The Art Scene

Beauty in Struggle:

On Jacob Lawrence


Barbara Purcell

  “If at times my productions do not express the conventionally beautiful,” Jacob Lawrence once remarked, “there is always an effort to express the universal beauty of man’s continuous struggle…” Lawrence was a prominent figurative painter of the 20th century and the most important Black artist of his time, recounting epic narratives and everyday scenes, often of the African-American experience, to tell a broader American story.
  “Jacob Lawrence: The American Struggle,” is a luminous retelling of that story, highlighting key moments in the early years of the republic, reframed through marginal perspectives rarely mentioned in textbooks. In Lawrence’s understanding of America, the founding fathers have taken a back seat to the countless, nameless individuals who fought for freedom: the indigenous, the enslaved, the impoverished. Women and immigrants, too.
  “The Struggle” begins with the Boston Massacre in 1770 and ends with wagons heading across the frontier in the years after the War of 1812: “Old America seems to be breaking up and moving Westward…” the final caption trails off. These larger than life events are condensed into 12-by-16-inch paintings, urging the viewer to reconcile with the fine print of our complicated history. There is no stepping back to get a better look. The only way in is up close.
  “The American Struggle” was organized by the Peabody Essex Museum (PEM) in Salem, MA, where it premiered in January 2020, before embarking on a 20-month tour to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, the Birmingham Museum of Art in Alabama, the Seattle Museum of Art in Washington, and the Phillips Collection in Washington, D.C. Elizabeth Hutton Turner, a University of Virginia art historian and former Senior Curator at the Phillips, co-curated with Austen Barron Bailly, formerly at PEM, and now Chief Curator of Crystal Bridges in Bentonville, Arkansas.
  “Struggle: From the History of the American People” (1954-1956), as it was originally titled, was last shown in 1958 at New York’s Alan gallery. At the time, the gallery’s owner, Charles Alan, was unsuccessful in securing a major museum to purchase the complete set. All 30 panels were instead bought by a private collector and promptly sold off individually. The dispersal resulted in the disappearance of at least five, though two resurfaced during the exhibition’s Met viewing, amazingly, in separate incidents, two weeks apart, on Manhattan’s Upper West Side.
  It is as close as it gets to an art-world fairytale ending amidst protests, political turmoil, and a global pandemic.
  Extraordinary events have transpired since “The American Struggle” opened at PEM. First, COVID almost perfectly aligned with the exhibition’s timing. Despite the unprecedented shutdown, all five institutions on the tour still managed to present the series, albeit with social distancing measures in place. The murder of George Floyd, and the ensuing Black Lives Matter movement, as well the only modern U.S. presidential election to threaten a peaceful transfer of power, all served as stunning reminders that Lawrence’s themes in “The American Struggle” are never far from relevant.
  “What he’s pitching to the American public is, ‘Let me show you the African-American history that is left out; let me show you your history, that African-American history is a part of. My history and your history,’” co-curator Beth Turner says on our phone call together.
  Each museum made specific choices on how best to present Lawrence’s pitch. The Met and Birmingham Museum of Art, for instance, chose to exclusively showcase Lawrence’s paintings, whereas the Peabody Essex Museum, Seattle Art Museum, and the Phillips Collection featured works by three contemporary artists—Derrick Adams, Bethany Collins, and Hank Willis Thomas—in conversation with Lawrence’s legacy.
  Adams’ “Jacob’s Ladder” (2019) pays direct homage as a mixed-media mis en scène of personal objects and photographs taken from the late artist’s archive and reimagined as his study. Images of Lawrence and his wife, the painter Gwendolyn Knight, along with their many luminary friends, wallpaper the space as evidence of a full and storied life. Lawrence’s old armchair sits before this ascending collage, as a ladder leads up to his colorful portrait as a younger man, painted with clear affection by Adams. It is both a cerebral and spiritual tribute, with a biblical reference that perfectly suits. Scratching silence climbs the rungs from a spinning record that has reached its end. Lawrence has left the room; Adams seems to be asking, what to play next?
  The Phillips Collection offers one additional, exceptional feature to their presentation of “The American Struggle”: a concurrent viewing of 30 panels from “The Migration,” Lawrence’s most acclaimed narrative series of paintings, and a cornerstone of the museum’s permanent collection. (There is a total of 60 panels in the series; the Museum of Modern Art in New York owns the other 30.)
  When compared to “The Struggle,” “The Migration” provides a unique opportunity to explore Lawrence’s evolution as an artist, says Phillips Senior Curator Elsa Smithgall on the day I visit. “We were looking to provide some adjacency. ‘The Struggle’ takes up the whole second floor of our house and ‘The Migration’ has been placed one floor down, in our former dining room.” (Once home to Major Duncan Clinch Phillips, a Civil War veteran and Pittsburgh businessman, the Phillips Collection in NW D.C. opened 100 years ago this year as America’s first modern art museum.)
  Smithgall believes that being able to view “Migration” and “Struggle” at once allows for a better understanding of both. “A whole 14 years transpire between them, and there are noticeable changes—stylistically but even in intensity,” she remarks. “You’ve got this young prodigy at the start of his career with ‘Migration,’ but ‘Struggle’ is so under-appreciated because it’s been scattered. And it offers such an alternative view of history that, at that time, was pretty radical. More radical in content than ‘Migration.’”
  “The Migration of the Negro” (1940-1941), as Lawrence originally called it, recounts the personal histories of African Americans moving from the rural South to cities up North following World World I. Yet its overarching themes of opportunity, adversity, and hope symbolically reference the social and political struggles at the time Lawrence was painting: labor shortages, World War II, Jim Crow, to name a few.
  Images of bustling cities and bereft crop fields juxtapose the North and South, as didactic captions guide the viewer through historical events and personal accounts (some from Lawrence’s own family) that are both archival and allegorical in nature. Panel 15, “There Were Lynchings” features a lone black figure, hunched over in a dirt field, as a noose hangs from a thin branch above. Panel 25, “They left their homes. Soon some communities were left almost empty,” consists of three trapezoidal shapes that forge a hard corner in an empty cabin: dull browns dominate, as in his many of his portraits of a desiccated South.
  But the North had its own problems—African-American neighborhoods set ablaze, widespread disease in crowded settings, white employers exploiting Black laborers—all scenes which play out in “The Migration.” Even so, rich burgundies and brilliant golds find their way into the paintings where Lawrence’s subjects are in search of better lives. Panel 49, “They found discrimination in the North. It was a different kind,” looks squarely at this American dialectic: a restaurant setting of Black and white patrons, enjoying their meals, separated by a lightening yellow demarcation as clear as the Mason-Dixon line.
  Jacob Armstead Lawrence was born in 1917 in Atlantic City, NJ, the oldest of three children whose parents had migrated from the South. He spent part of his childhood in Philadelphia foster care before moving to Harlem in 1930, at age 13, to live with his mother. She enrolled him in after-school art classes and he quickly developed an interest in drawing. As a teenager, he took to walking the 50 or so blocks south to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, to study the works of the early Italian Renaissance masters.
  Lawrence attended the Harlem Art Workshop, run by painter and muralist Charles Alston, and later, the Harlem Community Art Center, under the directorship of sculptor Augusta Savage. Alston and Savage were among Lawrence’s most significant mentors, as was the Black historian Charles Seifert, who opened his expansive personal library to the young artist. “Sense of community and cultural identity, that’s the groundswell Lawrence comes from, and what he builds on his entire life,” Turner emphasizes. “It took all those people for him to be able to do what he did.”
  By the late 1930s, Lawrence was working for the WPA’s Federal Art Project and exhibiting artwork around Harlem. In 1940, he received a $1,500 fellowship from the Julius Rosenwald Fund, affording him a very modest studio and the opportunity to paint full-time for one year. He completed “The Migration” in 1941; Fortune magazine ran an eight-page spread in its November issue. There was a solo show at Downtown Gallery in Greenwich Village—and a signed contract for representation—the first for any Black artist in New York City. The following year, the Museum of Modern Art and the Phillips Collection jointly acquired “The Migration.” Lawrence was 24 years old.
  Cubism, social realism, the Mexican Muralists of the 1920s, even avant-garde cinema, have all been cited as factors in the artist’s expressive figurative style. But Lawrence often credited Harlem itself for the bright geometry of shapes and color that came to define his work. Though he encountered only the tail-end of the Harlem Renaissance, its afterglow could still be seen and felt everywhere, in the streets and the interior spaces he moved through as an adolescent, including the home he lived in with his mother, which he fondly remembered as “very decorative, full of pattern.”
  Lawrence’s colors—their distinct, tonal uniformity—resulted from working with egg tempera paint, an inexpensive, quick-drying medium that he applied across all panels at once, before moving on to the next. Flat, bright forms emerged, not unlike the stained-glass windows of a church. But top-down divinity was the furthest thing from the artist’s social and political commentary: “The Harlem Art Workshop looked to the truth telling of the Mexican Muralists,” Turner says. “Lawrence wanted to create images that were bold and expressed a shared reality.”
  In 1946, Josef Albers invited Lawrence to the summer institute at Black Mountain College in North Carolina, an experience which shaped him both as an artist and educator. Other teaching positions followed, including Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture in Maine, the New School for Social Research, Art Students League, and Pratt Institute, all in New York City. In 1970, Lawrence and his wife moved to Seattle, where he taught at the University of Washington for nearly 15 years, and where he remained until his death in 2000, at the age of 82.
  Lawrence began meditating on “The Struggle” in 1949, while enduring his own personal struggle: depression and professional burnout had led to a longterm voluntary stay at a psychiatric unit in Queens. While there, the artist delved into the works of Walt Whitman. “This is my own private speculation, but I’ve often wondered if Whitman’s ‘The Wound-Dresser,’ which talks about healing, is ‘The Struggle’ for Lawrence,” theorizes Beth Turner. “Exposing our historical wounds to light and air.”
  After his hospitalization, Lawrence conducted five years of research at the 135th Street branch of the New York Public Library (now the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture). What began as an investigation into the African-American role in Early American history soon widened into the shared American narrative. “The paintings which I propose to do will depict the struggles of a people to create a nation and their attempt to build a democracy,” he wrote on a grant application in 1954.
  That same year, Lawrence began painting “The Struggle,” and continued with the project, on and off, for two more years. It was an era defined by Brown Vs. Board of Education, Emmett Till’s lynching, Rosa Parks’ refusal, McCarthyism, censorship, and mistrust. Lawrence held it all up to a mirror and painted the reflection.
  Recurrent images of guns and blades diagonally cut through the commotion of bodies across these panels: rich earth tones for flesh and bright streaks of red, the terrified whites of eyes. Exaggerated, oversized hands appear throughout, as if to steadily, heavily push the whole operation forward. “You have to really fight through the chaos to find the subject. He demands you spend time with that picture. In making sense of it, you internalize what he’s trying to say,” says Turner.
  Lawrence didn’t kowtow to the abstract expressionism of the 1950s, but his representational leanings did go rogue: sharp angles, chiseled edges, and blocks of color come together in ways that take time to unpack. “When the subject is strong, simplicity is the only way to treat it,” he once offered. But there is nothing simple about these paintings, not least of which are their captioned titles, obscure references and lesser-known excerpts from the primary sources and historical texts he poured over for those five years at the library. (Panel 11, captioned “ -ton 290.9.27 be at evening 178.9.8…—an informer’s coded message” courtesy of America’s foremost traitor, Benedict Arnold, wins first place in this category.)
  “The Struggle” begins, unsurprisingly, with urgency: its first panel consists of clenched fists, raised in a bid for freedom on the eve of the American Revolution. The accompanying caption is a question from Patrick Henry’s rousing speech at the Virginia convention in 1775: “is life so dear or peace so sweet as to be purchased at the price of chains and slavery?” Lawrence has altogether bypassed Henry’s famed battlecry, “Give me Liberty or Give me death,” choosing instead to call out the cognitive dissonance of colonial agitation against British rule.
  “Lawrence was not a cultural separatist, he saw a universal humanity, this desire for freedom, both by the enslavers and the enslaved,” Turner clarifies. “He is philosophically meditating on this terrible paradox.”
  The second panel further articulates the paradox by backtracking to the Boston Massacre in 1770, where a dockworker named Crispus Attucks was shot and killed when violence erupted between the colonists and British soldiers. Attucks, a fugitive slave of Native and African descent, was immortalized as “the first to defy, the first to die,” in the American Revolution—and later became an icon of the anti-slavery movement a century later.
  Panel 12, “And a Woman Mans a Cannon,” offers up another unlikely Revolutionary war hero, Margaret Cochran Corbin, who fought alongside her husband in the Battle of Fort Washington in November 1776. Corbin reportedly took over the cannon after her husband was killed, and fired at the enemy until she was seriously injured herself. She was awarded a military pension—half the amount granted to her male counterparts—in recognition of her brave service as “the first American woman to take a soldier’s part in the War for Liberty.”
  Panel 15, “We, the people of the United States, in order to form a more perfect Union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquility… — 17 September 1787” depicts a grueling scene from the Constitutional Convention. Rather than portray the document’s momentous signing, Lawrence focuses on the exhaustion of the months-long ordeal. The Preamble’s noble words are overshadowed by an image of disheveled delegates; Lawrence is seemingly poking at the sanctity of democracy.
  Panel 25 is devoted to the Battle of New Orleans in early 1815. Its caption, “I cannot speak sufficiently in praise of the firmness and deliberation with which my whole line received their approach…” comes from an entry written by Andrew Jackson after the bloody battle—which killed 2,000 British soldiers and 60 Americans in less than 30 minutes. The painting’s towering white wall recalls Line Jackson, the mile-long barrier built by enslaved individuals, which wholly prevented the British from advancing any further.
  Each scene in “The American Struggle” subverts the hierarchy of history, allowing unlikely protagonists to emerge; even creatures get due credit—that wagon going West isn’t going to pull itself. Lawrence does acknowledge famous white men (Paul Revere and a dying Alexander Hamilton both make an appearance), but their presence is no more anthemic than the other characters slogging toward independence. No painting does more to flip the founding-father script than George Washington crossing the Delaware River on Christmas Night, 1776.
  Only there is no Washington, no majestic wall-sized tribute to the General. Instead we see his soldiers, crammed into three tiny boats, tossed about in the treachery of icy currents. Panel 10, “We crossed the River at McKonkey’s Ferry 9 miles above Trenton…the night was excessively severe…which the men bore without the least murmur…—Tench Tilghman, 27 December 1776,” is taken from a note written by Washington’s aide. It is a proletarian tribute—and the best explanation as to why there were no institutional takers for “The Struggle” in 1958.
  Of the three panels still missing in “The American Struggle,” only one remains a true mystery to art historians. Panel 20, “Spindles,” hangs as an empty white frame on the wall, its caption a likely reference to the wooden spikes used to spin and twist cotton fibers. White gold, as it was called, became the nation’s main export by the 1820s, catapulting the U.S. onto the global stage, spinning and twisting together, with great speed and ingenuity, America’s exploding economy and the expansion of slavery.
  “I heard Jacob say, over and over: beauty in struggle,” Turner recalls. “There is a color in the spaces and divisions, and a layering of time, then and now. There is a truth, and the truth comes when spending time with those images.”
Jacob Lawrence
Jacob Lawrence
Panel 29, The labor agent recruited unsuspecting laborers as strike breakers for northern industries. 1840-41
Panel 29, The labor agent recruited unsuspecting laborers as strike breakers for northern industries. 1840-41 (courtesy the Phillips Collection)
Jacob Lawrence, Struggle ... From the History of the American People, no. 12:
Jacob Lawrence Struggle … From the History of the American People, no. 12: And a Woman Mans a Cannon (Molly Corbin, Defense of Ft. Washington, North Manhattan Island, November 16, 1776), 1955.