Seattle Art Museum: Jacob Lawrence, Retrospective, Critical Review, April, 2003

Jacob Lawrence is a painter of enormous stature within the Art World. He is seen as a forefather of simplified form to convey a message of hope and politics within the African American communities and further than that to relate the experience of African American culture to others. Lawrence has an amazing collection of work being displayed at the Seattle Art Museum, from which I just returned a few hours ago. This is considerable, since I felt the importance of the show so great that I was willing to travel 300 miles to see it. I am thankful for the opportunities granted to me in which it made it possible to go: a sturdy car, the time away from work and the generosity of a person who allowed me to stay a night in Seattle so that I had the energy and clarity to really absorb the work that stood before me.

When I arrived at the museum I was taken back by the amount of work that was created by Lawrence, and also the amount of work I projected it would take me to get through it. There was such an incredible amount of work, in fact, I almost wished the collection had been shown in halves or thirds; that maybe the museum could have extended the exhibition over a six month period, rotating the work chronologically or conceptually. My only complaint about the show was that there was, simply, too much. But I digress. The intensity of the collection probably reinforced the subject matter in which he deliberately portrayed: the African American Experience.

Some friends and I made our way to the second floor, where biographical photographs of Jacob Lawrence greeted us. First, a young Lawrence stoically posed in his military uniform in a classic, vintage way; then a portrait of a 30ish Mr. Lawrence and his wife, and finally an elderly portrait of Lawrence climbing the stairs of his studio in Seattle (located atop his home in the attic). Interestingly enough, in the studio portrait, behind Mr. Lawrence hung an exhibition poster from Bumbershoot 1977.* There were many remarks by locals indicating their pride for their city and having such a powerful and intensely creative man within it. They were a part of him, and equally he became a part of their common city.

There is a saying in the visual arts that your viewer only allows three seconds of time for a piece of artwork before they have made their decision about it. Three seconds. Armed with this knowledge, I pledged to give Lawrence at least five. Instead what happened was that I gave much, much more than that to a considerable portion of the works on display. I toured the show chronologically backwards, so the works I was viewing first were created in the late 1990s, moving back towards his youth.

I noticed that his work had developed into a series of series, for instance the title would first refer the series title, then the title of the work. The curators and exhibitioners were careful to not combine the series, by creating an extra amount of space between series, rather than individual pieces of the series. I imagine that the show was an incredible feat to hang, as I have hung shows myself, and I understand the mathematics and aesthetics involved in creating enough space between pieces of one series to give enough room for the eye to move about. Regardless, I started from the end and moved to the beginning, trying my best to not cheat myself of any morsel of the work.

I first came upon a series called “The Builders.” This series found itself a story to tell of industry and the African American participation of its growth. Formally and aesthetically I was impressed. The blocky nature of the builder was consistent throughout the series, the use of iconic tools like vice grips, hammers, ladders and pliers all made their appearances appropriately. The one piece out of the Builders series that really caught my eye was Builders: Man with Still Life.1 The man hangs from the table, below the still life as to almost suggest his importance comparatively to that of the fruit. His fingers tensely grip the table; he looks upwards with slit eyes signifying a struggle to maintain stability; the right square on the table topples haphazardly above him, looming, maybe even taunting him; outside a shadow of a man climbs a ladder; the blue puffy-cloud sky ignores his situation – life’s stoic journey continues regardless of his situation; behind him lays several building objects: a saw blade, a vice grip or some sort of clamp and another object of which I am unfamiliar, yet understandably aware of its importance as a tool; The intense red lines strengthen the idea of buildings (commerce) with their stacked, jagged skyline. I inspected this piece for a very long time, considering what message he might have been trying to convey, what points did it make, and how did he make them.

Also in visual art there lives a hierarchy of genres where certain subject matter is more revered than others. For example, a painting depicting the (accepted) history of a society is generally considered loftier than that of a bowl of fruit or that of a common subject (meaning anything representative of the common class experience). So what is Lawrence communicating in Builders: Man with Still Life? My perception as an art historian and a lover of art that deals with the experiences of a society is that he is commenting on the position of the backbone of our country in context of art. Lawrence enjoyed simple pleasures, and presumably within his career might have felt guilty for having so much interest in his work when so many others who had done so many important things were not equally recognized for their efforts. For me, this painting lightly criticizes Americanism: we place our priorities in the wrong positions and in those that create the marketed image of our society. It comments, also, on the fact that our country was built upon the labor of the African American population. He doesn’t shout it, though, and it’s not overly aggressive. Instead, the suggestion is quiet and poignant. It stings a little more that way. The image is enough out-of-the-ordinary to catch our attention, and then it is up to us to make the connection for ourselves.

Much of Lawrence’s work is restricted to only a few mediums: Gouache, ink or pencil. Ink and pencil both have their qualities, but less familiar to the mainstream art viewer would be gouache. Gouache is an interesting medium wherein the medium itself allows for a distinct and opaque line to be painted. Because of its opacity, it makes a very firm line between colors, almost like a screen print (serigraph). This division of color is interesting because it plays conceptually to what Lawrence was commenting: The division of color in society. The image then can become abstracted and toyed with. Bodies become whole shapes; their highlights simply become a shape upon a shape. Combined, they create an image, but the shape’s importance competes with the unified image. Eyes become masked-off slits; the negative space between objects becomes equally important with the positive. Because the colors are of the same intensity, they compete for attention. On occasion, the negative overrides the positive and thus becomes the positive image. It becomes an abstracted shape within the context of a recognizable situation.

In the Supermarket series called Supermarket: Fishes, we find a bustling scene of a supermarket filled with shoppers and product. The focal character (the man) struggles with angry fish: their jaws snarl and snap at the man; they lack cooperation and we may presume that they are flipping around as fish do when they are out of their natural environment. The activity in the fish is repeated in the shoppers because they too are removed from their natural environment: they are buying their food rather than gathering it in a natural fashion – their baskets are filled with (presumably) groceries, but might also be read as bodies as to indicate the inhumanity of our behaviors by selling ourselves to the machine of convenience. Most interesting, however, is the female counterpart to the main shopkeeper. She smiles as she wraps the fish; void of color they give her no trouble. In fact, she smiles while she wraps them placidly and calmly as another shopper passes her by on her way to whatever her destination. The placid nature of the dead fish could easily represent the placid nature of a society that is stripped of its culture (i.e. the nature of culture overridden by another culture in an effort to homogenize the societies).

Lawrence constantly made connections to art and life; for him, I believe, the two were inseparable. What seems to be most important to Lawrence, through the course of his visual catalog is that the individual is of the highest importance, but the community is where the culture thrives. Even when we view work that is of a communal nature, we recognize the makeup of the community as individuals, rather than as a mass of bodies. We can view the iconography between his images and their backgrounds and therefore deconstruct them as their own individual entities with ease.

In Supermarket: Tools we find that the solitary forefigure almost completely blends into his background (save the representation of light falling on his form), thus becoming a part of both the natural and manufactured worlds. The right half of the painting is representative of wood in the form of a tool-shed wall. The man, or builder, is of equal color to this material; he blends into the background, yet he contrasts the background of the blue sky and grassy hill outside his tool-shed. The African descendant is one that blends comfortably into his environment; the contrast of a grassy terrain reinforces the idea that the figure is outside of his environment. It is a commentary on the displacement of a people.

Again, we can see the shape of shapes that define the individual, or rather the pieces of an individual that complete a whole. We can truly see the reference to nature when we eliminate all the superfluous information. In this fashion, we can see that the line between man and natural materials are indistinguishable, save the light cast upon the man’s head from the natural world. Furthermore, that the influence of man in nature converts the natural world into his own manifestations (a shed from tree). The two workers in the distance carry a conversation between themselves, isolating the man in the forefront. He is alone, but sturdy in his ethic he continuously works to help the community build.

Though we can find a lot of social commentary in Lawrence’s work, it is rare that we find one of harsh or angry terms. The visuals are not content, but rather document facts of the African American experience. When asked to visit the White House by President Jimmy Carter regarding a meeting on “protest,” Lawrence politely declined the invitation. When questioned as to why he didn’t oblige to this prestigious event, he said, “Protest is a word that says ‘angry,’ and I am not angry.” He clearly wants to document the experience and let the viewer take the responsibility of knowledge.

The quest for knowledge and the concepts of hope and ethics are mainstays in the work of Jacob Lawrence. He spent a great deal of time in the libraries, educating himself and those around him; he promoted the idea that there was always hope: if a society can pull themselves out of a situation such as slavery, then anything is possible. He believed in working hard and educating one’s self; with that he understood the power of knowledge and wanted to share his knowledge of African American history with all who were interested. His work is not passive, however, and shouldn’t be estimated as such; rather it exemplifies a logical deduction of facts in which the viewer can research for himself to verify the validity of the documentation. His love for the library can be shown in a work called Library III.

There are several interesting things that are happening within this painting: first we have the formal concern of perspective. From where is the viewer involved? Are we on the same “floor” as the persons in the foreground? How far back does the space lend itself? Once we’ve thought about that, we can look at some of the other things in the painting: all the books are a mess, this library is really being used – some of the books are even left open as if to imagine that the patron had to leave only for a moment and wanted to return to the page from where he left last; people (seventeen I counted) are hunched over, individually concerned, reading and perusing the literature; books are being shuffled back into their orders by a woman pushing a cart of books in the direct foreground; a mother speaks to her seemingly impatient child while she browses the shelves; there is bustle about the library, reinforced by the patterning of the bookshelves behind the patrons. The zigzag placement of the shelves brings forth an image of a textile weave, or the connection to textiles of the indigenous sorts. The limited palette allows for Lawrence to compositionally stabilize the environment – as a viewer, we almost become lost within the image because there is just so much going on.

Our eyes travel back and forth and over again; much like a visitor in a library would browse shelves, we are browsing the image. It is image upon image. The most striking thing to me, however, was a quiet young boy found just right of center. The image may not be overly clear in this format, but when I viewed it in real life it was clear to see the child actually biting into the bookshelf revealing the metaphor for a child being so hungry for knowledge that he is willing to eat the shelf upon which knowledge is held. The other interesting thing is that this child looks at the viewer as if to command to him, “Don’t cheat me of knowledge; I am your future.” He is the only figure to face the viewer. All of the other characters are busy upon themselves, but this one challenges the viewer to ensure that the opportunities exist for him.

While we can deconstruct these images hundreds upon hundreds of times, we should understand that there is always a certain “joy of life” that accompanies Jacob Lawrence’s works, regardless of the circumstances he represents. Certainly some yielded more joy than others, and in that frame I remember specifically recalling a moment where out of the corner of my eye I saw something very special on the opposite wall of the gallery space. I pretended not to see it; I didn’t want to ruin my experiences of the pieces I was looking at right then; I wanted to savor each morsel of paint, each drawn line and every shape until my hunger was satisfied. When I finally made it around the exhibit to reach these paintings I was astounded – possibly even hypnotized by their grace and joy. They made bumps march across my arms and chest; I became cold and warm simultaneously. These pieces were of the story of Genesis.

The beauty in these works is that they express a certain type of vitality not usually found in the Western church setting. The pastor is jubilant; he dances, prays, cries and exalts implicit joy concurrently. This difference in the church culture from which I was raised is vastly different; in fact it might just be the antithesis of Western Doctrine. I know, however, from friends of mine that African American churches are very much representative of how these images portray them. The congregation shouts, cries and dances – the choir sings forcefully they hymns before them, and invite the congregation to join in. The active nature of these images caught my eye and made me almost jealous in the sense that I didn’t have the opportunity to experience this kind of worship first-hand. Upon further inspection I find little tidbits of beauty in the backgrounds: each of the works have a string of windows that show the action in which the pastor is preaching or praising. He is exuberant and wants to express to the congregation and the viewer of the action’s greatness or importance.

In No. 5, the congregation watches the preacher or the preacher’s hand from which another creature is born. A tear drops from a woman’s eye, exemplary of the severity of the act that is performed in front of her; what appears to be a box of tools lay at the base of the leftmost window possibly signifying the importance of work in the Church; the negative shapes take shape into the creatures (from clouds); either the preacher is performing the act or he is simulating the act to be recognized by the congregation (education). Unlike Western Doctrine, the congregation feels very involved in the setting – they are not removed, they are equally part of the act of being a congregation.

No. 6 shows the congregation both larger in number and in a state of awe: they finally see the beasts of the earth and the individual nature of the congregation is more apparent here because each person is looking about in a different direction. Again a woman releases a tear, and in this image we see the introduction of a book (presumably the Bible). A young congregation member holds either a bible or a hymnal. The beasts of the earth roam around outside the church, separated from the congregation. In both No. 5 and No. 7 there is a flower in a vase in the fore plane of the image; interestingly enough in this piece (No. 6) the compositional element of the flower in vase is replaced by the podium and book. Could this signify the idea that the more intellectual that we become respectively we further ourselves from the natural world; in fact replace the natural world with knowledge? Or that when we completely submit to our intellectualism, we become susceptible to the beasts of the world?

No. 7 is probably the most interesting to me, though. We have, once again, a woman with a tear streaming from her eye in the front pew (and another crying woman in the back); several individuals in the congregation gaze upon the wonder bestowed before them. Finally, Adam and Eve appear in the background. Adam and Eve, however, are only silhouettes of humans, and not only that they are opposite shadows: they are white cutouts in nature’s greenery. Adam and Eve by the Western Tradition assumes that they were the first people, but how could that be when there is a full congregation before them? By observing Lawrence’s other works, we know he uses shapes for shadows, and sometimes reverses shadow colors, for instance in the congregation’s faces, where light would normally not fall (and thus be a darker hue) he has lightened them, and in the case of the preacher he has lit his whole face, firstly assuming that the preacher is white, but upon closer inspection, his arms and hands are clearly of dark skin. This suggests, then, that the light of “heaven” has shone upon the preacher in such a way as to light up his whole head like a spotlight (a classical tradition exemplified by Western Religious history paintings, i.e. Baroque or Classical periods). An icon similar to a Christian symbol with its sharp pointed end and rounded top indicates his eye.

The preacher’s hands extend to the midsections of both Adam and Eve visually, but none of the congregation is looking behind them to see the creation. In fact, a man (second character in from the right, back pew) scratches his neck, possibly perplexed or doubting the story he’s being told. A woman next to him nurtures her baby; the man in the first pew has a gaping jaw – is he in awe or is he yawning? The toolbox finds itself in the back pew of the now much congregation that has consistently grown in each successive piece.
The pieces as a set are chronological. First the background only carried clouds, then the appearance of hills or greenery and finally full-on trees. The congregation grows while the preacher remains equally involved in the activity of the church. The preacher has not separated his life from his work; maybe the preacher is a self-portrait of Lawrence with his desire to educate. Regardless, the images in their own sake of imagery are fabulous and exciting.

Lastly, we’ll examine the series of work that Lawrence made whilst on holiday to Nigeria after being blacklisted by the McArthur Communist label. About a year after being blacklisted, he was granted a visa to visit Nigeria and made a series of work regarding his experiences. While in Nigeria he gathered a great deal of information on Cubism and the ideas of perspective. In this manner he could express several ideas at one time, both from the visual perspective and the cultural perspective. Market Scene is documentary of his time in Nigeria: We see women of specific native dress carrying about their business; children are carried in knapsacks that hang around the neck; the skin isn’t simply brown, it’s entirely black, much blacker than the brown he paints later in his life. The features are nearly indistinguishable – the people of the image feel like a nation, as opposed to a country. He also incorporates his love of pattern using the native blankets of Nigeria. This makes a commentary, possibly on the integration of art, craft and life and the idea that they are not always separated.

High art is intellectual; craft is natural. The cycle of gaining the knowledge to understand high art removes the human from his natural element: nature or craft. In other words, the further you remove yourself from craft, then, the more intellectual the action becomes. There is a point, though, where craft and high art must meet in their cyclic adventure. In order for the formal qualities of a visual piece to work on a proper (intellectual) manner, it must use the element of craft. The craft ties function to the work, and also involves the necessities of life to apply to the work as a whole. Of course function can be rendered functionless, but the element of craft (application of paint, formal concerns, framing, presentation etc.) are required in order for the piece to work as an object. He references this idea of craft and the non-separation of art and life in a large portion of his work, but specifically in the Nigerian works, we can see the repeated form and energy of lines that would reminisce of African blanket work or tapestry. His work also has the playfulness and “naïve” quality that is representative of folk art (an art that is more traditional in documentation). He successfully combined these ideas.

For instance, the zigzagging pattern in Meat Market reminds the viewer of traditional African design elements: repeated lines that jut from one side to another; orange, blue, yellow. On a first, distance glance one might think that this pattern actually is an African textile weave, but upon closer inspection we find the hanging of heavy red meats and the busy commerce of Nigerian market-goers. The flies that swarm around the hanging bright red carcasses suggest the heat of African climate – the flies aren’t buzzing about because the meat is old, it’s clearly fresh: blood is only slightly dried upon the bones of the animals. The most interesting part about this work though is, in fact, the perspective. It is difficult to tell from where the viewer is standing in relation to the plane of the scene.

My first impression is that the viewer is standing upon a hill nearby the market where he can see both below and behind the market, what throws my perspective off, however is this one character who peers at me seemingly from an upside down position: he could be hanging from the same meat rack, or maybe he’s sitting or laying upon a table where he can watch the viewer (the original watcher). The image becomes about watching and being watched. It reminds us that we are all equally human and curious about those that are not identical to us (through color or class or national affiliation). It is a very powerful concept for 1964, when our country (America) was battling racial tensions every moment of every day.

Lawrence did a number of paintings and series that recorded the histories of the African American. Each is worth investigating at length and can be compared for accuracy and viewpoint by historical texts. What interests me in a general way, however, is not the historical narrative. In fact, I prefer non-historical narrative with references to it; I prefer something I can elaborate on in a personal way that will leave me with an impression I can later kindly remember as an experience with a work. This is why I chose specifically not to talk about his historical representations, like the following series: Toussaint L’Ouverture (1938), Frederick Douglass (1939), Harriet Tubman (1940), the Migration of the Negro (1941),8 John Brown (1941), War (1946), Struggle from the History of the American People (1954-6) and Harriet and the Promised Land (1967). I can’t say much more about the exhibit, it was overwhelmingly powerful and I feel fortunate to have experienced it for myself.

*Bumbershoot is a highly popular music and food festival held annually in Seattle.