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The Miraculous Life of Jacob Lawrence

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The Miraculous Life of Jacob Lawrence

Jacob Lawrence is among the most distinguished and accomplished American artists of the twentieth-century. Jacob Lawrence was born in Atlantic City, New Jersey in 1917 and spent part of his childhood in Pennsylvania. He was not the only child; he had a sister named Geraldene and a brother named William. In 1930 his family split up and he moved to New York City's Harlem neighborhood, where as a teenager he attended classes taught by Charles Alston at the Harlem Community Art Center. He was the youngest of the fellow students so this was a great accomplishment. Following a period in upstate New York spent working for the Civilian Conservation Corps, he returned to art, first on a scholarship to the newly formed American Artists School, and then as an employee in the easel division of the WPA Federal Art Project. In the late 1930s, Lawrence occupied a studio at 306 West 141st Street in the company of fellow artists such as Alston, Romare Bearden, Ronald Joseph, and others. In 1941, Lawrence gained representation at the prestigious Downtown Gallery, where he met and exhibited alongside artists such as Stuart Davis, Ben Shahn, John Marin, and Charles Sheeler. Lawrence entered the Coast Guard in 1943 and was later assigned to the first racially integrated ship in U.S. history. He was released from military duty in December 1945. In the summer of 1946, at the invitation of Josef Albers, he taught at Black Mountain College in North Carolina. Lawrence began teaching extensively in 1955, first at Pratt Institute in New York, and later at New School for Social Research, the Art Students League, and Skowhegan School for Painting and Sculpture in Maine. In 1962, he visited Africa for the first time; he returned in 1964 to lecture, teach and paint. In 1971, he and his wife, Gwendolyn Knight Lawrence, moved to Seattle, where he taught at the University of Washington until 1986.

In a century that equated the evolution of modern art with the will toward abstraction, Lawrence's early success and his sustained visibility are remarkable. He has walked a careful line between abstract and figurative art, using aesthetic values for social ends. His success at balancing such seemingly irreconcilable aspects of art is a fundamental characteristic of his long and distinguished career. In Lawrence's work social themes, often detailing the African-American experience, are expressed in colorfully lanky, simplified, expressive, and richly decorative figurative effects. He executed many cycles of paintings, often narrative, including Harriet Tubman (1939-40), Migration (completed 1941, Museum of Modern Art and Phillips Collection, Washington, D.C.), Coast Guard (1943-45), and Builders series, on which he worked for parts of the last 50 years of his life. His War series and Tombstones are in the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York City. Also known for the vivid prints he began producing in 1963 and his monumental mosaic mural (designed 1997, installed 2001) for the New York subway system. "Lawrence called his style "dynamic cubism," though it wasn't notably dynamic, except when he used flame-like forms and pushy oppositions of structure; generally the paintings tend to an Egyptian stillness, frieze-like even when you know the subject was moving. His debts to Cubism and to Matisse are obvious: the flat, sharp overlaps of form, the reliance on silhouette, and a high degree of abstraction in the color. But there is something more demotic behind those colors. They came, as Lawrence acknowledged, more from his experience in Harlem than from other art.

He is an ionic figure, one of the great modern painters of the twentieth century, a distinction he earned early in his career when he gained widespread recognition for the narrative painting series The Migration of the Negro in 1941. Lawrence knew that the narration of this work of art would require a modern language, a deep immersion in the experience, and an awareness of the harsh toll that contact with American modernity exacted on the blacks. From childhood, Lawrence had been steeped in family and community stories of the Migration, and when was encouraged by several well-known artists he decided to paint it. He worked hard to get the historical background right. Months of painstaking research in the Schomburg Collection of the Public Library, New York's chief archive on African-American life and history, followed even though the finished paintings rarely allude to specific historical events. He took on the task with a youthful earnestness that remains one of the most touching aspects of the final work, and goes beyond mere self-expression. As a result, you sense that something is speaking through Lawrence. Lawrence was not a propagandist. He eschewed the caricatured apparatus of Popular Front Social Realism, then at its high tide in America. Considering the violence and pathos of so much of his subject matter like prisons, deserted villages, city slums, race riots, labor camps his images are restrained, and all the more piercing for their lack of bombast. When he painted a lynching, for instance, he left out the dangling body and the jeering crowd: there is only bare earth, a branch, an empty noose, and the huddled lump of a grieving woman. He set aside the influence of Rivera and

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