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Over the Line: The Art and Life of Jacob Lawrence

There’s the “abstract painting” of the art world, and then there’s the “abstract painting” of the American popular imagination. Although critical attention focuses on the former, it’s the latter that has real iconographic power in the mass media. This is the abstract painting that gets painted by characters in sitcoms and movies. It’s the abstract painting that gets printed and sold in bulk to decorate hotel rooms and sub-Fortune 500 company offices. And it’s the abstract painting that plagues street art festivals and coffee-shop galleries.

Jacob Lawrence, Dust to Dust, 1938 ...© Gwendolyn Knight Lawrence. ...Courtesy of the Jacob and Gwendolyn Lawrence Foundation

Jacob Lawrence’s work, while not abstract, is subject to a similar phenomenon. Just as early abstract painting spawned a prolific industry of imitations, art from the Harlem renaissance is at the root of popular perceptions of what “African-American art” looks like. Poor imitations cover the art fair canvases, inspirational posters and greeting cards that we dismiss without a second thought. For many viewers, however, these imitations are never countered by the knowledge of what, exactly, the original thing looks like. Whereas Picasso has an institutional army protecting his work from this kind of confusion, the ranks of academics protecting the work of Jacob Lawrence and his Harlem renaissance peers are considerably thinner. Art history 101? Weeks studying Picasso. The Harlem renaissance? Maybe five minutes.

Jacob Lawrence, Ironers 1943 ...Private Collection, © Gwendolyn Knight Lawrence. ...Courtesy of the Jacob and Gwendolyn Lawrence Foundation.

Of course, Lawrence wasn’t Picasso. His work didn’t have the same monumental influence over the course of mainstream art history, for a number or reasons. But Lawrence was responsible for a style of painting that by its own right — and by the persistence of its imitation — would define an African-American aesthetic. For viewers who aren’t familiar with his paintings, Over the Line offers a chance to work backwards against preconceptions of African-American popular imagery, arriving at the source.

The show includes a lifetime of Jacob Lawrence’s paintings, presented chronologically. By the very fact of who he was, this makes for a broad history lesson. Lawrence was a passionate historian and the exhibition documents the massive shift in the life of black Americans as they moved from south to north, country to city, and struggled for equality in wartime and peace.

Lawrence’s historical work is most dramatically represented by the epic series of small tempera on hardboard paintings titled The Migration of the Negro, which follow the progress of rural southern blacks to northern cities. Reading like a wall-sized comic book, the series is an even-handed narrative and gives the same pared-down treatment to crowded trains that it does to lynching. Less sweeping, but equally fascinating are individual paintings that take on small moments in urban life: street preachers, brothels, funerals, and ice vendors. Again, the paintings are quick and generalized, but the details Lawrence chooses describe the texture of the events in a way that’s confident and familiar. These paintings, in addition to paintings of World War II and the civil rights movement make for a dense trip to the museum. So much history and such an inherent connection to history makes Over the Line a bit like a Ken Burns documentary: well-organized, and thickly layered.

Jacob Lawrence, Migration of the Negro 1940-41 ...Panel #7: The Negro, who had been part of the soil for many years, ...was now going into and living a new life in the urban centers.

Looking at his paintings simply as paintings is another matter. Because of its exhaustive and chronological approach, the show often hides Lawrence’s best work among his weakest. It feels like any and every Jacob Lawrence painting available are on view, and the galleries are packed. Lawrence’s approach stayed consistent throughout most of his career, and the predominance of lesser pieces does little to illustrate his development as an artist or to make more sense of his strongest work. Nonetheless, with a little digging, his best paintings are there; and they’re smart, fun, and combine formalism and social consciousness masterfully.

The exhibition starts with paintings from the 1930’s. The paintings, mostly street scenes, illustrate an early tension in Lawrence’s work between an interest in the lives playing out in the streets and buildings of Harlem and the formal qualities of the structures that surround them. Lawrence’s figures at this point are funny little brushstrokes, dressed and bestowed with the minimum of facial features and props to indicate their role in the life of the neighborhood. Usually the least colorful participants in his compositions, human beings are soft, dull curves slouching into the radiant and angular buildings that contain them. In Halloween Sand Bags (1937), white brushstroke attackers beat a fallen black brushstroke with sandbags. Literally ghosts, and assaulting a ghostly victim, the effect invokes the Klan, while the casual application of the marks makes the whole thing disturbingly goofy.

This cool attitude towards drama, tragedy, and violence marks most of Lawrence’s work. A man who later in life refused to participate in a show of protest art because he felt that “protest” was too angry a word, he marks his indignation with a barrage of symbols and signifiers. Simple if taken on their own, his piles of meaning end up inverted and indecipherable. They offer observations, but seldom answers. His most often repeated symbol, the fire escape ladder, is explained by Lawrence as a symbol of hope and a chance to ascend. Maybe so, but fire escapes are built for descent, not ascent. He drives this point home with his painting (in The Migration of the Negro) of tenement bombings. As the buildings burn, the fire escapes will be used by people leaving everything behind.

For all of Jacob Lawrence’s skill at storytelling, the best painting in Over the Line is the work that demonstrates his predilection for making highly abstracted compositions out of the ugliest life has to offer. Ironers, the painting selected for the invitation to the show, has perhaps suffered on account of its imitators; but this celebration of the kaleidoscope of the street feels bright, joyous, and empty. And yet, when we see the same approach pushed further in The Migration of the Negro something entirely different happens. The same energy, the same love of color is applied to steel factories — in the form of gorgeous yellow and blue sparks pouring against the dark abyss of industrial America. It’s applied to a prison wall, making the building into a cartoonish Hannah-Barbera mountain. It’s applied to a plague of boll weevils and a fire bombing. In each case, the combination of self-consciously stylized painting with social strife stripped down to footnote simplicity feels strikingly contemporary. The subjects have turned deadly serious, but Jacob Lawrence is still celebrating. Why? His impulse runs contrary to every righteous reaction to inequity. He turns away from the documentary. He turns away from unembellished truth-telling, and insists on being a painter.

…© Gwendolyn Knight Lawrence.”]
In the late 1940s, Lawrence admitted himself to an institution to counter severe depression. The paintings from this period demonstrate the most dramatic change in Lawrence’s work. Superficially, the work is dissimilar to the rest of the show because it is the only work that depicts exclusively white subjects. More importantly, the institution paintings are the first paintings that bring the fine lines that Lawrence had before reserved for inanimate objects into the figure. Suddenly, the brushstroke people of his earlier work are distinct not only for their clothing, but for their features. And, as if to compensate for this sudden thinness in the painting, Lawrence’s shapes become more lithe and more supple. In the institution, his world of mass and pattern transformed into a world that could suddenly accommodate contour and motion.

Lawrence later returned to the strengths of his earlier work, although it was dissipated in the blander paintings that became more common in his adult career. His narrative series reached a terrifying peak with his 1983 Hiroshima series. As red and white figures are reduced to blood and bone during the blast, Lawrence’s paintings are at their most elegant. Returning to rendering figures as assemblies of solid shapes, he created a delicate world for the final moments of the unsuspecting victims.

If the Hiroshima series marked the height of Lawrence’s narrative paintings, his abstract compositions became much more sophisticated much sooner. The 1950 work Slums is a practical joke of a painting. If it was framed with a thick enough matte, it would make for an attractive composition. It is an attractive composition as it is — drawing our eyes to its center, making us forget exactly which window we’re looking through until a cockroach drifts into the edges of our vision and ruins the view. Of course, this is exactly the point. Lawrence has taken us from the polite world of abstract painting to a much uglier place and returned us, effortlessly. That he crosses easily between these two concerns, seemingly miles apart, fits neatly within the boundary-crossing theme that Over the Line proposes. But when Jacob Lawrence was at his best, boundaries ceased to be the issue. He was able to absorb contradictions and inequities, history and myth, beauty and atrocity, humor and gravity. He took what he would from all of them and made something as complicated as his experience.

David Harrison lives in Houston, Texas.

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