenced by the geometric shapes that surrounded him, Lawrence used bold colors and repeating patterns to illustrate stories about African American people and their lives.
Early recognition of Lawrence came in February of 1938, with a solo exhibition of his work at the 135th Street YMCA. Inspired by the expressive power of abstraction while also sensitive to the struggle and hardships of the people in his community, Lawrence began to define a new brand of modernism, distilling subject matter based on the experience of life around him into bold colors and elemental shapes. Lawrence also painted what he learned from Harlem storytellers, and by the age of 21 had chronicled the lives of Toussaint L’Ouverture, Frederick Douglass, and Harriet Tubman.
Three years later, Lawrence burst onto the national scene with “The Migration of the Negro.” This powerful narrative of the black migration unfurls over multiple panels to betray the struggle, strength, and perseverance of African Americans in search of a better life in the North. Although its exhibition at the Downtown Gallery enabled him to cross racial barriers, it would also mark the beginning for Lawrence of a constant identity struggle, as he reconciled his experiences as an African American with his widespread acceptance by the predominantly white art community.
By the 1950s, the pervasiveness of New York abstraction, civil rights era agitation, temporary confinement in a psychiatric hospital, and his continuing artistic development combined to take Lawrence’s figurative and narrative style to a greater psychological depth. A more complex layering of patterns and heightened use of shadow and light reveal a stylistic departure from his early work, introducing issues of identity through the use of mask as metaphor.
The 1952 publication of Ralph Ellison’s “Invisible Man” reminded contemporary audiences of how inherent the notions of visibility and invisibility were for many African Americans in the 1950s. Like Ellison, Lawrence was struggling with this question and examined it in a series of semi-abstract works depicting African American entertainers. In the well-known painting “Vaudeville” (1951), two African American comedians, frowning and set against an abstract backdrop of colorful, intricate patterning, face off against one another in an unsettling image that turns this world of slapstick humor into an examination of how the public perceived these African American entertainers.
When the early 1960s saw civil rights agitation reach its height, Lawrence continued as before to respond in his art to the experiences of contemporary African Americans. For Lawrence, the theme of social protest was inescapable. News photographs and images of segregated lunchroom sit-ins and the journeys of the Freedom Riders triggered paintings like “Praying Ministers” (1962), which depicts African American and white ministers and rabbis bending their heads in prayer while students protest around them, and the dramatic scenes of conflict in “Two Rebels” (1963) and “American Revolution” (1962).
Although his work became less explicitly grounded in contemporary events, from the 1970s on Lawrence never swayed from his commitment to the African American experience. As he continued to experiment with composition and space, Lawrence bridged the gap between form and content to create a pictorial language that is truly modern. He continued his radical experimentation with abstraction and representation until his death, at the age of 82, on June 9, 2000.
Today, the work of Jacob Lawrence can be found in almost 200 museum collections, including The Phillips Collection, the Art Institute of Chicago, the National Gallery of Art, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and has been the subject of three retrospective exhibitions.
Like Harriet Tubman, whom he portrayed crossing the American-Canadian border in his painting “Over the Line” (1967), Lawrence himself was able to cross borders time and again. 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 fervently received it. Referring also in a concrete sense to Lawrence’s technique, in which he first created an underdrawing and covered up the lines as he painted, the title, “Over the Line,” acknowledges this artistic and social climate and Lawrence’s efforts to transcend racial barriers and find common ground among all Americans despite their differences.
Republished with added exhibition-specific material, the critical monograph Over the Line: , from The Complete Jacob Lawrence, will serve as the exhibition catalogue. A curator’s statement, letter from director, lender’s list, and an illustrated checklist will add to essays by eight leading scholars to explore the full range of Lawrence’s development in light of critical issues within artistic, social, and political contexts. Published by The Phillips Collection in association with the Jacob Lawrence Catalog Raisonne Project and the University of Washington Press, this full-color publication will be available at The Phillips Museum Shop for $40.
The Phillips Collection, founded in 1921, is America’s first museum of modern art and its sources. Its permanent collection contains nearly 2,400 works by impressionist and Twentieth Century modern artists, including European artists such as Renoir, Bonnard, Matisse, Monet, Degas, Cézanne, Picasso, Braque, and Klee, and American masters such as O’Keeffe, Lawrence, Dove, Avery, Diebenkorn, and Rothko. Housed in the unique setting of the founder’s 1897 Georgian Revival home, The Phillips Collection exhibits some of the world’s finest paintings of the late Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries.
The museum is at 1600 21st Street, N.Y., at Massachusetts Avenue, in the historic Dupont Circle neighborhood. Hours are Tuesday through Saturday, from 10 am to 5 pm; Thursdays until 8:30 pm; Sunday, from noon to 5 pm. For information, 202-387-2151 or visit www.phillipscollection.org.
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