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#4168: NYT Obit of Jacob Lawrence : A comment


keywords: Jacob Lawrence, art

Interesting editorial blunder:

"In 1937, he began work on his first multipart narrative, the Toussaint 
L'Ouverture series, 41 small works done in water-passed tempera paint -- 
thereafter, his preferred medium -- on paper. Dramatizing Haiti's 
struggle for independence and focusing on the exploitation of farm 
workers by colonial settlers, the paintings' high colors and puzzled-together 
abstract patterns established the distinctive style for  which Mr. Lawrence 
would gain fame."

"...farm workers..."? That implies being paid.

Patrick Slavin 

June 10, 2000

Jacob Lawrence Is Dead at 82; Vivid Painter Who Chronicled Odyssey of 
Black Americans


The Associated Press (top); Phillips Collection (bottom) 

THE STORYTELLER The painter Jacob Lawrence, top, and the first panel of 
his "Migration of the Negro" series from the 1930's. 

acob Lawrence, one of America's leading modern figurative painters and, 
from the beginning of his career in the 1930's, among the most 
impassioned visual chroniclers of the African-American experience, died 
yesterday at his home in Seattle after a long illness. He was 82. 

Mr. Lawrence's paintings, often modest in size and conceived in 
narrative series, combined a finely-honed Cubist-inflected painting 
style, a gift for vivid storytelling and a social consciousness shaped 
by his memories of growing up in Harlem. 

Jacob Armstead Lawrence was born on Sept. 17, 1917, in Atlantic City, 
N.J., the eldest of three children. His father, a railroad cook, 
deserted the family in 1924. The children lived in foster homes until 
joining their mother in Philadelphia, after which they moved to Harlem. 
There his education as an artist began when his mother enrolled him in 
classes at the Utopia Children's Center, an arts and crafts settlement 
house where met his first mentor, the artist Charles Alston. 

After dropping out of high school at 16, Mr. Lawrence worked in a 
laundry and a printing plant and began to attend classes taught by 
Alston at the Harlem Art Workshop. As part of his studies, he regularly 
walked the 60-block distance between his home and the Metropolitan 
Museum of Art, where he developed a particular interest in the spare, 
expressive narrative paintings of the early Italian Renaissance. 

At Alston's studio, he met most of the prominent cultural figures 
associated with the Harlem Renaissance, including the painters Aaron 
Douglas and William Johnson, and the writers Langston Hughes, Alain 
Locke, Richard Wright and Ralph Ellison. In 1936, he produced his first 
significant body of paintings, satirical studies of Harlem street life, 
documenting the neighborhood's poverty. Both the Social Realist subject 
matter and expressive pared-down style that were the hallmarks of his 
art were in place. 

In 1937, he began work on his first multipart narrative, the Toussaint 
L'Ouverture series, 41 small works done in water-passed tempera paint -- 
thereafter, his preferred medium -- on paper. Dramatizing Haiti's 
struggle for independence and focusing on the exploitation of farm 
workers by colonial settlers, the paintings' high colors and 
puzzled-together abstract patterns established the distinctive style for 
which Mr. Lawrence would gain fame. 

Much of his other best-known work quickly followed. In 1938, he 
completed 32 paintings devoted to the life of Frederick Douglass, and in 
the next year a series of 31 more illustrating the life of Harriet 
Tubman. In 1940 he received a grant from the Julius Rosenwald Fund that 
enabled him to rent a studio -- a rundown space with neither heat nor 
running water -- where he began the landmark series titled "The 
Migration of the American Negro," chronicling the mass migration of 
Southern blacks to the North in search of work following World War I. 

The series had personal resonance for the artist. His parents had been 
part of that migration, and from his childhood in Philadelphia he 
remembered that "people in the neighborhood were always talking about a 
new family arriving. They'd be so poor that they'd gather coals that had 
dropped through the street grates and pick up old clothes when they 
could find them. When we got to New York, it was the same." 

The series was exhibited at the Downtown Gallery in 1941 and brought the 
artist national renown. Fortune magazine reproduced 26 of the images in 
its pages. The Museum of Modern Art in New York and the Phillips 
Collection in Washington vied to acquire the complete work. They finally 
purchased it jointly, dividing the paintings in half by odd and even 
numbers. It was last exhibited as a whole at the Modern in 1995. More 
than two dozen of the paintings are now on view in the museum's "Making 
Choices" exhibition. 

In 1943, Mr. Lawrence joined the Coast Guard and was assigned to the 
Navy's first integrated troop carrier. With his captain's help he obtain 
a rank of petty officer, third class, which allowed him to continue 
working at art, with the stipulation that he depict Coast Guard life. A 
series of paintings that resulted was exhibited at the Museum of Modern 

In 1946 Mr. Lawrence was invited by Josef Albers to be an instructor at 
Black Mountain College in North Carolina, an experience which had a 
formative effect on his future work as a teacher. He made Albers's 
Bauhaus method of teaching based on aesthetic principles of composition, 
line and color theory his own. 

In October 1949, he had himself admitted to Hillside Hospital in Queens 
for what his doctor described as "nervous difficulties neither 
particularly complicated nor unique." Mr. Lawrence remained in the 
hospital for nine months. After leaving, he returned to his earlier 
themes of city life, in paintings that became more intricately 
patterned; he described the series, titled "Theatre," as a 
"staccato-type-thing -- raw, sharp, rough." 

His main focus during the 1950's and 60's, though, was on the explosive 
political atmosphere surrounding racism in America. In his work from 
these years, he addressed the subjects of intermarriage and 
discrimination in public schools, and documented the progress of the 
civil rights movement. 

In 1962 he traveled to Nigeria for an exhibition of his "Migration" 
series, then returned in 1964 to live and work there for nearly a year. 
By the end of the 1960's the look of his work had began to change 
somewhat. His signature primary-color palette muted toward gray, and his 
narrative assumed the crisp graphic quality of illustration. Political 
struggles were replaced by images of racial harmony, with blacks and 
whites working together. 

Between the 1970's and 90's, he completed many commissioned pieces in 
the form of prints and murals. In 1997 he designed a 72-foot-long mosaic 
which is scheduled to be installed in the Times Square subway complex at 
Broadway and 42nd Street in 2001. He was still painting until a few 
weeks before his death, and was scheduled to have an exhibition of new 
work at D.C. Moore, his Manhattan gallery, in November. Instead, a 
memorial retrospective will be presented. 

Mr. Lawrence was the subject of three career retrospectives. The first 
was at the Brooklyn Museum of Art in 1960, the second at the Whitney 
Museum of American Art in 1974 and the third at the Seattle Art Museum 
in 1986. A fourth retrospective is scheduled for the Phillips Collection 
for 2001. 

His work is in the collection of numerous museums; those in New York 
include the Metropolitan Museum, the Modern, the Whitney Museum of 
American Art, the Studio Museum in Harlem and the Brooklyn Museum. 

In addition to Black Mountain, he taught at the Art Students League, 
Pratt Institute, and the New School for Social Research, all in New York 
City, and at the Skowhegan School in Maine. 

In 1970, he took a job as visiting artist at the University of 
Washington in Seattle and was appointed full professor the next year. He 
retired with emeritus status in 1986. Harvard University, Yale 
University, Howard University, Amherst College, and New York University 
were among the 18 schools that awarded him honorary degrees. 

His non-academic honors included the National Medal of Arts, given to 
him by President George Bush, and the Spingarn Medal, the highest honor 
awarded by the N.A.A.C.P. 

Mr. Lawrence was a meticulous and systematic craftsman. 

When working on a series, his method was fixed: after completing the 
preliminary drawings for the entire series, he laid the pages out across 
a room, then applied one color a time to each -- all the reds in one 
session, all the blues in the next -- thereby insuring tonal consistency 

Equally crucial to quality control was the presence of his wife, the 
painter Gwendolyn Knight, whose evaluating eye he relied through the 59 
years of their marriage, and who survives him. In 1999, he and his wife 
established the Jacob and Gwendolyn Lawrence Foundation for the 
creation, presentation and study of American art, with a particular 
emphasis on work by African-American artists. The Foundation is planning 
to establish an art center Harlem in the artist's name. 

Mr. Lawrence's painting technique was spare, and his ideas complex. The 
same was true of his artistic credo. "I paint the things I know about 
and the things I have experienced," he once said. "The things I have 
experienced extend into my national, racial and class group. So I paint 
the American scene." 


Copyright 2000 The New York Times Company