Exhibition Catalog | Jacob Lawrence

StanfordArtMuseums

Explore a gift of drawings, prints, and paintings by African American modernist Jacob Lawrence addressing Black history and civil rights, public life, faith, and creativity.

Promised Land

The Art of Jacob Lawrence


Promised Land

The Art of

Jacob Lawrence

A GIFT OF THE KAYDEN FAMILY

CANTOR ARTS CENTER

STANFORD UNIVERSITY


Contents


6 Foreword

connie wolf

10 Anatomy of an Artist: Jacob Lawrence

elizabeth kathleen mitchell

18 Imagining the World of Jacob Lawrence

bryan wolf

24 Coloring the Whitney

richard meyer

28 Lawrence and History

james t. campbell

34 Images of Higher Learning: Jacob Lawrence’s University

harry j. elam jr.

40 Lawrence’s Plenty

alexander nemerov

46 The Ordeal of Alice

clayborne carson

50 Moving Forward Together: New York in Transit

michele elam

56 The Catalogue

elizabeth kathleen mitchell

142 Contributors

144 Acknowledgments

146 Credits


Foreword

The Cantor Arts Center at Stanford University is built upon the exceptional generosity

of individuals, families, and communities. Since its founding by Jane Stanford in 1891,

the museum has been dedicated to engaging the university’s students and faculty in

original research and offering new experiences through the study of works of art. Our

efforts to care for, present, and study art objects are a means of preserving a legacy.

Significantly, the Cantor’s reach extends beyond the campus borders to enlist the surrounding

community in the museum’s endeavors to examine the conditions of our

world and our history. Springboarding from this platform, the exhibition Promised

Land: Jacob Lawrence at the Cantor, a Gift from the Kayden Family marks an extraordinary

moment in the life of this campus institution. This is a project born of a singular

gift to the museum—from a family with Stanford ties—that positions the Cantor Arts

Center as a leading site for the study of this important American painter. The resulting

exhibition and catalogue have inspired an incredible amalgam of cooperation and

ingenuity by current Stanford students, staff, and faculty. This is a Stanford project

through and through, and it is also an undertaking that furthers the Cantor’s position

as a leader among university art museums.

Counted among the most significant artists of the twentieth century,

Jacob Lawrence is considered a leading voice in the artistic portrayal of the African

American experience. Born in Atlantic City, New Jersey, in 1917, he was active as

an artist from his teen years until his death, in 2000. After arriving in Harlem in

1930 he became deeply involved in the artistic community there, and he is often

associated with the Harlem Renaissance. Lawrence referred to his work as “dynamic

cubism,” in reference to its bold colors and shapes. He was strongly impacted by the

artist Charles Alston, who was his childhood mentor; and by the work of Bauhaus

artist-teacher Josef Albers and the painters of the Mexican muralist movement.

Lawrence’s narrative paintings often reflect his personal experience, depict key

moments in African American history, or illustrate the issues at stake during the

American civil rights movement. He played an undeniably vital role in both the

social history and the art history of the United States, making him an ideal figure to

be featured at a museum like the Cantor, which is dedicated to examining the fabric

of culture through artistic practices.

Dr. Herbert J. Kayden, a distinguished New York cardiologist, and his wife,

Dr. Gabrielle H. Reem, met Jacob Lawrence early in his career. They began a deep

friendship that thrived for decades and led the Kaydens to develop a magnificent

collection of the artist’s work. This exhibition and book stem from the Kayden family’s

extraordinarily generous gift of this collection to the Cantor Arts Center. We

are especially grateful to the Kaydens’ daughter, Joelle Kayden, for her commitment

to the arts at Stanford. An alumna of Stanford’s Graduate School of Business, Joelle

recognized the importance of honoring her parents’ legacy as staunch supporters of

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artists and their work. Shortly after her mother passed away, Joelle introduced me to

her father and shared with me her parents’ love for the arts. It was such an honor to

visit Dr. Kayden and learn about the commitment he and his wife shared to building

friendships with artists and supporting their work.

It is thanks to all of this that the Cantor now holds one of the largest collections

of the work of Jacob Lawrence of any museum. Staunch supporters of Stanford

and the Cantor’s educational mission, the Kaydens have given the museum an unparalleled

collection of fifty-six works by Lawrence, all dating between 1943 and 1998,

and one painting by his wife, Gwendolyn Knight Lawrence. Comprising thirteen

paintings, three drawings, thirty-nine prints, and one book illustrated with his

original screenprints, the collection represents the arc of Lawrence’s distinguished

career. With this addition to its collection, the Cantor is now positioned to be a leading

resource for students and scholars to study both Lawrence’s work and the social and

political conditions of the historical era in which it was produced. Although long-term

academic and community engagement with the Kayden collection will unfold over

many years, in immediate celebration of the gift, Promised Land: Jacob Lawrence at the

Cantor, a Gift from the Kayden Family both honors the family’s generosity and marks a

revelatory moment in the examination of this great American artist.

Befitting the Kaydens’ entwined commitments to art and education, the

exhibition planning included a course for undergraduate students at Stanford taught

by Dr. Elizabeth Kathleen Mitchell, the Cantor’s Burton and Deedee McMurtry Curator

of Prints, Drawings, and Photographs. This intensive introduction to Lawrence’s

career and key aspects of curatorial and art historical practices involved twelve

undergraduate students in designing the gallery layout and writing exhibition texts.

The resulting installation displays these works together for the first time.

And while the students were able to work intensively with the entire gift in

the process of building the exhibition, the catalogue features seven texts by Stanford

faculty members, each the result of deep engagement with a single work by Lawrence.

With a fresh and interdisciplinary approach, the publication examines these major

selections from the Kayden gift as a means of exploring the artist’s significance to

American art and illuminating the social and political contexts in which the iconography

of his work is based.

It was a distinct pleasure to work with Dr. Kayden to bring the family’s

collection to Stanford. He recognized the importance of placing these works at a university

art museum, where they could be a resource for students for generations to

come. Shortly after the terms of the family’s generous gift to the Cantor were finalized,

Dr. Kayden passed away. As we present this extraordinary collection of work by Jacob

Lawrence in its entirety for the first time, we dedicate this book and the exhibition to

the memory of Dr. Herbert J. Kayden and his wife, Dr. Gabrielle H. Reem.

CONNIE WOLF

JOHN AND JILL FREIDENRICH DIRECTOR

IRIS & B. GERALD CANTOR CENTER FOR VISUAL ARTS

7


Essays

8


9


10


Anatomy of

an Artist:

Jacob Lawrence

ELIZABETH KATHLEEN The work of jacob lawrence challenges

MITCHELL

the viewer at every turn. Fusing sophisticated

aesthetics with political awareness

and personal recollections, Lawrence delved into

African American history, the black experience

in twentieth-century America, and the simple details of everyday life. Although his

vibrant, dynamic paintings often verge toward abstraction, the human form is a

persistent expressive force driving the narrative of his compositions. The paintings,

drawings, and prints in the Kayden family’s gift to the Cantor Arts Center date

between 1943 and 1998, spanning Lawrence’s rise and artistic maturity. This brief

overview will introduce key works from the Kayden family collection, locate them

within the artist’s career, and highlight the ways in which they demonstrate Lawrence’s

outstanding strengths as an artist and storyteller.

Jacob Armstead Lawrence was born to Jacob and Rosa Lee Lawrence in

Atlantic City, New Jersey, on September 7, 1917. Two years later, Lawrence and his

family relocated to Pennsylvania, where Lawrence’s two siblings were born and

where his parents later separated. In 1930, after spending three years in foster care,

the children went to Harlem to live with their mother.¹ Harlem became the nation’s

largest urban African American community during the period from the 1910s to the

1940s when roughly six million people left the American South and the Caribbean

for jobs in the North’s industrial cities. Often referred to as the Great Migration, this

substantial population shift reshaped American politics, urban culture, and the work

force. Lawrence recognized that he “was part of the migration, my family, my mother,

my sister, and my brother.”² Consequently the migration became a thematic touchstone

in his art, echoing in his figures of builders and carpenters (cats. 3, 13–14, 41–42,

53–55, 57). It also informs street scenes, such as People in Other Rooms (fig. 4, cat. 15)

and Poster Design . . .Whitney Exhibition (fig. 7, cat. 14); respectively, these works feature

in essays by Bryan Wolf and Richard Meyer in this catalogue.

FIGURE 1

Jacob Lawrence, “Human

Figure” after Vesalius, 1968.

Graphite on paper. Gift

of Dr. Herbert J. Kayden and

Family in memory of Dr.

Gabrielle H. Reem, 2013.101

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MITCHELL

Lawrence was thirteen years old when he first studied art at an after-school

program operated at Utopia Children’s House in Harlem. His primary instructor there,

the painter and sculptor Charles Alston, proved to be a lasting mentor. The strong,

crisp shapes and vivid colors Lawrence worked with in these years provided the foundation

for the style he would develop over the next seven decades. He recalled that

even as a young artist his “motivation was so strong that [my instructors] tried not to

interfere by influencing me.” He added that it was only “later . . . I became aware that

my style was different.”³ Alston introduced him to water-based paints and paper supports—the

materials Lawrence would also favor as an adult.⁴ After 1932 he continued

to work with Alston at the wpa Harlem Workshop and rented a space within the older

artist’s studio on 141st Street.

While growing up Lawrence knew the visual artists, publishers, performers,

writers, and political activists who made Harlem the epicenter of black culture

in America. Their voices guided him to develop the bold visual style in which he told

stories relevant to his life experiences. For instance, as a child Lawrence had absorbed

the story of Genesis from the famously dynamic sermons of pastor Adam Clayton

Powell Sr., which he heard at Harlem’s Abyssinian Baptist Church. In Lawrence’s set

of eight prints recounting Genesis, published in 1990 (cats. 44–51), a rapt congregation

watches a charismatic preacher describe the progress of Creation so vividly that

it seems to transpire before their eyes. Additionally, the 1943 painting At Times It Is

Hard to Get a Table in a Pool Room (cover, cat. 1), exceptional for its clean geometries

and vibrant colors, expresses the artist’s close observation of the places where the

community gathered.

Lawrence also benefitted from being in the orbit of the most significant

professional artist in Harlem, the sculptor Augusta Savage. It was at her studio in the

early 1930s that he met Gwendolyn Knight, an accomplished sculptor and dancer who

studied under Savage. Born in Barbados, she was a few years older than Lawrence; the

two would marry in the summer of 1941.⁵ Savage mentored Lawrence by steering him

toward greater opportunities and connecting him with older, politically engaged African

American artists.⁶ Savage’s strong character shines through in Knight Lawrence’s

posthumous portrait of 1967 (cat. 10), a striking example of her painting that is part of

the Kayden gift.

Lawrence dropped out of high school at the age of seventeen to focus on

art. From then on his education was self-directed, and the scope of his influences

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gradually expanded. He recalled initially not feeling the need to “go outside the

community except to an art gallery or a museum. Everything was right there.”⁷

Essential to his “everything” was the Arthur Schomburg collection in the Division of

Negro Literature, History, and Prints at the New York Public Library on 135th Street,

where he voraciously researched black history. In 1940 Lawrence met José Clemente

Orozco while the formidable muralist painted on site at the Museum of Modern Art.

He respected Orozco’s forceful draftsmanship and expressive figures, as well as his

commitment to addressing Mexico’s history of racial discrimination. Lawrence also

took inspiration from artists who had influenced Orozco. He learned effective uses of

the serial format from the great etcher of the Spanish Enlightenment, Francisco de

Goya, and he credited the sensitive portrayals of the human condition rendered by

French satirist and lithographer Honoré Daumier with influencing what he described

as the “humanistic” element of his work.⁸

While still in his twenties Lawrence earned fame and critical recognition

for projects demonstrating his belief that “the Negro has been one of the great . . .

focal points of this drama which we as Americans have experienced.”⁹ His brilliant

portrayals of Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman, whom he painted in 1939

and 1940, respectively, reflect his ability to both humanize and elevate the historical

figures he had heard about as a child from the “black school teachers and black

librarians” and the “street-corner orators” who taught him about history.¹⁰ Lawrence

revisited the subject of Tubman and the Underground Railroad in his series of paintings

Harriet and the Promised Land (1967), which is represented in the Kayden gift

by The Last Journey (fig. 8, cat. 9) and illuminated in this catalogue in an essay by

James T. Campbell. In 1941 Lawrence completed one of his most famous works, the

sixty-panel series The Migration of the Negro. He immediately followed it with twentytwo

gouache paintings titled The Legend of John Brown, which illustrate the beliefs

and deeds of the radical, white abolitionist with a spare, abstract style. The Kayden

gift features the complete portfolio of twenty-two stunning silkscreen prints (cats.

19–40) Lawrence made in 1978 after the John Brown paintings. In all of these serial

narratives, the human form embodies the intentions and emotions of revolutionary

figures from African American—and hence American—history. These works prove

that the artist did not paint in the shadow of what W.E.B. Du Bois in 1903 had called

“double-consciousness,” a paradigm in which the self is divided into a black part and

an American part, and constantly pressured to choose between the two.¹¹ Lawrence’s

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MITCHELL

work reinforces that the black experience he lived, witnessed,

and chronicled, brimming with promise but

riddled with disparity and conflict, was “so much a part

of the American experience.”¹²

Two notable experiences profoundly shaped

Lawrence’s creative and professional growth in the

1940s. In 1943 he joined the Coast Guard, and was able

to travel internationally for the first time. An Arnold

Newman photograph from the Cantor’s permanent collection

shows Lawrence in uniform (pg. 9) and speaks to

the fact that his identities as a sailor and as an artist were

not mutually exclusive. (Notably, Lawrence’s commanding

officers encouraged him to paint his life as a sailor.¹³)

Then, in 1946, Josef Albers persuaded Lawrence to join

the faculty at Black Mountain College in North Carolina.

This job marked the beginning of a long and celebrated

career teaching at the university level. Lawrence used

robust shapes and rich colors to articulate an idealized

vision of this calling in the 1977 painting University (fig.

9, cat. 18), which Harry J. Elam Jr. addresses in this catalogue.

Lawrence went on to teach at many prestigious

American schools, most notably holding a professorship

at the University of Washington, Seattle, from 1970 until

he retired in 1983. He also received numerous honorary

doctorates during his lifetime in recognition of his

commitment to art and education.

The Kayden paintings from the 1950s plumb the themes of personal

and physical sacrifice, at times investigating their role in American history. In 1952,

shortly after voluntarily seeking treatment for depression at Hillside Hospital in

Queens, Lawrence painted Night after Night (cat. 2), an enigmatic portrayal of the

theater focused on a performer suffering for his craft. In 1956 he completed the thirty

panels of Struggle . . . From the History of the American People, which include an act of

betrayal committed during the American Revolution (cat. 4) and a depiction of the

brute labor that made westward expansion possible (cat. 5).¹⁴ Additionally, in the

FIGURE 2

Artist unknown (16th century), Plate 2

from Andreas Vesalius, De humani

corporis fabrica, Libri Septum, Book

II. (Basel: Joannes Oporinus, 1543).

Wellcome Library, London

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FIGURE 3

Jacob Lawrence, Untitled (Skowhegan

School Exhibition and Sale), 1968.

Gouache, tempera, and graphite on

paper. Gift of Dr. Herbert J. Kayden

and Family in memory of Dr. Gabrielle

H. Reem, 2013.102

1950s Lawrence began painting and drawing

builders, a subject he would continue to revisit

for much of his career. The rounded, graceful

bodies in the 1952 work Construction (cat. 3)

offer an early contrast to the powerful men, two

black and one white, contorted by their noble

labor in Builders No. 3 (cat. 13) from 1973.

During the 1960s, as Lawrence was

gaining recognition as an artist, his work came

to increasingly reflect America’s political volatility.

In 1960 a retrospective exhibition organized

by the Brooklyn Museum traveled to seventeen

institutions, many of them historically black

schools; a major retrospective organized by the

Whitney Museum of American Art followed

fourteen years later. The artist made his first

trip to Africa in 1961; over the next few years he

spent more than eight months traveling in West

Africa, where he lectured, taught, and showed

his work.¹⁵ The markets and vendors he saw in

Nigeria inspired a wealth of images, including

the 1963 watercolor Fish Market (fig. 10, cat. 7),

discussed here by Alexander Nemerov.¹⁶ After

seeing Africa, Lawrence addressed the African

American struggle for civil rights even more

directly in his work than he had previously. An urgent demand for justice underpins

his 1963 painting Ordeal of Alice (fig. 12, cat. 6); this harrowing image of ghouls

tormenting a lone black schoolgirl is the most renowned work in the Kayden gift.

A furious condemnation of those opposing desegregation, this landmark painting

is given context by Clayborne Carson’s essay in this volume. The violent turmoil of

the decade also spills over into Lawrence’s apolitical works, such as the surreal and

disturbing 1966 painting Dreams No. 3: Toreador (cat. 8).

In 1968 Lawrence returned to exploring the mechanics of the human

body with a set of drawings after the engraved illustrations in Andreas Vesalius’s

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MITCHELL

anatomical atlas De humani corporis fabrica (On the Fabric of the Human Body), originally

published in Basel, Switzerland, in 1543. Lawrence modeled the highly finished

graphite drawing “Human Figure” after Vesalius (fig. 1, cat. 11) after a specific plate

from the Vesalius text (fig. 2). In a carryover from his builder works, the artist

surrounded the body in the “Human Figure” drawing with forms suggesting architecture

and various tools: saws, hammers, chisels, nails, and a plumb line that dangles

from the flayed man’s hands. As with the builder images, the walls and tools reference

the idea of progress as well as the contributions made by blacks, a group Lawrence

regarded as the “builders of America,” who “tilled the fields, and picked cotton, and

helped build the cities.”¹⁷

The body in Lawrence’s “Human Figure” is stripped of its skin—and, therefore,

its outward racial identity—to reveal the interplay of muscles and tendons. This

view of mankind’s raw architecture prompts consideration of what, literally, makes

the man, and also explores the ways a skilled hand and a creative mind may work

together. Lawrence returned to this particular Vesalius figure, and further abstracted it,

in the painted study for a poster advertising an exhibition at the Skowhegan School of

Painting and Sculpture in Maine (fig. 3, cat. 12). It reverberates with the pared down

body in the 1994 lithograph Artist in Studio (cat. 52) as well as with the builder with a

plumb line draped over his shoulder in the second print from New York in Transit I and

II (figs. 14–15, cats. 56–57)—a series that is explored in Michele Elam’s essay in these

pages and is among the last of the prints Lawrence completed before his death.

The human figures central to Lawrence’s art are informed by centuries of

artistic tradition but rendered in a completely fresh and expressive way. Lawrence’s

graphic response to Vesalius, in particular, demonstrates his interest in the body’s

potential to establish a dialogue between past and present—a concern explored in

much of his work, and a key throughline among the paintings, prints, and drawings

in the Kayden collection. Encompassing six decades of the artist’s career, the works

assembled by the Kayden family demonstrate the progression of stylistic shifts that

shaped Lawrence’s art over time and reveal one of its defining constants: his use of the

human form to represent the conflicts and achievements that have defined modern

black life as an elemental part of the American experience.

16


1. More thorough biographic profiles are: Patricia Hills, Painting

Harlem Modern: The Art of Jacob Lawrence (Berkeley: University

of California Press, 2009); Ellen Harkins Wheat, Jacob Lawrence:

American Painter (Seattle: University of Washington Press,

1986); and the time line in Over the Line: The Art and Life of Jacob

Lawrence, ed. Peter T. Nesbett and Michelle DuBois (Seattle:

University of Washington Press, 2001).

2. Jacob Lawrence and Henry Louis Gates, Jr. “An Interview

with Jacob Lawrence by Henry Louis Gates, Jr.” MoMA, 19 (Spring

1995): 14.

3. Clarence Major, “Clarence Major Interviews: Jacob Lawrence,

the Expressionist,” The Black Scholar 9, No. 3, Plastic Arts and

Crafts (November 1977): 16.

4. Hills, Painting Harlem Modern, 11–13. Alston imparted Japaneseinflected

theories about form and color from Arthur Wesley

Dow’s 1903 Composition: Understanding Line, Notan, and Color, the

primer on design that influenced multiple generations of American

modernists in the early twentieth century. See Elizabeth

Hutton Turner, “The Education of Jacob Lawrence,” in Nesbett

and DuBois, Over the Line, 97–109. Quote from Oral history interview

with Jacob Lawrence, Oct. 26, 1968, Archives of American Art,

Smithsonian Institution.

5. Barbara Earl Thomas, “Never Late for Heaven,” in Never Late for

Heaven: The Art of Gwen Knight (Seattle: University of Washington

Press, 2003). After her marriage, she signed her work both as

Gwen Knight and as Gwen Knight Lawrence. In this catalogue we

identify her as Gwendolyn Knight Lawrence.

6. Augusta Savage and the Art Schools of Harlem (New York:

Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, New York

Public Library, 1988). Lawrence details her significance in Oral

history interview with Jacob Lawrence, Oct. 26, 1968, Archives

of American Art, Smithsonian Institution, and in Lawrence and

Gates, “Interview,” 14–17.

7. Lawrence and Gates, “Interview,” 14.

8. Wheat, American Painter, 41–42, and Oral history interview with

Jacob Lawrence, Oct. 26, 1968, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian

Institution.

9. Oral history interview with Jacob Lawrence, Oct. 26, 1968, Archives

of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.

10. Xavier Nichols, “Interview with Jacob Lawrence,” Callaloo 36,

No. 2 (Spring 2013): 261.

11. W.E.B. Du Bois, The Souls of Black Folk (New York: Random

House, 1996), 5–6.

12. Oral history interview with Jacob Lawrence, Oct. 26, 1968, Archives

of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.

13. See Wheat, American Painter, 69–71, and Oral history interview,

Oct. 26, 1968, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.

14. The 1977 print The Swearing In (cat. 17) offers a coda to

the Struggle . . . paintings. Lawrence depicts the crowd celebrating

America’s hard-won democracy by witnessing a twentiethcentury

presidential inauguration.

15. Lawrence asserted he never felt in his art a direct connection

to African art before or after he visited there, despite the many

critics who see African influence in his limited palette and

his interest in patterning. See Oral history interview, Oct. 26, 1968,

Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.

16. Fish Market and the other market images are precursors to a

more traditional still life study, the 1977 lithograph Morning Still

Life (cat. 16).

17. The idea is proposed in Philip van Keuren, After Vesalius: Drawings

by Jacob Lawrence (Dallas: Southern Methodist University,

1996), n.p., and the quoted text appears in Oral history interview

with Jacob Lawrence, Oct. 26, 1968, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian

Institution.

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18


Imagining the

World of Jacob

Lawrence

BRYAN WOLF It all begins with a child drawing. and it

will end with two old men playing chess. In

between these two scenes lies the career of

Jacob Lawrence.

Take that child, for example. He sits on

the sidewalk at the intersection of four paving stones. Their corners converge around

his head, forming a halo of perpendicular lines. To his right, a man walking by with

a blue jacket looks back to observe him. Behind the child, a high-stepping man with

a guitar heads in the opposite direction, as if dancing to the music in his head. In the

middle ground, a figure in a coat and hat edges forward with the assistance of a cane.

Together, the three adults form a triangle around the boy as he draws; their figures

act as end-stops to the lines of pavement emanating from the child’s head. The fourth

line—running between the boy and the picture’s edge—points outward. It draws us

into the space of the work, People in Other Rooms (fig. 4, cat. 15).

The boy is an artist responding in tentative fashion to the visual world

that, the picture suggests, will come to define his life: Harlem street scenes rich with

African American experience. The three vignettes in the background—a woman

climbing stairs, a window framed by curtains, and a woman descending stairs—link

the boy (and the viewer) not only to the daily life of the community, but also to the

broader history of Western art. They represent everyday experience in Harlem at

the same time as they allude to other traditions in the history of Western painting:

seventeenth-century Dutch domestic scenes as well as the mysterious public spaces

of Surrealist artists like Giorgio de Chirico. These quiet allusions to the earlier moments

in the history of art remind the viewer that the “people in other rooms” are

denizens not only of Harlem, but of other times and places as well. Lawrence’s other

rooms encompass the gamut of Western painting.

Lawrence’s world is built on counterpoint, the visual play, for example,

between the elderly woman in the background—stooped back, white hair—and the

young mother emerging on the right. The former climbs the stairs before her while

FIGURE 4

Jacob Lawrence, People

in Other Rooms, 1975.

Silkscreen. Gift of Dr. Herbert

J. Kayden and Family in

memory of Dr. Gabrielle H.

Reem, 2013.108

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WOLF

the latter descends the steps at her feet. One carries a bag or parcel while the other

cradles an infant. Their visual contrast lends the image a sense of time passing. The

world we observe is defined by beginnings and ends, youth and age. We see before

us two things: Harlem as Lawrence remembers it, and a quiet narrative of artistic

origins—an image of a young Lawrence taking his first steps as an artist.

At the top center of the painting, to the left of the young mother, a window

opens onto a different vista. We see through it what might be a picture on a wall, or—just

as likely—a stage scene of a woman dancing. The drapes on either side of the window

suggest both a visual frame for the people within and a stage curtain pulled back. Are we

witnessing a moment of private life, or is Lawrence alluding in more theatric terms to

the rich musical and artistic heritage of Harlem, a reference perhaps to the Apollo Theater,

home to a vibrant black arts scene throughout Lawrence’s life in New York?

Back, then, to the boy drawing on the pavement. He is observed not only by

the gentleman at right, but also by a little girl walking her dog directly behind him. She

turns her head to gaze at him, and in the process recapitulates the viewer’s own attentive

stare at the child. If he represents for Lawrence a portrait of the artist as a young

man, then he also resonates with other American paintings of artists at the beginning

of their careers. A century earlier, in a painting that Lawrence would have seen many

times at the New-York Historical Society, Hudson River School artist Thomas Cole portrayed

a young boy on the ground (fig. 5) in a posture very similar to Lawrence’s figure:

squatting, pointing to the right, and sketching a stick figure that—in Cole’s image—

represents a young child’s first image of his mother, standing before him. Lawrence’s

boyish artist similarly draws with rudimentary forms. He is in the process of creating

a house out of simple geometric shapes: a triangle for a roof and squares for the chimney

and windows. This is where, in Lawrence’s mythology, art begins: with childhood,

domesticity, and the familiar world of everyday forms (a house, in Lawrence’s case, or

a mother, for Cole). The boy’s elementary efforts lend him an aura of innocence. And

innocence, as Lawrence imagines it, provides a starting point for an art animated by

love, familiarity, and the pleasures of

everyday life. In this way, art is about

what we cherish most. The child’s innocence

goes hand in hand with his

desire to reproduce the world that has

nurtured him.

FIGURE 5

Thomas Cole (U.S.A., 1801–

1848), The Course of Empire:

The Arcadian or Pastoral

State, 1833–1836. Oil on

canvas. Gift of The New-York

Gallery of the Fine Arts.

Collection of the New-York

Historical Society

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FIGURE 6

Jacob Lawrence, Two Builders

Playing Chess, from The

Builder’s Suite, 1996. Soft

ground etching and aquatint.

Gift of Dr. Herbert J. Kayden

and Family in memory of

Dr. Gabrielle H. Reem, 2013.114

Lawrence returned to themes of innocence and experience throughout

his career. In The Last Journey (fig. 8, cat. 9), from 1967, Lawrence reimagines a

scene from his children’s book Harriet and the Promised Land (1968). He surrounds

the gleaming white horse in the image with two clusters of cheering children who

wave at the passing cart. The children’s innocence and exuberance contrasts with

the vigilant forms in the cart, the standing figure of Harriet Tubman and the two

cloaked passengers behind her. Their escape from slavery to freedom is paralleled in

Lawrence’s dramatic image by a different sort of journey: the passage of the children

themselves from a world of childlike innocence to one

defined by the harsher realities of adult experience.

The transition between the two realms is repeated in

the forms of the landscape, which themselves move

from a world of childlike innocence to one defined by

the harsher realities of adult life. Lawrence’s spaces are

divided into areas of lighter and darker greens, a division

that distinguishes the spaces of adulthood on the

left from those of the children on the right. The image

sets freedom against slavery, innocence against experience,

and shades of green against one another.

What separates innocence from experience

is time. In 1996, four years before his death, Lawrence created Two Builders Playing

Chess (fig. 6, cat. 55), an image about history, time, and self-awareness. We might

think of Lawrence’s two chess players as stand-ins, once again, for the artist. The figure

on the left holds one of the few identifiable chess pieces in the print. He grasps

the horse-shaped knight with his right hand and, in the process, signals the image’s

concern with themes of questing and honor. Behind the chess players, in the upper

right quadrant of the image, we see a table—and below it a box—filled with carpentry

tools: hammer, saw, plane, compass, nails. The two tables in the print—one

supporting the chessboard and the other holding the tools—help us understand its

narrative, an implicit story of time, change, and growth from the world of building

tools and construction in the background to the space of thought and contemplation

in the foreground.

The print asks the viewer to become a pilgrim, a knight-errant in transition

from the physical tasks of building a world to the more mental—perhaps we should say

21


WOLF

spiritual—challenges of contemplating it. The point, for Lawrence, is not that we must

choose between one task or the other, but that we should understand their relation.

That is our mental pilgrimage, our slow realization that neither scene—foreground

or background, chess pieces or building tools—is complete without the other. Before

we can contemplate the world, we need to work at changing it. Whether or not we

succeed in our efforts, whether we render the world a better place through physical

labor or mental deliberation, we must discover—what this image attempts to teach

us—that hands without thoughts are useless, and vision springs from worldly labor.

Lawrence is alluding here to a debate central to twentieth-century African

American history. Embedded in the relation of manual to mental—and of both to ideas

of labor—is a long and active argument within African American intellectual circles.

On one side stands Booker T. Washington, a tireless advocate in the closing decades of

the nineteenth century for black advancement through physical labor and economic

empowerment. “Cast down your bucket where you are,” Washington proclaimed in

a speech at the 1895 Atlanta Exposition, addressing a largely rural black population

in the South.¹ Washington sought to empower African Americans by urging them to

consolidate rather than abandon their role as figures of manual and agrarian labor. The

more indispensable their labor was to those around them, the more economic power

they would gain. For Washington, black advancement had less to do with cultural uplift

or political change than it did with the economic rewards that would accrue from

staying in place. The engine that drove Washington’s gradualist approach was the

black body, a source of labor so indispensable to white society that the black laboring

classes would gain, over time, physical security and a modicum of material prosperity.

In contrast, a young, Harvard-educated W.E.B. Du Bois advocated a very

different path for black advancement. Drawing on an older Transcendentalist vocabulary

of self-empowerment, Du Bois admonished what he termed the “talented

tenth”—those most intellectually capable within the black community—to pursue

their interests with vision and passion. Du Bois sought to create a black intelligentsia

that would lead all those who struggled to new heights of achievement. For him, the

issues were less economic, as they had been for Washington, and more intellectual.

The advancement of people of color began with the mind, not the pocketbook.

This debate, which unfolded with variations throughout the twentieth

century, drives the world of Lawrence’s chess players. The double presence in the

image of both tools and chessboard is a subtle acknowledgement of—a doff of the hat

22


toward—the Washington-Du Bois debate. Washington is present in the images of

physical labor, while Du Bois presides, in spirit at least, over the chessboard. Lawrence

is not so much taking sides in his image as suggesting the necessary interrelationship

between both positions. Labor means nothing if it fails to eventuate in thought,

and symbolic action—that chess game—proves hollow unless it is grounded in real

achievement within the world. That is the pilgrimage—the knight’s journey—that

the print offers: not a one-way voyage from body to mind, or a mode of social advancement

that forgets the labors of the past, but a single journey that combines both in

sustained fashion: intellectual activity ever mindful of the body’s history. Lawrence

portrays his own career—summarized in the image’s two activities—as a distillation

of the larger history of African Americans over the past century and a half. He marshals

both Washington and Du Bois in the service of a grand, unified vision that folds

personal history (the boy drawing) and African American history (Harlem street life)

into a single American history.

What gets left out in Lawrence’s benign vision are history’s sharper edges:

the failures of the Harlem Renaissance, for example, to speak adequately to the daily

needs of black workers; the inability of poetry and painting to resolve, let alone defeat,

economic disenfranchisement; the grinding struggle for racial equality in a world where

such battles never seem to end. But those hard political facts are not what Lawrence, in

1996, approaching his eightieth birthday, is thinking about. His goal is not to write history,

but to rewrite it, to imagine an alternative African American history, a story of the

might-have-been and the still-might-be. What we learn from Two Builders Playing Chess

is the ongoing nature of the game: the Washingtonian work of building must continue

even as the Du Boisian world of intellectual activity—that game of chess—advances.

We can never relinquish the builders’ tools, in Lawrence’s world, because

the task of building is forever incomplete. We would be foolish to think otherwise. At

the same time, we can never allow our capacity to imagine—whether imagining the

next move in a game of chess or the next step on the ladder of success—to be compromised

by things as they are, the world of hard facts unleavened by imagination. What

Lawrence asks us to do instead, in an image like Two Builders Playing Chess, is inhabit

both realms simultaneously as builders forever imagining and as dreamers forever

building. Our vision must contain both Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. Du Bois.

1. Booker T. Washington, Up from Slavery (Lexington: Tribeca Books, 2013), 106.

23


24


Coloring the

Whitney

“I never learned color in an academic way . . . so this may

have something to do with [my] expressing myself

in a very limited palette. Limiting yourself . . . forces you to be

more inventive.” —Jacob Lawrence¹

RICHARD MEYER Color in the art of jacob lawrence is

at once vibrant and definitive. Rather than

merely filling in linear outlines, color

seems to constitute—even to generate—the figures

and forms in Lawrence’s visual world. Color

provides a central building block for Lawrence not only because of its expressionist

capacities, but also for its reference to the experience of African Americans, who

were most often referred to as Negro or colored when the artist launched his career

in the early 1940s. Given Lawrence’s half-century-long commitment to chronicling

the black experience, his vivid contrasts and oppositions of color must be understood

as both a response to—and a creative reworking of—the vexed history of race

in American culture.

In 1974, the Whitney Museum of American Art organized a retrospective

of Lawrence’s career. To publicize the exhibition, the artist created a poster design

that was later used as the cover illustration for the exhibition’s catalogue. Also dated

1974, the original gouache was featured in the exhibition and was, as a result, the most

current (or contemporary) work of the 164 pictures on display.

In the foreground of Poster Design . . .Whitney Exhibition (fig. 7, cat. 14), an

African American family—mother, father, and pint-size son and daughter—stride

confidently through the city. Each member of the family is pictured in the same

deep shade of brown, onto which facial features and physical attributes are delineated

in a seemingly cursory, almost cartoonish fashion. The garments worn by

the family are composed of flattened geometries of solid, high-contrast colors with

bolts of bright yellow (variously standing in for shirt, tie, hat, coat, and dress) linking

the foursome no less cohesively than their clasped hands and diagonal alignment in

the composition. The picture stages an especially intricate dance of color and form

in its sequencing of the legs and, more particularly, the shoes of the four figures,

each of which alternates with that of another family member to create a dynamic,

forward-moving syncopation.

FIGURE 7

Jacob Lawrence, Poster

Design . . . Whitney Exhibition,

1974. Gouache, tempera,

and graphite on paper. Gift

of Dr. Herbert J. Kayden and

Family in memory of Dr.

Gabrielle H. Reem, 2013.104

25


MEYER

In the background of the composition, three construction workers, each

elevated above the ground, are shown in the midst of labor. One wields a saw, another

cranks a hand drill, while a third, hammer in hand, ascends a fire-engine red ladder.

Poster Design . . .Whitney Exhibition has often been identified as part of Lawrence’s

most expansive body of work, what is known as the builders series, which extends

from 1946 through the early 1990s. Throughout the series, Lawrence pictures (predominantly)

African American men working cooperatively to erect new buildings.

The series has been considered by some to represent not simply the constructive labor

of black men, but also, and by extension, the building of a better and more egalitarian

world. In this picture, two construction workers are depicted as brown-skinned while

the third is picket-fence white. In the later decades of his career Lawrence increasingly

depicted scenes of black and white workers laboring alongside one another.

Lawrence had long been fascinated by carpentry and cabinetmaking and

was particularly taken with the use of hand tools by skilled workers and artisans. A

pair of Harlem-based cabinetmakers known at the Bates Brothers made an especially

deep impression on the artist in the 1940s. Of the brothers, Lawrence would later

recall: “It was beautiful to see them use tools as extensions of their hands. I’ve loved

tools ever since. I collect them and I use them as subjects for my paintings.”²

Since Lawrence created this picture to announce his second museum retrospective,

its vision of black family life and building construction might be understood

in relation to the Whitney’s mission of presenting and preserving American art.

In the late 1960s and early 1970s, the Whitney (like the Metropolitan Museum of Art

and the Museum of Modern Art) was criticized for under-representing black artists

both in its permanent collection and its exhibition programs. In 1969, a newly formed

group of Harlem-based artists and activists called the Black Emergency Cultural Coalition

publicly called on the Whitney to hire a black curator and to mount exhibitions

of contemporary black artists. Two years later, the Whitney organized Contemporary

Black Artists in America, its first exhibition devoted exclusively to African American art.

The show proved controversial, however, because no black curator or consultant was

involved in the selection of the works. Fifteen of the seventy-five artists included in the

show withdrew their work in protest. Lawrence, whose art had long been supported

by major museums in New York, was not among them.

Throughout his career, Lawrence faced a double challenge—to succeed

within a predominantly white professional sphere and to do so while insisting on

26


lack American identity and experience, including his own. Both the Whitney’s exhibition

catalogue and a related feature in the New York Times point out that Lawrence’s

success had led to skepticism among black critics and artists, some of whom accused

the artist of “Uncle Tom-ism.” Lawrence’s response was characteristically evenhanded.

According to the catalogue, the artist “admits readily that his acceptance was unique,

that there are color bars in art as in life, that Blacks in America are unfairly treated,

even oppressed and exploited, but he also insists that he was helped by whites as well

as Blacks, was recognized by whites, and has been successful in a white art world.”³

In this context, Poster Design . . .Whitney Exhibition takes on a different cast. Lawrence

presented the picture to a predominantly white museum at the precise moment when

it awarded him maximal curatorial and art historical attention. In doing so, he insisted

that the museum could no longer see black art as anything less than vibrant, visibly and

vitally American.

1. Oral history interview with Jacob Lawrence, Oct. 26, 1968,

Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.

2. “Jacob Lawrence: Telling the Black Story in Many Colors,”

Revolutionary Worker No. 1061, (July 1, 2000).

3. Grace Glueck, “Sharing Success Pleases Jacob Lawrence: One

of a Series Future for Harlem,” New York Times, June 3, 1974; and

Milton W. Brown, “Jacob Lawrence,” in Milton W. Brown and

Louise A. Parks, Jacob Lawrence (New York: Whitney Museum

of American Art, 1974), 16.

27


28


Lawrence and

History

JAMES T. CAMPBELL I’ve always been interested in history, but

they never taught Negro history in the public

schools,” Jacob Lawrence wrote in 1940. “We

know little of these people’s achievements . . . I

don’t see how a history of the United States can be

written honestly without including the Negro.”¹

Lawrence dedicated his life to remedying the omission. Between 1937 and

1941 alone, he produced five narrative series depicting African American history,

including not only The Migration of the Negro series (1941) but also cycles exploring

the lives of Haitian revolutionary Toussaint L’Ouverture, abolitionists Frederick

Douglass and John Brown, and Harriet Tubman, the courageous “conductor” who

escorted hundreds of fugitive slaves to freedom along the Underground Railroad.

Lawrence returned to Tubman a quarter century later, retelling her story for a children’s

book, Harriet and the Promised Land, published in 1968 (fig. 8, cat. 9). The

book ends with the transcendentally beautiful image shown here, depicting Tubman

and her passengers borne to freedom on a heavenly chariot. Produced at a moment

of intense racial strife and bewilderment, the painting provides an opportunity to

reflect on Lawrence as both historian and historical subject.

The facts of Lawrence’s early life are well known: the migration north, the

fractured family and foster homes, the reunion with his mother in Harlem in 1930.

Unable to afford child care, his mother enrolled him at an after-school art program at a

place called Utopia Children’s House. There he fell under the tutelage of Charles Alston,

director of the Harlem Art Workshop, and began his apprenticeship as a painter.

By a singular stroke of fortune, Lawrence had landed at the epicenter of

one of the great cultural movements in American history. Historians call it the Harlem

Renaissance, but contemporaries called it the “New Negro” movement, a phrase that

captured not only the relative youth of its participants, but also the pervasive sense of

historic change and possibility wrought by World War I and the accelerating migration

of African Americans from the rural South to the urban North. “The mind of the

FIGURE 8

Jacob Lawrence, The

Last Journey, no. 17 from

the series Harriet and

the Promised Land, 1967.

Gouache, tempera and

graphite on paper. Gift of

Dr. Herbert J. Kayden and

Family in memory of Dr.

Gabrielle H. Reem, 2013.100

29


CAMPBELL

Negro seems suddenly to have slipped from under the tyranny of social intimidation

and to be shaking off the psychology of imitation and implied inferiority,” declared

Howard University professor Alain Locke in “Enter the New Negro,” an early manifesto

of the movement.“By shedding the old chrysalis of the Negro problem, we are

achieving something like a spiritual emancipation.”²

Locke’s enthusiasm was shared by white critics, who looked in the postwar

years to African Americans and other putatively “primitive” folk for relief from a civilization

they perceived as sterile and spiritually exhausted. “What American literature

decidedly needs at this moment is color, music, gusto, the free expression of gay or

desperate moods,” wrote Carl Van Doren, literary editor of Century magazine. “If the

Negroes are not in a position to contribute these items, I do not know what Americans

are.”³ White audiences agreed, seeking out the work of black poets and playwrights

and flocking to jazz clubs like Harlem’s famed Cotton Club, where the Duke Ellington

Orchestra presided as house band. As Langston Hughes memorably put it, the 1920s

was the decade when “the Negro was in vogue.”⁴

By the time Lawrence arrived in Harlem in 1930, the hosannas heralding

the New Negro’s arrival had begun to fade, as the brute realities of the Great Depression

settled over the nation. Yet Harlem remained an extraordinarily vital place,

especially for a young artist like Lawrence. Marcus Garvey had been deported, but

the streets still teemed with politicians, preachers, and prophets, all promoting race

pride and extolling the wonders of African civilization. Lawrence first learned about

Toussaint L’Ouverture and the Haitian Revolution from a local teacher, a “Mr. Allen,”

who spoke at Utopia Children’s House. He was also deeply influenced by “Professor”

Charles Seifert, a carpenter and self-taught historian, whom he first encountered at

the Harlem ymca, where he had gone to shoot pool with his friend Romare Bearden.

It was Seifert who first piqued his interest in Africa, and who encouraged him to

make black history the subject of his art.

Most of the luminaries of the New Negro movement remained in Harlem,

and Lawrence met them all. He found a generous, if curmudgeonly, mentor in Claude

McKay, who lived in the same apartment building. Langston Hughes and Countee

Cullen were regular visitors at Alston’s studio, as were rising writers like Richard

Wright and Ralph Ellison. He met dancer Martha Graham and sculptor Augusta

Savage (who secured him a position with the wpa’s Federal Arts Project), and witnessed

the creation of Aaron Douglas’s epic mural series, Aspects of Negro Life (1934),

30


at the 135th Street branch of the New York Public Library. Alain Locke, still chief liaison

between Harlem and New York’s white literary and artistic establishment, became

his patron. Just as Locke had launched Hughes’s career in the 1920s by introducing

the young poet to publisher Alfred Knopf, so would he launch Lawrence’s career by

introducing him to the owner of the Downtown Gallery, where The Migration of the

Negro series was first exhibited.

While Lawrence’s teachers and mentors were almost exclusively African

American, his artistic horizons were not bounded by race. One of the central tenets of

the New Negro movement was that art could be both racially specific and universal,

and that black artists could and should avail themselves of whatever forms and influences

served their needs. Lawrence took the lesson to heart. He attended the Museum

of Modern Art’s famed exhibition of African sculpture in 1935, but he also regularly

made the sixty-block trek to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, where he studied the

painters of the early Renaissance, whose capacity to conjure three dimensions from

two he sought to emulate in his own work. He immersed himself in the Harlem Art

Workshop’s ample library, exploring the work of Francisco de Goya and George

Grosz, Pablo Picasso and Pieter Bruegel the Elder, the Mexican muralists and the

painters of the American Scene. One of the popular myths about the young Lawrence

was that he was untrained. The idea fit with prevailing ideas about black art as a product

of instinct and inspiration rather than reflection and technique, but it was untrue.

Lawrence completed the first Tubman series in 1940. By the standards of his

later work, the panels are spare, even stark: a black body in the posture of crucifixion,

a bloodhound, Tubman trekking across a field of snow. Yet all of Lawrence’s signature

qualities are already present: the deceptively simple design; the forward-leaning

figures, suggestive of movement and flight; the layering of figures to produce depth

and dimension. Artistic influences shine through—to Cubism and Mexican murals,

to Goya and Grosz, to African sculpture and the painting of the early Renaissance, the

latter two poignantly wed in the penultimate panel, depicting a bent Tubman nursing

a wounded Union soldier, a black Pietà.

Lawrence returned to Tubman in the mid-1960s. Much had changed in the

interim. The eclipse of legal Jim Crow brought new possibilities for black Americans,

but also new challenges and perplexities: the same month that saw the signing of

the Civil Rights Act witnessed the Harlem race riot. Africa, a longtime fascination

for Lawrence, shook off the fetters of colonial rule. In 1964, he spent eight months

31


CAMPBELL

in independent Nigeria, an experience that left an indelible imprint on his work.

Paintings became more lavish and exuberant; perspectives became deeper and

steeper to accommodate the profusion of forms. Yet there were darker notes as well.

The violence against civil rights protesters, including children, appalled Lawrence. In

paintings like Ordeal of Alice (fig. 12, cat. 6), from 1963, he veered toward the surreal

and macabre, struggling to represent the monstrous face of white supremacy.

The tensions in Lawrence’s work were exacerbated by the challenge of the

Black Arts Movement, which emerged in the mid-1960s as the aesthetic counterpart

of Black Power. On one hand, Lawrence exemplified many of the values of the

new movement: art rooted in black experience, art that was direct and accessible to

the black masses. On the other hand, he had long hewed to an integrationist ideal, a

vision of an America built by black and white people together. That vision made him

an object of suspicion to some younger artists and critics, a few of whom accused him

of being an Uncle Tom. The charge was patently false, but it stung.

“What I found is that you could accept the health of this rebellion intellectually,

but emotionally you couldn’t,” Lawrence later recalled. “You’d want to tell these people,

Look, I’ve been through some things, too, and so have the people before my generation

and they’re the ones who made it possible for you to have this kind of protest.”⁵

Whether Tubman is one of the people Lawrence had in mind is uncertain,

but Harriet and the Promised Land emerged at precisely this historical moment. Inevitably,

the book’s narrative arc—South to North, slavery to freedom—parallels the earlier

series, but there are also revealing differences. Compositions are denser and deeper,

colors more vivid. Red, largely absent in the first series, suffuses the second, evoking

passion and blood. In two panels, Lawrence depicted Tubman carrying a gun, as she did

in real life. To his chagrin, the publisher excluded both images from the book.

Yet reading Harriet and the Promised Land, one is struck not by the changes

in Lawrence but by the abiding elements of his character: his stubborn hopefulness,

his faith in the redemptive power of struggle, his recognition of the realities of great

ugliness and of great beauty, and his acceptance of responsibility for both. The painting

of a young Harriet forced to tend a white infant is an image of utter exploitation

but also of possibility. The nighttime woods are full of perils but they also abound with

allies, human and animal. The North Star beckons. God hears. A chariot swings low.

32


1. Quoted in Ellen Harkins Wheat, Jacob Lawrence: American

Painter (Seattle: Seattle Art Museum, 1986), 39.

2. Both quotes are from Alain Locke, “Enter the New Negro,”

Survey Graphic (March 1925): 631.

3. Both quotes are from Carl Van Doren, “The Younger

Generation of Negro Writers,” Opportunity (May 1924): 145.

4. Langston Hughes, The Big Sea: An Autobiography (New York:

Thunder’s Mouth Press, [1940] 1986), 228.

5. Quoted in Patricia Hills, “Jacob Lawrence’s Paintings during

the Protest Years of the 1960s,” in Over the Line: The Art and Life

of Jacob Lawrence, ed. Peter T. Nesbett and Michelle Du Bois

(Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2000), 186.

33


34


Images of

Higher Learning:

Jacob Lawrence’s

University

HARRY J. ELAM JR. Evident in jacob lawrence’s 1977 painting

University (fig. 9, cat. 18) is his prescience,

insight, and imagination. Within

this work, Lawrence constructs a vision of academia

that contains the kind of ethnic diversity

you might find at some American universities in the twenty-first century, but certainly

not back in the 1970s. People of many different colors—not only black, white,

and brown, but also purple, pink, and yellow—inhabit Lawrence’s new school. High,

white walls and white arched doorways frame the picture and outline Lawrence’s

classrooms, a nod to the classical notion of the ivory tower. Yet, inside these spaces,

Lawrence has sought to disrupt conventional descriptions of institutions of higher

learning. Lawrence does not create an elite world; rather, he creates a democratic one

that offers openness, access, and opportunity.

Lawrence’s university is not a place for quiet, contemplative reflection, but

rather a site of active engagement. Through a curved archway on the right-hand side of

the painting lies a classroom, where a black figure stands not behind a lectern, desk, or

podium, but in front of a seated class and before a purple backdrop. With a dark-blue

book held in his right arm and his left arm pointing to the heavens, the index finger of

his left hand extended, this blue-suited black figure at once brings to mind the iconic

black preacher spewing fire and brimstone before his congregation. At the same time,

this figure, sporting a pinkish-red collared shirt, also conjures images of black revolutionary

leaders from the 1960s and 1970s—Malcolm X, Stokely Carmichael, Eldridge

Cleaver—extolling the black masses to fight for their own self-determination. Such

connotations inform the fact that this figure is within the white walls of the university.

Accordingly, the knowledge exchange between this professor and his students appears

to be outside of traditional lecture. Instead, the image conveys a sense of urgency and

advocacy. This well-dressed instructor calls his students to attention and perhaps even

to action. His small class features a group of brown and beige faces of different hues

tightly huddled together within the close confines of the room with their gazes clearly

FIGURE 9

Jacob Lawrence, University,

1977. Gouache, tempera,

and graphite on paper. Gift

of Dr. Herbert J. Kayden

and Family in memory of Dr.

Gabrielle H. Reem, 2013.105

35


ELAM

focused on him. They are not taking notes, but listening intently, as their proximity to

the professor enables dynamic interchange.

The classroom at the apex of the painting depicts another scene of progressive

pedagogy. Through pinpoint perspective, Lawrence brings our focus up to the

front of this room, where the professor leans on the desk. Accentuated by the illusion

of seemingly pronounced rake or incline, along with the exaggerated tilt of the desk,

the professor, with both palms down on the desk, seems to extend forward into the

class. Yet the instructor does so not out of frustration with his pupils, nor to admonish

them. While his pose could suggest an attempt to assert control and impose discipline,

in this case it has a significantly different meaning; this teacher leans in to listen. A

black student seated at the front left of the room is speaking. Perhaps he asks a question

or reports back on an observation based on the readings. In either case, his actions

and those of the professor reveal that this is not a portrait of traditional educational

hierarchies, wherein the wizened, older teacher imparts knowledge by lecturing to

younger acolytes. Rather, this scene conveys participatory learning. In addition, it

refutes—as do the other classrooms in Lawrence’s University series—the stereotype

of black students as disinterested figures sitting in the back of the classroom. This

student is engaged, gesticulating with his left hand as he speaks. Perhaps he is even

more involved in the class than are his compatriots. While other white and brown

students near the front sit with their attention directed at the teacher, two students at

the rear, near the open doorway, are turned toward each other in conversation.

Foregrounded in Lawrence’s works are questions of what constitutes

learning and what types of education are proper for the university. In the room to the

immediate left of the center classroom, students face toward an unseen instructor

as one prominently placed brown student nearest to the doorway holds a drafting

compass in his right hand. Associated with artistry and practicality, Lawrence

positions this compass in the classroom as an instrument of higher learning.

Repeatedly in his work, Lawrence celebrates workers and craftsmen, eliding the

distinction between the practical and creative arts. His series of paintings of builders

symbolically applauds laborers for their investment in and efforts at constructing the

nation. In workers, Lawrence identified an aspirational agency, the power to create.

His 1974 Poster Design . . .Whitney Exhibition (fig. 7, cat. 14), gifted to the Cantor

Arts Center by the Kayden family, features a triad of white and black workers in the

background toiling away on a new structure. Implicit in their labors is the possibility

36


not simply for generating new physical edifices, but also for producing social change.

Himself an avid tool collector, Lawrence, in this poster design as in the 1981 drawing

Carpenters No. 3 (cat. 41), prominently displays craftsmen’s implements—hammers,

saws, chisels, and levels.

Accordingly, Lawrence also finds a place for these devices in University; a

prominent black-clad figure moving through the central hallway between the classrooms

carries a T square ruler in his right hand and books under his left arm. Thus

for Lawrence, the university is not just a place for intellectual inquiry, but also for

applied learning. As represented by the student with the drafting compass and ruler,

practical education, for Lawrence, needs to exist in the university alongside more

conceptual or theoretical studies. Notably, in the twenty-first century, universities

such as Stanford are following Lawrence’s vision and putting increased emphasis on

hands-on, project-based learning as a critical component of a college education.

Within Lawrence’s utopian university, possibilities for experiential learning

exist alongside avenues for racial diversity and gender empowerment. A brown

female instructor dressed in a gray dress stands at the front of the classroom on the

right side of the painting. As with the gesticulating black male figure on the opposite

side of the painting, no desk or podium stands between her and her students. Rather,

she is in close proximity, looking out on her pupils. The intimacy of the surroundings

facilitates an interactive learning process. As the female professor leans forward toward

the class, the students simultaneously lean in and appear to be in conversation

with her. A black student with a white face near the front gestures, again with his left

hand, as if in dialogue with this teacher.

At the center of University Lawrence features a hallway filled with activity

that embodies and even heightens the educational ferment at play throughout the entire

image. This hallway is a liminal space, betwixt and between the school’s classrooms,

and is teeming with creative energy. A group of six black and brown students—women

and men, dressed in everything from overalls to robes, again indicating the open, democratic

nature of the environment—bustle about in all directions. Significantly, each of

them, including the black figure with a T square in his hand, all have books under their

arms, representing their engagement in the learning process. Through the students’

body placement and overall composition, Lawrence conveys a spirit of excitement and

anticipation. Whether they are on their way to class, to the library, to the laboratory, or

back to their dorms, they express an enthusiasm for the enterprise of higher education.

37


ELAM

In the lower far-left corner of the hallway, Lawrence places one of the most

intriguing figures contained within this work, a purple-bespectacled, wizard-like

figure. As with all the others in the hallway, this sorcerer carries books under his right

arm, but in contrast he also holds between his right thumb and index finger a small

orb and levitates several other such orbs in a circle above his hand. He appears to be

in the process of exiting the frame on the lower left as if he, like the students, is off

to an appointment not yet made or as if his work here is finished. Still, the presence

of this magician foregrounds the historic tension between science and sorcery—the

questioning of scientific discoveries from that of gravity to global warming. Situated

within a corner of this work, with his charms and enchantments on display, this purple

figure offers a particular revision of the ceremonies and rituals of the so-called dark

arts. He testifies to the continuing presence of magic—that knowledge and events do

exist beyond our understanding and that exploration of the seemingly unbelievable

and unimaginable also has a place in the university.

Significantly, Lawrence completed University when he himself worked

as an academic. Lawrence accepted a position as tenured professor in the School of

Art at the University of Washington, Seattle, in 1971 and taught there until 1986. This

painting serves as testament to what he saw and what he imagined, as well as to what

we now hope to make possible in higher education.

38


39


40


Lawrence’s

Plenty

ALEXANDER NEMEROV How does an artist imagine his whole

body of work, his oeuvre? The artist makes

and makes, he completes and completes,

but what place in his mind do these finished works

occupy? His creations are literal things, but they are

also imagined: a succession of works, one after another, strung together in the mind’s

eye of their maker, a mental catalogue of his creations. They are his private stock, an intimate

gallery of mind-born creatures quite apart from any actual catalogue raisonné

that might record their real location in place and time. Jacob Lawrence’s Fish Market, a

watercolor from 1963, portrays such a personal inventory (fig. 10, cat. 7).

The heart of Lawrence’s fish market is the center, where three men shuck

shellfish. Elbow to elbow, seen from above, they use knives and fingers to pry open and

scrape out clams. To either side, larger workers flank them. A man on the left, grimacing

in a pool of black amid red spiny lobsters, holds out a tray of spiraling shellfish with

his right hand while his left hand, octopus-like, steadies a scale pan suspended at the

end of a long vertical tether. On the right, a much larger man holds three little fish in

his extended right palm while with his left he shuffles a few more of these minnows on

a big scale pan befitting his vast size. The big man, trailing a pool of black from his head,

looks up to the right, averting his face from his hands. The five fishmongers make up

the workmanlike core of Lawrence’s picture.

Around them is the fruit of their production. Below is a display of exotic

fish, striped and spotted, swimming as if in a simultaneous element of ocean water

and crushed vendor’s ice. Though it is a tautology to say so, their colors and patterns

are as bright and striking as a Lawrence painting. Appearing in five framed vignettes,

they swim in a divided space. Consider the frame second from left, showing the

sail-finned fish rising headfirst. The triangle of black at the upper right corner of the

vignette, not to mention the thick black line along the right edge, makes the frame

even appear to slide behind the blue and yellow vignette to the right, as if it were a

picture disappearing behind another picture in a dealer’s rack. That blue and yellow

FIGURE 10

Jacob Lawrence, Fish Market,

1963. Gouache, watercolor,

and graphite on paper.

Gift of Dr. Herbert J. Kayden

and Family in memory of

Dr. Gabrielle H. Reem, 2013.97

41


NEMEROV

picture, a mackerel at the center, meanwhile abuts the separate picture to the right

of the black-and-white fish staring straight forward from behind four black bars. The

rhomboid shapes of the frames suggest that the creatures are displayed to us at a slight

angle, as in a counter tilted forward for our inspection, so that we see them slick and

abed their briny ice. But the fish market also doubles as a picture gallery of sorts.

In 1963 New York’s art market was thriving. Lawrence, represented by the

Terry Dintenfass Gallery, had a solo show there from March 25 to April 20 of that year.

Fish Market was not part of that exhibition, but its theme is apt for a saleable art. Market

pictures historically have alluded to the relation of art and commerce, for example

in sixteenth-century Antwerp, where the paintings of Joachim Beuckelaer implicitly

commented on the trade in art itself as a part of the city’s lively economy (fig. 11).¹ In

brighter hues than Beuckelaer’s cadaverous North Sea creatures, Lawrence’s fish are

like candy, purses, pendants, and pins, a pretty spilling of the commodified horn of

plenty that was 1960s New York. That largesse meanwhile mostly engulfs the workers

who prepare it all. Only the large man on the right overshadows the beautiful bounty

he helps display. Looming as heroically large as the stalwart laborers that populated

1930s public murals, he is the fishmonger equivalent of a Diego Rivera corn goddess:

massive and reluctant, a powerful deity.

But the politics of labor and market do not seem to concern Lawrence so

much. No customers mill around the assembled beauties on display. We see only the

makers and what they have prepared, as if the picture were a dream of what the market

demands but without any requirement that what’s put on view need be bought. The

fish are a bounty so beautiful and wild that they continue to swim in the blue of their

own element even once they are crushed down amid the day’s ice. As if their beauty

and extravagant strangeness should, in fact, keep them from being purchased, or even

keep customers from daring to show up before a display so lavish and lively.

That way the work of making can go on. The crustaceans above the men’s

heads float in pots like thought balloons. These creatures atop the scene occupy the

same plane as the mackerel and tropical fish below, and Lawrence paints upper and

lower creatures the same way, but the elevated places of lobsters, clams, and crabs

make them more empyrean than their sail- and feather-finned counterparts. It is as

though the cupcake pot of clams above the shuckers portrays their thoughts, and the

lobsters around the grimacing man do the same. This is especially true of the crabs

above the big man, out of whose tilted head the creatures seem to emerge as if born

42


from the fecundating black wetness that spills from his skull. In front of his averted

face, more crabs appear as if emerging from his mouth. Francisco de Goya’s The Sleep

of Reason Produces Monsters (1799) is far too dark an image to invoke before the particolored

pleasures of Lawrence’s Fish Market, but Goya and Lawrence both portray a

relation of creatures and minds. From the head of the maker crawls his special conceptions,

his scuttling and flying children, species of independent life.

The circulation between upper and lower tiers is the circle of the artist’s

process. Mental conceptions dance above, connected by a common atmosphere to

the lower tier, where finished products, raw and not cooked, swim as in life. In the

dreamworld of brightly colored things, the brainstorm and the finished product are

equal parts of the oeuvre. Visions and creations float around the busy makers, ideas

and things one and the same, brimming with the same saturated hues. It all flows in a

continuous and protean creativity, as in Homer’s description of the god Proteus in The

Odyssey, who, seized by Meneláos and his men in his seaside cave, shape-shifts first

FIGURE 11

Joachim Beuckelaer (Flanders,

c. 1533–1574), Fish Market,

c. 1560–1573. Oil on canvas or

on board. Museo Nazionale

di Capodimonte, Naples, Italy

43


NEMEROV

into one form and then another, his guises and self-creations infinite, because “he can

take the forms / of all the beasts, and water, and blinding fire.”²

Lawrence was a protean figure. By 1963, he knew this—if he ever doubted

it. More than a quarter century of steady and endlessly creative work predated Fish

Market. You might say he had done the work of five men. Where it all came from, how

it emerged, was not so much a mystery to him, I suspect, as a source of pleasure and

fantasy, the oceanic dream of a person who by the tilt of his head might crack open his

skull again and again to let the bright things emerge. The wonder and pleasure of it was

that the stuff kept coming, so much so that sometimes, as in this picture, it required

a checklist—a portfolio of vignettes—just to keep pleasurable track of all the weird,

swimming fantasies that one’s lines and nets at the merest drop into the water could

not help but pull up.

That Lawrence’s artistic process might well have been more difficult, less

miraculous, is beside the point. Fish Market is a fantasy of ceaseless plentitude that’s

true to an artist’s wonder when he really takes stock, surveys what he’s found, and discovers

himself amazed by the great scope of what’s out there—amazed that the bright

things should brim to overflowing with a voyaging intent to plow the oceans straight

to him. The counter and the crushed ice are just the stage for this protean flow that consents

to be so arrayed but that flows and circulates according to other rules. What we

see is the dream of immortal access to an infinite slippery beauty, a Piscean pantheon.

At the end of his life, William Butler Yeats wrote a poem called “The Circus

Animals’ Desertion” about the disappearance of his muses, his ideas, the circus animals.

Lawrence, in the middle of his long career, felt no such drying up. In Fish Market,

the exotic beasts keep flowing, each one stranger than the last, a glittering menagerie

that the artist, in his mind, keeps dizzying track of even as he spins the next one out.

Only he can imagine each work as an exotic creature, only he can portray himself surrounded

in the never-ending circuit of all the depth he raises.

1. Elizabeth A. Honig, Painting & the Market in Early Modern

Antwerp (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1998), 82–88.

2. Homer, The Odyssey, trans. Robert Fitzgerald (New York:

Anchor, 1963), 65.

44


45


46


The Ordeal

of Alice

CLAYBORNE CARSON Jacob lawrence’s 1963 painting ordeal

of Alice (fig. 12, cat. 6) takes us far inside

the modern African American freedom

struggle. Unlike Lawrence’s largely dispassionate

depictions of key historical moments—most

notably his series on the Great Migration of black Southerners to the urban North—

this provocative painting reveals his emotional response to the racial tumult of the

1960s. Rather than observing from a distance, he displays the perspective of a child

ensnared in that tumult. When compared to Norman Rockwell’s more famous image

The Problem We All Live With (fig. 13), from 1964, we can see the very different ways

in which two talented artists—one black, the other white—changed their aesthetic

preferences as they addressed controversial civil rights issues.

The paintings of even the most skilled and popular artists of the 1960s

could not shape American racial attitudes as much as the photographs of journalists

covering major civil rights protests. Most Americans saw the Southern freedom

movement from the outside, through these images and through radio and television

coverage. While a few “movement photographers” recorded the daily activities of

grassroots activists, media coverage of confrontations between nonviolent protesters

and obstinate segregationists were the main means through which Americans

learned about the brutal realities of the Southern Jim Crow system. Americans saw

graphic news images of angry mobs in Arkansas seeking to prevent the Little Rock

Nine from desegregating Central High School; white hoodlums in many communities

attacking nonviolent students seated at segregated lunch counters; Birmingham

police using dogs and fire hoses to turn back children and high school students; and

Alabama troopers wielding tear gas, cattle prods, and clubs against voting rights

marchers leaving Selma. This coverage of major racial clashes affected the attitudes

of many white Americans and prepared the way for landmark civil rights legislation.

But these news accounts rarely revealed much about the thoughts and

emotions of black protesters who were trying to match the capacity of racists to inflict

FIGURE 12

Jacob Lawrence, Ordeal

of Alice, 1963. Egg tempera

on hardboard. Gift of Dr.

Herbert J. Kayden and Family

in memory of Dr. Gabrielle

H. Reem, 2013.98

47


CARSON

suffering with their capacity to endure it. Given their previous painting styles, neither

Lawrence nor Rockwell would have been good choices to take on the task of conveying

the inner feelings of black activists. Lawrence’s best-known paintings of the 1930s

and 1940s typically depicted people as symbols amid other symbols of black daily life.

He resisted inclusion among the self-conscious European Cubists who had gained

fame before he came of age in the 1930s, but he was like them because he rarely paid

much attention to facial expressions or other demeanors suggesting the mental state

of his subjects. Although his empathy with other black Americans was nonetheless

evident in his choice of historical themes, he was perhaps more interested in what

black people were doing rather than what they were thinking.

Nonetheless, like many of us who lived through that era, Lawrence may

have found it difficult to remain unmoved by the graphic depictions in the news

media of racist oppression and black resistance. As was the case for Rockwell, it was

likely that Lawrence altered his characteristic style in order to express his increasing

identification with the cause of civil rights reform. Indeed, both Lawrence and

Rockwell were probably inspired by news coverage and images of six-year-old New

Orleans student Ruby Bridges, who in 1960 endured racist intimidation and violence

FIGURE 13

Norman Rockwell (U.S.A.,

1894–1978), The Problem We

All Live With, 1963. Oil on

canvas, illustration for a story

in Look, January 14, 1964.

Norman Rockwell Museum

Collection

48


when she enrolled at a previously all-white elementary school. The resulting paintings

could hardly be more different, however, and the differences tell us much about

the racial identities and aesthetic preferences of the two artists.

Rockwell’s The Problem We All Live With is a departure from his earlier

romanticized, comforting images of white middle-class Americana. His decision to

address controversial racial issues prompted his departure from the Saturday Evening

Post, a middlebrow literary magazine, and his move to Look, a more provocative news

magazine. Rockwell depicts Bridges as an innocent child dressed in white, walking

with a book in hand and flanked by two pairs of protective U.S. marshals. She is facing

forward, seemingly unconcerned about the racist epithet and splattered tomatoes on

the wall behind her, or about the segregationist mob that is, or was, nearby. Rockwell

challenges white Americans to see the nation’s racial problem while also reassuring

them that the nation is acting to solve it.

Lawrence’s Alice also wears a white dress and carries several books, but she

is surrounded by grotesque, threatening figures rather than protective federal officials.

She is standing erect despite the small arrows that have pierced her dress and

body. Like the Christian martyr Saint Sebastian, she is facing us so we cannot ignore

her agony. Rather than seeing Ruby Bridges looking ahead with confidence that she

will reach school, we see Alice looking toward the mob (and toward us, implicating

the viewer). The stains left by the tomatoes splattered against the wall in Rockwell’s

image echo the spots of blood on Alice’s dress. Her wounds and hostile surroundings

suggest her mental state—perhaps expressing the feelings of an older Ruby Bridges as

she remembers what she once endured. Lawrence invites (or dares?) us to join him in

an emotionally charged setting that is rarely found in his previous paintings.

For a few months during 2011, President Barack Obama agreed to have

Rockwell’s painting displayed in the White House, and it is certainly a treasured

American icon. It is less likely that Lawrence’s painting will ever be publicly shown

there. His painting is far more likely to disturb viewers of all races than to reassure

them. For Lawrence, the problem we live with is not simply the racism experienced

by a small child in 1960, but the indelible memories that linger long after the racial

confrontations of that era.

49


50


Moving Forward

Together: New York

in Transit

MICHELE ELAM Jacob lawrence’s 1998 silkscreens, new

York in Transit I and II (figs. 14–15, cats.

56–57), were the artist’s last commissioned

public works before his passing in 2000. Comprising

two panels, the prints together form the

maquettes—small-scale models, or prototypes—for the thirty-six-foot-wide glass

mosaic mural (fig. 16) permanently installed in the Times Square /42nd Street

subway station in New York in 2001 by the Metropolitan Transportation Authority

Arts for Transit and Urban Design.¹ New York in Transit offers viewers a vision of companionable

humanity, of people unique yet all en route toward a shared destination.

Created in Lawrence’s distinctive abstract aesthetic, New York in Transit is a

kind of tableau vivant of New York’s ethnic diversity, socioeconomic gumbo, idiosyncratic

personalities, and hallowed cultural institutions that are both representative of

the city and yet suggest, more universally, the mosaic of human experience. We are

given an omniscient glimpse into an elevated train hurtling through time and space.

Within this diorama, what we might call visual moments, or beats, are framed and

defined by the floor-to-ceiling poles that riders hold. But the hands grasping these

poles, and the bodies of the passengers appearing on both sides of them, transgress

these boundaries, so the effect is one of continuity rather than subdivision. Contrary

to the notion that riders of subways and trains face socially isolating experiences in

which criminal threat and physical discomfort are the norm, in Lawrence’s New York

in Transit people are represented as being both contentedly solitary and enthusiastically

social. The first panel is bookended by books: on the upper left-hand corner are

red, blue, green, and black books piled up as though in a library carrel; in the lower

right, an African American man is intently reading a book with a binding of the same

colors. The visual beats in between feature both people privately engrossed like the

reader (a man gazes upward, lost in whatever is playing from his headphones; a

woman protectively cradles a plant) as well as those in animated engagement with

others (the woman sharing a menagerie of pets on her lap with the woman in the seat

FIGURES 14–15

New York in Transit I and II,

1998. Two silkscreens. Gift

of Dr. Herbert J. Kayden and

Family in memory of Dr.

Gabrielle H. Reem, 2013.115–116

51


ELAM

across from her). Then there are those who look occupied with things beyond, but

not at odds with, the present company around them: there is a pale man, with what

looks like a rosary, who seems as though he might be preaching, until we realize his

uplifted hand is not hailing a congregation but instead clutching the pole. We see

the back of the workman with tools in his pocket and linked franks draped over his

shoulder, not so much turned away but turned outward as he peers upward. Even

the viewer is implicated: a brown-skinned man with a hat, bow tie, and cane sitting

formally beside his white-haired companion gazes directly at us. This is not an image

of people averting their gazes, refusing to acknowledge one another. Rather, New

York in Transit is about people engaged with the world around them.

In fact, in this idealized subway the windows do not look out on an unlit

tunnel or urban blight; rather, they are portals to blue-sky scenes of play, music,

art, and inviting cityscapes. They might represent something a rider is daydreaming

about or something actually outside a window, but in either case they are panes

depicting imagination. There is even an image of a soaring airplane against a clear

sky—the transit in air is the natural complement to transit underground. Indeed,

the plane and sky seem to exist simultaneously inside the subway car because of the

two-dimensional nature of Lawrence’s works. This stylistic flatness and lack of depth

collapses distance, which is why the plane, the tennis players, the concert—all putatively

outside the windows—do not represent longing for escape from the enclosure

of the train. Rather, these uplifting images escort and carry the riders forward, and

accompany them as if in an adjoining seat.

The optimistic vision in New York in Transit is key to understanding

Lawrence’s approach to the relationship between art and politics that so deeply

informs twentieth-century African American expressive arts. Lawrence emerged as

an artist during the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s and early 1930s, and was versed

in the debates between those who argued for recognition of a black aesthetic based

on a people’s distinctive racial experience in America, as Langston Hughes claimed in

his famous manifesto, “The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain” (1926), and those

like George Schuyler, who in “The Negro-Art Hokum” (1926) claimed that African

Americans were simply “lamp-blacked Anglo-Saxons” whose art was indistinguishable

from that produced by white people.² Threading that needle between notions

of art as political statement and art for art’s sake, Lawrence was sometimes viewed

as not sufficiently militant during the civil rights era. Lawrence’s New York in Transit,

52


for instance, is strikingly different from another indelible image of a subway by

another African American: Amiri Baraka, whose Obie Award–winning play “Dutchman”

(1964)—made into a film in 1967—features toxic interracial relations staged in

what he called “the flying underbelly of the city.”³ In Baraka’s play, the subway car

is a vehicle of social critique, a searing indictment of America’s insincere promises

of racial equality. Baraka’s subway is claustrophobic—a twilight zone of interracial

tension and, ultimately, the site of a macabre murder scene in which a white woman

first tries to seduce, then kills, a black man. Like many other works by Lawrence, New

York in Transit represents amicable cross-racial relations, in the light of common day,

working and moving toward a common end.

This does not mean Lawrence was apolitical or accommodationist; to the

contrary, his subway-as-social-microcosm featuring people of diverse backgrounds

playing, riding, reading, talking, and in motion together indexes a subtler politics. It is

important to remember that for most of the twentieth century, representing ordinary

people across the color line doing ordinary things, unsegregated and unremarkable,

was itself a political act. In fact, although he is perhaps best known, along with

his muralist peer Aaron Douglas, for grand historical sweeps (The Migration of the

Negro series of 1941) and representations of black heroes and leaders (of Touissant

FIGURE 16

Jacob Lawrence, New York

in Transit, 2001. Glass mosaic.

Commissioned by MTA Arts

& Design for NYCT Times

Square/42nd Street Station

53


ELAM

L’Ouverture, Frederick Douglass, and Harriet Tubman), Lawrence, like the great

playwright August Wilson, wanted also to tell a more local, intimate history that

captured the rhythms and poignancy of the everyday. An homage to the city that never

sleeps, New York in Transit validates the quotidian experience of getting to and from,

and the value of the time spent in between destinations. The people in the cars who are

hurtling through space have not yet arrived; they are forever journeying in the perpetual

present of this image, hurtling from unknown origin to unknown destination. And

as Lawrence’s images suggest, the subway (like a train or plane) is a paradoxical space

in which the people it carries can be moving forward while standing still. For that very

reason, it is also a liminal site of change: the title itself plays with the meaning of transit

to suggest that New York is also in transition—that its citizens are not just in motion,

but on the move, not just on the city transit, but changing the city itself.

Lawrence’s commitment to honoring prosaic experience is crucial to any

interpretation of these vivid silkscreens, and is necessary to appreciate also the larger

social function for which they were created. New York in Transit I and II are now housed

at the Cantor Arts Center, but they have a double life through their incarnation as an

enormous mosaic mural in New York. Installed in the high-traffic Times Square /42nd

Street Station over a stairwell (fig. 16), hundreds of thousands of riders walk under the

mural on their way to the subway trains.

The mosaic’s prominent position guarantees high visibility, but its impact

is also due to the fact that it exists in such an unlikely and ignominious site for art: a

subterranean tunnel. In fact, it is, significantly, hung on the way to the platform. Those

entering the subway descend into a dim, efficient industrial space of metal rails and

concrete floors. But New York in Transit—its glittering tiles lit from above—breaks

from the monotonous gray palette and interrupts the expectation of the anonymous,

institutional experience that so many associate with urban public transit. The mural’s

position just at the very beginning of a rider’s descent into the bowels of the city invites

prospective riders to imagine a very different kind of trip than the uncomfortable,

cramped ride they may well be anticipating. It functions to presage and prime

riders for a better experience that elevates them and their fellow passengers. In that

sense, both the silkscreens and the mural are aspirational rather than mimetic: the

subway scenes do not so much reflect real life as they do the wish that the life depicted

was real life. Some may suggest that this benevolent vision of humanity is naively sanguine

given the persistence of racial inequity and social injustice. But that is to miss

54


the potency of Lawrence’s work, for art can serve as spiritual motivation and social

prophecy, imaginatively ushering in alternatives to the world as it is.

1. The mural was commissioned in 1991 by the Metropolitan

Transportation Authority Arts for Transit and Urban Design

(today called mta Arts & Design), and Lawrence’s wife,

Gwendolyn Knight Lawrence, was also involved in the final

design. The tile work was done by Miotto Mosaic Art Studios Inc.

New York in Transit, as of the date of this publication, remains

on display on a beam over the stairwell on the mezzanine level

leading to the N, Q, W, R, and S subway embarkments. For more

information, see http://web.mta.info/mta/aft/permanentart/

permart.html?agency=NYCT&line=P&station=2&artist=4.

For photographs of the mural, see http://subwaynut.com/ct/

times_sq_upper_mezz/new_york_in_transit/index.php;

for a podcast describing the mural, see http://web.mta.info/

mta/aft/podcast/.

2. George S. Schuyler, “The Negro-Art Hokum,” The Norton

Anthology of African American Literature, ed. Henry Louis Gates Jr.

and Nellie Y. McKay (New York: Norton & Co., 1997), 1172.

3. Amiri Baraka, quoted from Baraka’s director’s notes to his

playscript, Dutchman, The Norton Anthology of African American

Literature, 1985.

55


The Catalogue

ELIZABETH KATHLEEN MITCHELL

56


The artworks illustrated on the following pages are by Jacob

Lawrence (U.S.A., 1917–2000), with the exception of the painting

on page 76 (CAT. 10), which is by Gwendolyn Knight Lawrence

(U.S.A., b. Barbados, 1913–2005). All works are part of the permanent

collection of the Iris & B. Gerald Cantor Center for Visual Arts at Stanford

University, as the Gift of Dr. Herbert J. Kayden and Family in memory of

Dr. Gabrielle H. Reem, except for the silkscreen series The Legend of John

Brown and Eight Studies for “The Book of Genesis,” which are the Gift

of Joelle Kayden. The catalogue entries are ordered chronologically by

artwork date. Sheet dimensions are recorded for any objects with a paper

support, including paintings, drawings, and prints. The titles of works

published in portfolios reflect the artist’s spelling and punctuation.

57


CAT. 1

At Times It Is Hard to

Get a Table in a Pool Room

1943

Gouache and graphite on paper

21½ × 14½ in.

2013.92

1. Jacob Lawrence and Henry

Louis Gates Jr., “An Interview

with Jacob Lawrence by

Henry Louis Gates Jr.,” MoMA

19 (Spring 1995): 16.

2. Ibid.

3. Oral history interview

with Jacob Lawrence, Oct. 26,

1968, Archives of American

Art, Smithsonian Institution.

C

ompleted after Lawrence returned to

Harlem in fall 1943, following several

months of painting in rural Virginia, At Times It Is Hard

to Get a Table in a Pool Room locates the viewer in the

street outside a pool parlor. A police officer passes by

in the foreground, while seated men holding pool cues

and waiting for their turn to play are visible through

the open doorway to the right. A leg extends from the

doorway’s left side, suggesting a player bent over a

table. More than any other painting in the Kayden gift,

this one, which belongs to a group of thirty paintings

Lawrence exhibited in a 1943 show at Downtown Gallery

called Harlem, is remarkable for its brilliant colors

and juxtaposition of geometric forms.

The social rituals and visual rhythms of

Harlem nurtured Lawrence’s early artistic vision; he

has explained that he was drawn to the social sites he

“came in contact with, the pool halls, the cabarets”—

anywhere people gathered and their energy could

be felt.¹ His paintings convey what he learned from

the scenes he witnessed through open doorways

and the conversations he overheard while passing by

windows.² The pictures capture the artist’s fondness

for his community and also speak to a broader

interest in how black culture was developing in

America. Lawrence explained in a 1968 interview

that his Harlem images don’t just stand for “the New

York Harlem,” but also represent the experiences of

“so many people and so many Negroes throughout

the country in their own Harlems.”³

58


59


60


CAT. 2

Night After Night

1952

Egg tempera on hardboard

24 × 18 in.

2013.94

Night After Night belongs to a group of

works Lawrence began in 1951 and

exhibited as Performance: A Series of New Paintings

in Tempera. The upper third of the composition is

anchored by a black actor who stands alone on stage

in the beam of a yellow spotlight. He appears to be

delivering a soliloquy as he raises a skull with his

right arm. Blood flows profusely down his wrist, and

a second skull rests at his feet. The actor is watched by

two cloaked figures who are partially obscured by the

stage curtains. Closer to the viewer, a woman wearing

a sparkling ring oversees the production. Yet another

skull, this one filled with flowers as if it were a vase,

rests on her desk and casts an ominous shadow.

The broad palette and angular shapes of

this picture break significantly from Lawrence’s social

realist style of the 1940s. Unlike previous explorations

of specific historical figures, the Performance

paintings are enigmatic allegories for the drama of

daily life. Each work features a different type of performer—vaudeville

players, puppeteers, and musicians—drawn

from the artist’s memories of Harlem

being “almost like a theater.” Lawrence recalled that

when he “would leave the Apollo Theater and go

out into the street” he felt as if he was still watching

a production because “there was tragedy; there was

comedy” all around him.⁴

4. Xavier Nichols, “Interview

with Jacob Lawrence,” Callaloo

36, no. 2 (Spring 2013):

266.

61


CAT. 3

Construction

1952

Casein tempera over

graphite on paperboard

23½ × 29¾ in.

2013.93

5. This image suggests

the influence of a project

Lawrence would have

known: the mural of working

builders José Clemente

Orozco painted at the New

School for Social Research

in New York in 1930–31.

C

onstruction distinguishes itself from

Lawrence’s other early paintings of

buildings through its sophisticated handling of

space.⁵ In the foreground, a stepped armature rising

from the picture’s left to the right separates the

viewer from the four workers. Their bodies are

drawn with flat, rounded shapes that occupy shallow

slices of space. The arced lines, along with the linear

constellations suggesting designs with dotted “cut”

lines, add a contrasting layer of dimensionality to

the heavier straight lines of the beams, girders, and

panels that dominate the image. The composition

is anchored by a triangle; its pinnacle is the head of

the highest man and it extends downward from his

outstretched arms to the bodies of the others, who

intently measure, level, and join beams.

Lawrence’s depictions of builders, carpenters,

and construction workers constitute one of the

richest and most significant themes he explored

during his long career. He drew such laborers at

work or in moments of rest, and always surrounded

by their projects and tools. As a youth, Lawrence

was intrigued by the architectural transformation

of postwar New York City and became particularly

fascinated with the work of Harlem cabinetmakers.

His first pictures of such figures date from the 1940s;

he developed this subject more intensively during

the 1960s and 1970s.

62


63


64


CAT. 4

120.9.14.286.9.33-ton

290.9.27 be at

153.9.28.110.8.17.255.9.29

evening 178.9.8 . . .

—AN INFORMER’S CODED

MESSAGE

1955

No. 11 from the series Struggle . . .

From the History of

the American People, 1954–1956

Egg tempera on hardboard

15¹⁵⁄₁₆ × 11¹⁵⁄₁₆ in.

2013.95

Lawrence only completed half of the

sixty panels he originally envisioned for

the series Struggle . . . From the History of the American

People. He did not intend for these images to “pertain

strictly to the Negro theme,” but rather wished to

show “to what degree the Negro had participated

in American history.”⁶ The result is a thoroughly

researched overview that spans from the American

Revolution to the early nineteenth-century push to

settle the West. The Kayden gift features two of the

most striking works in this epic cycle.

This painting, which has the alternate title

Espionage, imagines the American General Benedict

Arnold betraying George Washington’s military

strategy to Major John André of the British army. The

uncomfortable proximity of their faces to the viewer

emphasizes the clandestine and treasonous nature

of their exchange. The composition is broken into

jagged shapes and sharp facets of color, heightening

the atmosphere of anxiety. Lawrence had developed

an interest in the history of espionage while serving

in the Coast Guard in the 1940s.⁷ The work’s allusion

to secrets, treason, and betrayal echoes the suspicion

and paranoia that pervaded American culture from

the early to mid-1950s, a period marked by Senator

Joseph McCarthy’s efforts to blacklist and prosecute

performers, writers, and artists he suspected to be

Communists.

6. Oral history interview

with Jacob Lawrence, Oct. 26,

1968, Archives of American

Art, Smithsonian Institution.

7. Peter T. Nesbett, Jacob

Lawrence: The Complete Prints

(1963–2000). A Catalogue Raissoné

(Seattle: University of

Washington Press, 2001), 50.

65


66


CAT. 5

Old America seems

to be breaking up

and moving Westward . . .

—AN ENGLISH

IMMIGRANT, 1817

1956

No. 30 from the series Struggle . . .

From the History of the American

People, 1954–1956

Egg tempera on hardboard

11⁷⁄₈ × 15⁷⁄₈ in.

2013.96

This panel, the final one Lawrence

completed for the Struggle . . . series,

shows how ambitiously he pursued abstraction in

the 1950s. The image is unusual for the artist in that

it contains no human figures. Instead, it foregrounds

the vital role that beasts of burden played in the

settling of the American West. Two oxen bound to

a yoke and foaming at the nostrils pull a pioneer’s

wagon through water. The splash of bright red blood

on the wagon’s rail alludes to the sacrifices—both

animal and human—that occurred during westward

expansion. This series demonstrates the breadth of

Lawrence’s explorations of America’s history and the

myths that surrounded its origins during the 1950s.

67


CAT. 6

Ordeal of Alice

1963

Egg tempera on hardboard

24 × 20 in.

2013.98

8. Patricia Hills, “Jacob Lawrence’s

Paintings during the

Protest Years of the 1960s,”

in Over the Line: The Art and

Life of Jacob Lawrence, ed.

Peter T. Nesbett and Michelle

DuBois (Seattle: University

of Washington Press,

2001), 181.

9. Ibid., 177–81.

10. Ellen Harkins Wheat,

Jacob Lawrence: American

Painter (Seattle: University of

Washington Press, 1986), 109.

11. Jacob Lawrence and Henry

Louis Gates Jr., “An Interview

with Jacob Lawrence by

Henry Louis Gates Jr.,” MoMA

19 (Spring 1995): 17.

Ordeal of Alice is regarded as Lawrence’s

most forceful painting of the 1960s,

the era in which he engaged most directly with

contemporary racial politics.⁸ A response to continuing

resistance to the 1954 Supreme Court ruling that

ended the policy of “separate but equal” schools, this

powerful work presents a young black girl, schoolbooks

in hand, being taunted by a mob the artist

described as “human beings, and yet they are like

animals,” distorted by rage and hate.⁹ Alice’s tortured

body is shot with arrows and her neck appears to be

sliced and broken. Her name makes reference to

the protagonist of Lewis Carroll’s 1865 book Alice’s

Adventures in Wonderland, but this Alice is lost in an

ongoing racist nightmare.

During the 1960s, Lawrence also made

portraits of civil rights activists such as Jesse Jackson

and Stokely Carmichael and painted works about

interracial marriage and the physical abuse police

inflicted on African Americans. He also published

illustrations in journals distributed by the activist

groups Freedom Movement and the Methodist Student

Movement.¹⁰ Lawrence’s work from this violent

period gives clear form to his assertion that “the black

artist’s responsibility is to himself, and if we live up

to that responsibility then we are representing the

black community.”¹¹

68


69


CAT. 7

Fish Market

1963

Gouache, watercolor,

and graphite on paper

22½ × 30½ in.

2013.97

12. Oral history interview

with Jacob Lawrence, Oct. 26,

1968, Archives of American

Art, Smithsonian Institution.

T

his exuberant watercolor was inspired

by Lawrence’s travels to Africa. Although

he recognized its influence around Harlem and in the

work of other black artists, Lawrence maintained that

African art had no direct affect on his visual style.¹²

Indeed, the three trips he made in the early 1960s to

West Africa, and especially to Nigeria, did not impact

his technique so much as they influenced his choice

of subjects. After returning to the United States he

repeatedly painted the open-air food markets he

had seen in Nigeria. These images build on his earlier

interest in renderings of shoppers at American fish

and meat stalls. The dynamic composition of Fish

Market implies a kaleidoscopic patchwork of memories,

or an overwhelming sensory experience, and

conveys the presence of tanks teeming with fish and

the people who prepare and sell them.

70


71


72


CAT. 8

Dreams No. 3: Toreador

1966

Tempera on paper

22½ × 30½ in.

2013.99

Painted at the height of Lawrence’s

investigations of racism and violence,

Toreador focuses on a ferocious struggle. Men jab

swords, shaped as elongated crosses, at a muscular

white animal with hybrid canine and equine features.

The beast echoes the wounded horse central to

Pablo Picasso’s provocative protest painting Guernica

(1937). Lawrence’s image is based on iconography

familiar in his work but, as in a feverish nightmare,

the elements are combined in a disorienting and

disturbing manner. On the left, a man dressed in

yellow and green smokes a cigarette while three

spectators, possibly children, call out from windows.

These bystanders evoke figures from Lawrence’s

Harlem street pictures, such as People in Other Rooms,

1975 (fig. 4, cat. 15). The blue architectural detailing

around the windows in the background recalls

the chess pieces from Lawrence’s game-themed

paintings of the mid-1950s and the 1996 etching Two

Builders Playing Chess (fig. 6, cat. 55).

73


74


CAT. 9

The Last Journey

1967

No. 17 from the series Harriet and

the Promised Land, 1967

Gouache, tempera, and graphite

on paper

15⁄ × 26¾ in.

2013.100

The story of Harriet Tubman, the abolitionist

who spied for the Union army

during the Civil War and used the Underground

Railroad to transport hundreds of slaves to freedom,

resonated strongly during the American civil rights

movement. Knowing that “the Negro woman has

never been included in American history,” Lawrence

told her story twice: in a thirty-one-panel series he

completed in 1940 and in the seventeen paintings

he created to illustrate Harriet and the Promised Land,

a children’s book published by Windmill Books in

1968.¹³ The Last Journey shows Harriet in a red cloak,

driving a wagon from America to Canada, where she

and her passengers could be free; the two shades of

green on the ground suggest the border separating

the two nations.

13. Oral history interview

with Jacob Lawrence, Oct. 26,

1968, Archives of American

Art, Smithsonian Institution.

75


76


CAT. 10

Gwendolyn Knight Lawrence

(U.S.A., b. Barbados, 1913–2005)

Augusta Savage

1967

Oil on canvas

24 × 18 in.

2013.91

This powerful work exhibits signs of

the experimental approach that Knight

Lawrence developed while studying painting at The

New School in New York in the mid-1960s. The brushstrokes

are vigorous and expressive, and she explores

the work’s materiality by exposing the white ground

that coats the canvas. This portrait was completed five

years after the death of its subject, sculptor Augusta

Savage, whom Knight Lawrence would later describe

as having been “a second mother to me,” adding,

“her studio was a second home.”¹⁴ Before she met

Savage, Knight Lawrence had taken painting classes

for two years at Howard University with the Bostonborn

artist Lois Mailou Jones. In 1933 financial need

obliged Knight Lawrence to rejoin her family in

Harlem. She worked under Savage for the next four

years, and continued to paint after she married Jacob

Lawrence in 1941.

14. Barbara Earl Thomas,

“Never Late for Heaven,” in

Never Late for Heaven: The

Art of Gwen Knight (Seattle:

University of Washington

Press, 2003), 23.

77


CAT. 11

“Human Figure”

after Vesalius

1968

Graphite on paper

23⁄ × 18 in.

2013.101

In 1968 Lawrence began an extensive

series of drawings based on the engraved

plates (see fig. 2) in Andreas Vesalius’s landmark

1543 anatomical atlas, De humani corporis fabrica (On

the Fabric of the Human Body). This highly finished

drawing emphasizes the outlines of the major muscle

groups in the legs and arms. The heavy, angled lines

of the torso indicate layers of muscle attached to the

armature of the ribs. However, the chest’s thickness

suggests that Lawrence, in his post-Cubist style, is

articulating multiple perspectives of the chest

at once. Throughout the composition he shaded

in—or left completely blank—geometric and

inorganic shapes in order to evoke the visual effects

of movement and the passage of time. Similarly, the

nails on the right cast shadows pointing in various

directions, as if produced by light from multiple,

contradictory sources. Lawrence’s Vesalius drawings

demonstrate his thorough understanding of art’s

figurative tradition and reveal the ways in which he,

as a modernist, challenged it.

78


79


80


CAT. 12

Untitled (Skowhegan School

Exhibition and Sale)

1968

Gouache, tempera,

and graphite on paper

29 × 20 in.

2013.102

The prominent blue, black, and white

human form on the right side of this

preparatory painting for a poster announcing an

exhibition and sale at the Skowhegan School of Painting

and Sculpture in Maine derives from Lawrence’s

graphite drawing “Human Figure” after Vesalius (fig.

1, cat. 11). In this iteration he has simplified and

softened its lines while darkening the shadows along

the primary figure’s outer contours. The visual reference

to Vesalius is perfectly fitting for a work so closely

tied to art and education, as it symbolizes the history

of anatomy, a branch of knowledge that was shaped

by artists and remains vital to artistic practice.

Lawrence took his first teaching job in

the mid-1960s and continued to teach regularly at

universities and art colleges for two more decades.

He created this study in 1968, the year he began

teaching at Skowhegan. He went on to teach there

for many summers and was elected to the school’s

Board of Governors in 1970.

81


CAT. 13

Builders No. 3

1973

Gouache, tempera,

and graphite on paper

38¾ × 20 in.

2013.103

B

uilders No. 3 belongs to a group of four

paintings that Lawrence created shortly

after accepting a professorship at the University

of Washington, Seattle, in 1971. The figures form a

solid triangular core within the composition: The

white carpenter at the base raises his saw in a gesture

mirroring that of the black worker directly above

him, who appears to be passing a board up to a higher

builder working beyond the edge of the canvas. The

artist choreographed the interaction of these figures

like a precise and graceful dance executed by overlapping

bodies and framed by incomplete walls. The

viewer is located beneath them and positioned to

gaze up at their monumental, heroic bodies performing

humble work.

82


83


CAT. 14

Poster Design . . .

Whitney Exhibition

1974

Gouache, tempera,

and graphite on paper

30¹⁄₁₆ × 22¼ in.

2013.104

15. Milton W. Brown, “Jacob

Lawrence,” in Jacob Lawrence

(New York: Whitney Museum

of American Art, 1974), 9–16.

T

his painting served as a preparatory

study for an editioned poster published

on the occasion of Lawrence’s second major retrospective,

which was organized by the Whitney

Museum of American Art and shown at five other

American venues. Instead of selecting one of his

best-known works for the poster, Lawrence created

a new one that touched on some of his favored

themes: family, urban life, and the laborers who build

America’s cities. In the catalogue accompanying the

Whitney exhibition, Milton W. Brown praised the

quiet dignity of works like Poster Design . . .Whitney

Exhibition, noting that Lawrence’s “art was not only

about Blacks, but represented them honestly without

idealization, sentimentality, or caricature.” ¹⁵

84


85


86


CAT. 15

People in Other Rooms

1975

Silkscreen

30⁄ × 22¼ in.

2013.108

P

eople in Other Rooms, much like Poster

Design . . .Whitney Exhibition (fig. 7, cat.

14), captures the forms and visual patterns of everyday

life in a lively sidewalk scene. The stark, linear

geometry of the urban architecture—the sidewalk

blocks, stair steps, windows, and doorways—is interrupted

by the slender, sinuous lines of the dog’s

black leash, the white guitar strap, and the curves of

the guitar. People in Other Rooms is one of many prints

that Lawrence produced during the 1970s. The artist

favored screenprinting and lithography because these

techniques enabled him to sharply delineate areas

of solid color and thus retain the character of his

painting style.

87


CAT. 16

Morning Still Life

1976

Silkscreen

29¾ × 22¼ in.

2013.109

Lawrence only rarely deviated from

human subjects. Although this straightforward

still life is an anomaly in his career, the artist

often included small still life vignettes in his works.

The bowls of fruit seen in the 1994 lithograph Artist

in Studio (cat. 52) and the 1996 etchings Ten Builders

(cat. 54) and Two Builders Playing Chess (fig. 6, cat.

55) introduce nature into scenes of industrial workers

that emphasize the design and function of their

tools. Here, fruit is arranged on a table covered with

patterned cloth. Lawrence has playfully included

three more pieces of fruit in the lower left corner, as if

they had just rolled onto the floor. The print, based on

a 1961 watercolor, successfully expresses the fluidity

and luminosity of the original painting.

88


89


90


CAT. 17

The Swearing In

1977

Silkscreen

20 × 30 in.

2013.110

Lawrence’s art demonstrates an awareness

of the people located at the

physical and social margins of any situation. This

print, commissioned by The Presidential Inaugural

Committee of Washington, D.C., is no exception. The

committee approached prominent artists including

Lawrence, Robert Rauschenberg, and Andy Warhol

to design prints for a portfolio commemorating the

inauguration of President Jimmy Carter. The year

after Lawrence produced this print for the project,

Carter appointed him to a six-year term on the

National Council on the Arts.

Instead of concentrating on the President

and the ceremony, Lawrence depicts those on

the fringes of the crowd. The racially mixed group

contains people of all different ages, many holding

tiny American flags. The figures face right, toward

the official stage that we cannot see, and which may

lie beyond their view as well; some of them have

climbed up into the trees in order to secure a better

vantage point. They gathered to experience a

historic moment celebrating America’s hard-won

democracy, yet they strain to catch a glimpse of the

ceremony and actually be a part of it.

91


92


CAT. 18

University

1977

Gouache, tempera,

and graphite on paper

32 × 24 in.

2013.105

Here Lawrence envisions the university

as a hive buzzing with physical

and intellectual activity. Male and female figures

representing students and faculty of various shades

of purple and brown move through the halls. The

building has high, white walls—perhaps Lawrence’s

rendering of academia’s ivory tower. The lines of the

ceiling and doorways in the upper half of the image,

and the sloping brown floor, pull the viewer’s eye

toward the central classroom, where an instructor,

the only static figure in the composition, lowers

his head as he leans on a desk. A man in the center

foreground wears overalls, the clothing typically

worn by Lawrence’s builders. This figure reinforces

the image’s underlying themes of progress and

self-improvement, recalling W.E.B. Du Bois’s assertion

that “the object of all true education is not to

make men carpenters, it is to make carpenters men.”¹⁶

16. W.E.B. Du Bois, “The

Talented Tenth,” in The Negro

Problem: A Series of Articles

by Representative American

Negroes of To-Day (Miami:

Mnemosyne Publishing, Inc.,

1969), 63.

93


CATS. 19–40

The Legend of John Brown

1978

Portfolio of twenty-two silkscreens

Verticals: 25⁄ × 20 in.

Horizontals: 20 × 25⁄ in.

2014.105.1–22

In 1941, while working in New Orleans,

Lawrence envisioned and painted the

twenty-two panel series The Legend of John Brown.

The Detroit Institute of Arts acquired the full set

of paintings. Over time these works deteriorated

significantly and, in 1975, the museum commissioned

Lawrence to make a set of prints based on them. This

was his first editioned portfolio, and it is accompanied

by a poem about Brown written by Detroit-born

Robert Hayden, the first African American Poet

Laureate of the United States.

The prints, like the original paintings, tell

the story of Brown, a radical, white abolitionist who

believed himself to be God’s warrior against slavery.

Brown mobilized and armed a band of committed

abolitionists and slaves he had liberated by ambushing

plantations. His crusade ended in 1859, when federal

troops captured him after he led a raid on the armory

at Harpers Ferry, Virginia (now West Virginia). Brown

was condemned and executed the following day. His

actions electrified America and propelled the nation

toward the Civil War.

94


CAT. 19

1. John Brown, a man who had a fanatical belief that he was

chosen by God to overthrow black slavery in America.

95


THE LEGEND OF JOHN BROWN

CAT. 20

2. For forty years John Brown reflected on the hopeless and

miserable condition of the slaves.

96


CAT. 21

3. For twelve years John Brown engaged in land

speculations and wool merchandising. All this to make

some money for his greater work which was the

abolishment of slavery.

97


THE LEGEND OF JOHN BROWN

CAT. 22

4. His ventures failing him, he accepted poverty.

98


CAT. 23

5. John Brown, while tending his flock in Ohio, first

communicated with his sons and daughters his plans

of attacking slavery by force.

99


THE LEGEND OF JOHN BROWN

CAT. 24

6. John Brown formed an organization among the colored

people of the Adirondack woods to resist the capture of any

fugitive slaves.

100


CAT. 25

7. To the people he found worthy of trust, he

communicated his plans.

101


THE LEGEND OF JOHN BROWN

CAT. 26

8. John Brown’s first thought of the place where he

would make his attack came to him while surveying land

for Oberlin College in West Virginia, 1840.

102


CAT. 27

9. Kansas was now the skirmish ground of the Civil War.

103


THE LEGEND OF JOHN BROWN

CAT. 28

10. Those pro-slavery were murdered by those anti-slavery.

104


CAT. 29

11. John Brown took to guerrilla warfare.

105


THE LEGEND OF JOHN BROWN

CAT. 30

12. John Brown’s victory at Black Jack drove those

pro-slavery to new fury, and those who were anti-slavery to

new efforts.

106


CAT. 31

13. John Brown, after long meditation, planned to fortify

himself somewhere in the mountains of Virginia or

Tennessee and there make raids on surrounding plantations,

freeing slaves.

107


THE LEGEND OF JOHN BROWN

CAT. 32

14. John Brown collected money from sympathizers and

friends to carry out his plans.

108


CAT. 33

15. John Brown made many trips to Canada organizing for

his assault on Harper’s Ferry.

109


THE LEGEND OF JOHN BROWN

CAT. 34

16. In spite of a price on his head, John Brown in 1859

liberated twelve negroes from a Missouri plantation.

110


CAT. 35

17. John Brown remained a full winter in Canada, drilling

negroes for his coming raid on Harper’s Ferry.

111


THE LEGEND OF JOHN BROWN

CAT. 36

18. July 3, 1859. John Brown stocked an old barn with

guns and ammunition. He was ready to strike his first blow

at slavery.

112


CAT. 37

19. Sunday, October 16, 1859. John Brown with a company

of 21 men, white and black, marched on Harper’s Ferry.

113


THE LEGEND OF JOHN BROWN

CAT. 38

20. John Brown held Harper’s Ferry for twelve hours.

His defeat was a few hours off.

114


CAT. 39

21. After John Brown’s capture, he was put on trial for his life

in Charles Town, Virginia (now West Virginia).

115


THE LEGEND OF JOHN BROWN

CAT. 40

22. John Brown was found “guilty of treason and murder

in the first degree” and was hanged in Charles Town, Virginia,

on December 2, 1859.

116


117


CAT. 41

Carpenters No. 3

1981

Graphite on paper

23⁄ × 18 in.

2013.106

17. Clarence Major, “Clarence

Major Interviews: Jacob

Lawrence, The Expressionist,”

The Black Scholar 9, no.

3, Plastic Arts and Crafts

(November 1977): 18.

For much of 1981 Lawrence focused on

drawing. Carpenters No. 3 stands out

from its original set of ten because it depicts laborers

not at work, but sharing a meal around a table.

The heavy outlines of the three seated figures are

rendered through vigorous shading; dark shadows

also model the furniture and the tools crowding the

workbench in the background. The artist skewed

the perspective so that the flat surfaces of the bench

and table tip toward the viewer, revealing the objects

placed upon them. The careful detail in Lawrence’s

drawings of carpenters, such as this one, demonstrate

his preference for approaching his work as a

form of abstraction “in the sense of being designed

and composed,” rather than “in the sense of having

no human content.”¹⁷

118


119


120


CAT. 42

Builders No. 11

1985

Colored pencil, brush

and ink, and graphite on paper

20 × 13 in.

2013.107

In 1985 Lawrence embarked on a new

series of builder drawings using a significantly

different approach from that seen in his earlier

treatments of this subject (see cat. 41). Here, the use

of colored pencil causes the tools to pop out from

the composition, while in the background the broad

swaths of flat, black ink create a deliberately empty

plane and the varied textures of the silvery graphite

shading lend a sense of energy and motion to the

human figures.

121


CAT. 43

The First Book of Moses,

Called Genesis.

The King James Version

1989

Illustrated book

with eight silkscreens

22¹⁄₁₆ × 16⁄ × 2 in.

2013.117.1–3

Lawrence produced this illustrated

book project in collaboration with the

Limited Editions Club of New York. The silkscreens

he created to accompany the text were printed at

the Osiris Printing Studio, also in New York. Their

subject was inspired by the artist’s childhood memories

of hearing the story of Creation during sermons

at the Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem, where

his family attended services and where he had

been baptized in 1932. This is one of eight prints by

Lawrence that are interspersed throughout the book.

Punctuating the text, these dynamic images stand on

their own as a graphic narrative.

122


123


CATS. 44–51

Eight Studies for

The Book of Genesis

1989–1990

Eight silkscreens

25 × 19⅛ in.

2014.106.1–8

After completing the illustrated book

The First Book of Moses, Called Genesis.

The King James Version (cat. 43), Lawrence went on

to publish two independent editions of the eight

featured silkscreens, the tonal depth of which could

only be achieved by using between seventeen and

twenty-one screens per print, one in each color. The

Kayden gift includes an Artist’s Proof edition, which

is distinguished from those bound into the book by

its slightly richer and darker tones.

The inventive images depict a congregation

inside a church listening to a wildly animated

preacher. As he recounts the story of Creation from

the pulpit, the passages come to life outside the

church’s windows. Towering waves rise as God

creates the oceans, and human silhouettes emerge

from the trees when He produces man and woman.

In a gesture that reinforces the theme of creation and

nearly functions as the artist’s signature, a toolbox

filled with carpenter’s tools appears on a windowsill

or the church floor in each print.

124


CAT. 44

1. In the Beginning—All was void

125


STUDIES FOR THE BOOK OF GENESIS

CAT. 45

2. And God brought forth the firmament and the waters.

126


CAT. 46

3. And God said—Let the Earth bring forth the grass, trees,

fruits, and herbs.

127


STUDIES FOR THE BOOK OF GENESIS

CAT. 47

4. And God created the day and the night and God created

and put stars in the sky.

128


CAT. 48

5. And God created all the fowls of the air and fishes of the seas.

129


STUDIES FOR THE BOOK OF GENESIS

CAT. 49

6. And God created all the beasts of the earth.

130


CAT. 50

7. And God created Man and Woman.

131


STUDIES FOR THE BOOK OF GENESIS

CAT. 51

8. The creation was done—and all was well.

132


133


134


CAT. 52

Artist in Studio

1994

Lithograph

26⅛ × 19⁄ in.

2013.111

Published to celebrate the opening

of the Jacob Lawrence Gallery at the

University of Washington, Seattle, this joyful image

presents Lawrence’s stylistically distinctive take on

a traditional subject: the artist drawing at his worktable.

In this meditation on the artist’s craft, a spare

palette lends balance to the significant passages of

reserved white paper. The carpenter’s tools and the

bowl of fruit resting on the windowsill are motifs

seen in many of Lawrence’s works. The drawing in the

foreground of a man walking a dog recalls People in

Other Rooms (fig. 4, cat. 15), while the builder image

beside it is evocative of numerous works included in

the Kayden gift.

135


CATS 53–55

The Builder’s Suite

1996

Three soft ground

etchings with aquatint

19½ × 24¾ in.

2013.112–114

T

he three prints in The Builder’s Suite—

representations of carpenters working,

collaborating, and playing games—are the only color

etchings Lawrence ever made. Although the prints

feature the same saturated blues, reds, and yellows

common in his other works, the soft ground etching

and aquatint techniques seen here enabled him to

create textures and tones unlike the areas of flat color

typically found in his silkscreens and lithographs.

136


CAT. 53

Five Builders with Tool Box

137


CAT. 54

Ten Builders

138


CAT. 55

Two Builders Playing Chess

139


CATS. 56–57

New York in Transit I

New York in Transit II

1998

Two silkscreens

20 × 40⅛ in.

2013.115–.116

T

he subway car interiors seen in the

New York in Transit prints are geometric

jumbles of passengers, seats, advertisements,

and the visual noise of everyday life. The prints’

horizontal format fills the viewer’s field of vision and

further implies the experience of riding the subway.

Lawrence modeled these works after his mock-ups

for the glass tile mosaics he designed for the Times

Square /42nd Street subway station in New York,

which were installed in 2001, shortly after the artist’s

death. His desire to make murals was fed early on

by the New York murals of Diego Rivera and José

Clemente Orozco, as well as by the work of Charles

Alston, Aaron Douglas, and the other Works Progress

Administration (wpa) artists Lawrence came to know

in the 1930s.

CAT. 56

CAT. 57

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141


Contributors

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All authors are affiliated with Stanford University.

James T. Campbell

Edgar E. Robinson Professor in United States History

Department of History

Clayborne Carson

The Ronnie Lott Director, Martin Luther King, Jr. Research and Education Institute

Martin Luther King, Jr. Centennial Professor of History

Department of History

Michele Elam

Professor of English

Olivier Nomellini Family Bass University Fellow in Undergraduate Education

Department of English

Harry J. Elam Jr.

Freeman-Thornton Vice Provost for Undergraduate Education

Olive H. Palmer Professor in the Humanities

Bass University Fellow for Undergraduate Education

Richard Meyer

Robert and Ruth Halperin Professor in Art History

Department of Art and Art History

Elizabeth Kathleen Mitchell

Burton and Deedee McMurtry Curator of Prints, Drawings, and Photographs

Iris & B. Gerald Cantor Center for Visual Arts

Alexander Nemerov

Carl and Marilynn Thoma Provostial Professor in the Arts and Humanities

Department of Art and Art History

Bryan Wolf

Professor Emeritus, Art History

Department of Art and Art History

Connie Wolf

John and Jill Freidenrich Director

Iris & B. Gerald Cantor Center for Visual Arts

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Acknowledgments

Published in conjunction with Promised Land: Jacob Lawrence at the Cantor, a Gift from

the Kayden Family, this catalogue, like the exhibition it accompanies, is a tribute both

to the artistic achievements of American artist Jacob Lawrence and to the exceptional

generosity of Dr. Herbert J. Kayden and his family, who have gifted the Cantor Arts

Center an unparalled collection of fifty-six works by Lawrence and one by his wife,

Gwendolyn Knight Lawrence. We are especially grateful to Dr. Kayden’s daughter,

Joelle Kayden (Stanford mba ’81), for recognizing the role Stanford University could

play in honoring her parents’ legacy as avid collectors and generous benefactors of

the arts. We offer our deepest thanks to Joelle for her visionary leadership and her

deep commitment to the arts at Stanford.

It was an enormous privilege to meet Dr. Kayden and then have the chance

to work with him on envisioning this project. Although he passed away in August

2014, his passion for the arts and his friendships with artists are a continuing source

of inspiration. I am profoundly grateful for his generosity and his belief in Stanford’s

capacity to care for the art that he and his wife, Dr. Gabrielle H. Reem, collected and

cherished. I also thank their grandchildren, Eleanor and Philip Killian, for their support.

Joshua Mack has been a trusted and generous friend and advisor to the Kayden

family, and I likewise extend my thanks to him for his many thoughtful and valuable

contributions.

The entire Stanford community has enthusiastically embraced the

museum’s efforts to celebrate the Kayden family’s gift. All of us at the Cantor Arts

Center are extremely grateful for the generous support of the many individuals

and departments that have helped shape the exhibition and catalogue. Great thanks

are due to the following individuals for their vital contributions: Roberta Denning,

Roberta Katz, Richard Saller, Joy Simmons, Lauren Schoenthaler, Moo Anderson,

Putter Anderson Pence, Jill and John Freidenrich, Michele Elam, Harry J. Elam Jr.,

Alexander Nemerov, Richard Meyer, James T. Campbell, Nancy J. Troy, Katherine

Holt, and Mona Duggan.

At the museum, foremost recognition goes to Dr. Elizabeth Kathleen

Mitchell, Burton and Deedee McMurtry Curator of Prints, Drawings, and Photographs,

for her expertise and passion, which have informed all aspects of this project.

Dr. Mitchell has been diligently assisted by Florencia Bazzano, who ably attended to

every detail of the exhibition and the catalogue. Special acknowledgment is also due

to George Philip LeBourdais, a doctoral candidate in Stanford’s Department of Art

and Art History, whose preliminary research and interview with Dr. Kayden, along

with the wonderful video produced by Rory Fraser, provided valuable early insights

into the extraordinary nature of the Kayden family’s gift.

This project required the participation of all members of the museum’s

staff, and I am grateful for each person’s essential contributions. Alison Gass, Associate

Director for Exhibitions, Collections, and Curatorial Affairs, has been an invaluable

partner in shepherding this remarkable undertaking to completion, and she

deserves special acknowledgment for her efforts. Warm thanks are also due to Allison

Akbay, Peg Brady, Jenny Carty, Katie Clifford, Paz de la Calzada, Lee Fatheree, Tammy

144


Fortin, Brian Isobe, Sara Kabot, Dolores Kincaid, Anna Koster, Issa Lampe, Sara Larsen,

Kim Mansfield, Kathleen Quinn, Susan K. Roberts-Manganelli, Colleen Stockmann,

and Kathleen Stueck.

I also acknowledge the efforts of Lucy Belloli and George Bisacca, who expertly

conserved Lawrence’s Ordeal of Alice (1963) and At Times It Is Hard to Get a Table

in a Pool Room (1943).

Promised Land provided a wonderful opportunity for a bright group of

Stanford undergraduate students enrolled in “Anatomy of An Exhibition: Focus on

Jacob Lawrence” (arthist 278) to learn more about the artist’s legacy. We are grateful

for these students’ hard work in preparing key aspects of the exhibition. As they learned

about museum practices at the Cantor we had the privilege of sharing their enthusiasm

for Lawrence’s art. They are Mary Kate Anselmini, Juliet Charnas, Emma Collins,

Ari Echt-Wilson, Katherine Evers, Caroline Hernandez, Brianne Huntsman, Maya

Israni, Gabriella Moreno, Michelle Pan, Ivanna Pearlstein, and Isabella Robbins.

The presentation of Promised Land and the production of this catalogue

are made possible through the generous support of the Halperin Exhibitions Fund;

Lyn Hohbach and the Hohbach Family Fund; and the Terra Foundation for American

Art through a grant designated by Stanford President Emeritus Gerhard Casper. Particular

thanks go to Heidi Lange and Ralph Sessions at DC Moore Gallery, New York;

Barbara Earl Thomas, Vice-President, Secretary/Treasurer, and Walter O. Evans,

Board President, of The Jacob and Gwendolyn Knight Lawrence Foundation; and

Nancy Lieberman at Howard Greenberg Gallery, New York.

The writings on Lawrence’s work featured in these pages far exceed our initial

vision for the catalogue, and I thank our essayists for their original and meaningful

contributions: James T. Campbell, Clayborne Carson, Michele Elam, Harry J. Elam Jr.,

Richard Meyer, Elizabeth Kathleen Mitchell, Alexander Nemerov, and Bryan Wolf.

On behalf of the project team I also acknowledge Barbara Glauber and

Kellie Konapelsky of Heavy Meta for their careful and creative efforts to imagine

and shape the design of this beautiful publication, and our copy editors, Amanda

Glesmann and Kara Pickman, for their attentive work on the texts.

We are especially grateful to each member of the Director’s Advisory

Board of the Cantor, and in particular to Board Chair Susan Diekman, for their

unwavering support of the museum and its mission. Their dedication inspires all of

us to aim higher in our efforts. Together we thank Dr. Kayden and Joelle Kayden for

allowing us this opportunity to study, celebrate, and pay tribute to the singular life

and art of Jacob Lawrence.

CONNIE WOLF

JOHN AND JILL FREIDENRICH DIRECTOR

IRIS & B. GERALD CANTOR CENTER FOR VISUAL ARTS

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Credits

146


This catalogue is published on the occasion of the exhibition

Promised Land: Jacob Lawrence at the Cantor, a

Gift from the Kayden Family, presented by the Cantor Arts

Center at Stanford University, April 1–August 3, 2015.

This exhibition has been supported by the Halperin

Exhibitions Fund, the Hohbach Family Fund, and the Terra

Foundation for American Art through a grant designated

by Stanford President Emeritus Gerhard Casper. The publication

of this catalogue is made possible by the Hohbach

Family Fund.

© 2015 by the Board of Trustees of the Leland Stanford

Junior University. All rights reserved.

No parts of this book may be reproduced or utilized in

any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical,

including photocopying, recording, or by an information

retrieval system, without prior permission in writing

from the Cantor Arts Center.

PHOTOGRAPHY CREDITS

All photography by the Cantor Arts Center unless otherwise

noted below.

All works by Jacob Lawrence and Gwendolyn Knight

Lawrence that appear in this catalogue are © 2015 The

Jacob and Gwendolyn Lawrence Foundation, Seattle/Artists

Rights Society (ARS), New York, and are reproduced by

permission. Additional image credits are provided below.

pp. 2, 9: © Arnold Newman/Arnold Newman Foundation/

Getty Images

p. 43 (FIG. 11): Scala/Ministero per i Beni e le Attività

culturali/Art Resource, New York

p. 48 (FIG. 13): Norman Rockwell Museum Collections.

Printed by permission of the Norman Rockwell Family

Agency. © 2015 Norman Rockwell Family Entities

p. 53 (FIG. 16): © Jacob Lawrence. Commissioned by MTA

Arts & Design. Photo by Jeremiah Cox/SubwayNut.com

First published in 2015 by

Iris & B. Gerald Cantor Center for Visual Arts

Stanford University

Stanford, CA

museum.stanford.edu

Cataloging-in-Publication Data is available at the

Library of Congress.

ISBN 978-0-692-36833-6

Publication Coordinator: Florencia Bazzano

Design: Barbara Glauber and Kellie Konapelsky/Heavy Meta

Copy editors: Amanda Glesmann, Kara Pickman

Printed and bound in Minneapolis by Shapco

Color by Echelon

FRONT COVER: Jacob Lawrence, At Times It Is Hard to Get

a Table in a Pool Room, 1943. Gouache and graphite on

paper. 21½ × 14½ in. Cantor Arts Center, Gift of Dr. Herbert

J. Kayden and Family in memory of Dr. Gabrielle H. Reem,

2013.92 (See CAT. 1)

PAGE 2: Arnold Newman (U.S.A., 1918–2006). Gwen and

Jacob Lawrence, 1987. Gelatin silver print. 14 × 11 in.

Cantor Arts Center, Elizabeth K. Raymond Fund, 2014.103

PAGE 9: Arnold Newman (U.S.A., 1918–2006), Jacob

Lawrence, 1987. Gelatin silver print. 9½ × 4 in. Cantor Arts

Center, Elizabeth K. Raymond Fund, 2014.102

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