Where could Jacob Lawrence go after “The Migration Series”? Lawrence’s trailblazing work of sixty paintings, originally called “The Migration of the Negro,” pulled together the story of the Great Migration into a visual American epic. Painted all at once, color by color, the episodic panels present the early twentieth-century movement of black Americans from the rural South to the industrial North as a puzzle of dynamic shapes and vibrant hues. Accompanied by Lawrence’s tightly researched narrative, which supplies the title for each panel, the distilled forms tie the compositions together while connecting the episodes into a unified and abstracted whole.
Sponsored by the Rosenwald Foundation, the series of 1940–41 launched Lawrence from the 135th Street Branch of the New York Public Library, where he conducted his historical research, to national acclaim. After showing at Edith Halpert’s Downtown Gallery—Lawrence was the first black American to be represented by a New York gallery—the series was acquired in its entirety through a joint institutional purchase. The odd numbered panels went to Washington’s Phillips Collection; the evens went to New York’s Museum of Modern Art. Lawrence was just twenty-three years old.
The moving power of this dynamic work is revealed every time the series is reunited—most recently in “One-Way Ticket,” the exhibition that was on view at moma in 2015. Writing of an earlier reunion, at the Whitney Museum of American Art in 1974, Hilton Kramer noted that
into each image, executed in tempera, gouache or watercolor, is distilled a dramatic episode or emotion of great simplicity, yet the crowded succession of such images traces a complex course. . . . Drawing is reduced to the delineation of flat shapes and easily read gestures. Figures are seen as the sum of their actions, never as individualized personalities. Color is generally somber, yet illuminated by moments of gemlike intensity. There is an extraordinary velocity in this style and an extraordinary empathy. It succeeds in creating a world, and it holds us in its grip.
Lawrence was the product of the same Great Migration he depicted. Born in Atlantic City, New Jersey, in 1917, at thirteen he continued the family’s migration north, moving with his mother and sister to Harlem. A child prodigy, he soon apprenticed with Charles Alston, Augusta Savage, and other leading artistic lights of the Harlem Renaissance. By the late 1930s, he was already channeling the cosmopolitan worldview of Alain Locke’s “New Negro” into the easel division of the Works Progress Administration’s Federal Art Project. Inspired by the figures of black history, he created narrative portraits of Harriet Tubman, Frederick Douglass, and Toussaint L’Ouverture.
“The Migration Series” connected Lawrence’s personal subject matter with the wandering and restless spirit of modernism.
Painted in a flurry of activity, spread out all together across his Harlem studio, “The Migration Series” connected Lawrence’s personal subject matter with the wandering and restless spirit of modernism. It was exhibited in the same year he married his fellow Harlem artist Gwendolyn Knight. No other work of such ambitious scope would come quite as easily to Lawrence again. His cycle on “The Legend of John Brown” of 1941, which now exists mainly as a series of twenty-two prints, tells its story more on the surface, without quite the same compositional nuance or absorption.
Now that he was exhibiting beyond “uptown,” the Downtown Gallery (which was, by then, located in midtown on East Fifty-first Street) exposed Lawrence to Halpert’s circle of modernist American painters. These figures included Stuart Davis, Ben Shahn, Jack Levine, and Charles Sheeler. In such standalone and standout paintings as Pool Parlor of 1942, a prizewinner of an “Artists for Victory” competition and purchased by the Metropolitan Museum of Art that same year, Lawrence already can be seen building on his expanding modernist horizons. Four years later, an invitation to teach at Black Mountain College further elevated Lawrence into the orbit of Josef Albers and the international modernism of the Bauhaus.
At the same time, in addition to widening his artistic outlook, the 1940s exposed Lawrence to a broadening American landscape. For over two years during World War II, Lawrence served in the United States Coast Guard under the command of Carlton Skinner on uss Sea Cloud. The vessel was the country’s first racially integrated ship in wartime service. It later became a model for the armed services’ post-war integration in 1948, and by extension the country’s federal de-segregationist policies of the 1950s.
Here Lawrence achieved the rank of Specialist Third Class. He served as an official combat artist, creating some seventeen paintings. Most of these paintings were lost in the subsequent demobilization, but at one time they were exhibited alongside his “Migration Series” in an exhibition organized by moma and championed by the Coast Guard. As moma compared the two bodies of work at the time, “almost imperceptibly his Coast Guard paintings suggest the gradual beginnings of a solution to the problem so movingly portrayed in the Migration Series.”
In Lawrence’s Coast Guard pictures both races face the same fundamental problem—the war. Colored and white men mingle in recreational sports on deck, eat together, work together. Colored and white hands reach out with equal eagerness at mail call. Death and injury play no favorites, and all Uncle Sam’s nephews rate the same pay in their non-racial classifications.
Lawrence’s experience in a fully integrated America, at least as reflected on board this singular ship, helped encourage him to revisit the episodes of American history through a new integrationist perspective. In 1950 he even saw fit to call the Coast Guard “the best democracy I’ve ever known.” During a yearlong period of mental convalescence, which he spent reading Walt Whitman, Lawrence developed a vision for a new and newly ambitious cycle of paintings. “As I read more of the history of the United States,” he wrote in one grant application of 1954, “I gradually began to appreciate not only the struggles and contributions of the Negro people, but also to appreciate the rich and exciting story of America and of all the peoples who emigrated to the ‘New World’ and contributed to the creation of the United States.” Lawrence now sought to capture “man’s constant search for the perfect society in which to live” by visualizing the “struggles, contributions, and ingenuity of the American people.”
Years in the making, the series was only ever half completed.
“Struggle: From the History of the American People,” Lawrence’s title for this new series, attempted to take the structure of “The Migration Series,” down to its sixty-panel sequence, and apply the artist’s updated modernist idioms to capturing the full scope of American history. The series would again return Lawrence to the 135th Street Branch of the New York Public Library for research, this time commuting from his brownstone in Brooklyn. Again Lawrence applied for foundation support to underwrite the project, and again he hoped a great institution, or two, would purchase the series, keeping it together in sequence.
“Struggle” proved to be an all-too-appropriate title for Lawrence’s epic undertaking of the 1950s. Years in the making, the series was only ever half completed. Lawrence finally cut short its full scope and abandoned the project entirely in the mid-1960s. Foundation supporters also proved to be few and far between. An application to the John Simon Guggenheim Foundation was denied. And although now represented by the Alan Gallery, an offshoot of Halpert’s Downtown Gallery, Lawrence found no institutional buyers. Eventually the work was dispersed. Today five of the panels have yet to be located.
“Struggle” also speaks to the arrival of this body of work in a new exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. A show that took over six years to assemble, due in no small part to the painstaking task of locating these scattered panels, the exhibition was further delayed by the covid-19 pandemic, which shuttered the Metropolitan for nearly six months. Now, finally, for the first time since 1958, this somber and stirring exhibition, organized by Massachusetts’s Peabody Essex Museum and co-curated by Elizabeth Hutton Turner and Austen Barron Bailly, reunites this work in the city of its creation.
Compared to the jigsaw pieces of “Migration,” “Struggle” presents an even more complex puzzle of compositional ingenuity. Lines slash and divide narrative elements. Gradated shapes churn the surface of the panels into tumbling abstracted constructions that nearly come apart. Sharpness and edge are defining characteristics as the blood drips and sprays. As with “Migration,” a narrative provides the title for each panel. This time it is often in the first person, with fragments from Patrick Henry through Henry Clay amplifying the immediacy of the American cry.
Lawrence’s particular focus is America’s wartime bravery and sacrifice. One quote, . . . again the rebels rushed furiously on our men—a Hessian soldier, supplies the title for Panel 8 (1954), a riot of clashing cavalry, bayonets, and swords. If we fail, let us fail like men, and expire together in one common struggle. . . —Henry Clay, 1813 forms the caption of Panel 23 (1956), as a solitary sailor bleeds out of his punctured eye in an abstraction of sharply torn sails. I cannot speak sufficiently in praise of the firmness and deliberation with which my whole line received their approach. . . —Andrew Jackson, New Orleans, 1815 describes Panel 25 (1956), as a garrison of bloody and bandaged American soldiers defend Fort St. Philip against a ten-day British bombardment.
Lawrence’s particular focus is America’s wartime bravery and sacrifice.
“Lawrence was a remarkable artist—as remarkable for his independence as for his pictorial gifts,” Kramer wrote in revisiting an exhibition of the artist in 2001, a year after his death. In “Struggle,” Lawrence takes the images of American history, both well-known and under-known, and strips them of their nostalgia. Rather than the history painting of Emanuel Leutze or even Grant Wood, here is history made present through painting. Rather than regal splendor, Lawrence’s own depiction of Washington’s Crossing, Panel 10 of 1954, refuses to distinguish its citizen soldiers huddled in the abstracted waves of the Delaware River from their general. Here the title comes from a solemn journal entry of Washington’s aide-de-camp: 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.
Never at odds, Lawrence unites black struggle with American struggle. Is life so dear or peace so sweet as to be purchased at the price of chains and slavery? —Patrick Henry, 1775, Lawrence’s first panel of the series, underscores a shared American fight for liberty and liberation. Massacre in Boston, the next panel, focuses on the death of Crispus Attucks, an American of African and Native descent, who was the first to die in the Boston Massacre, and therefore the first American killed in the cause of the Revolution.
In Lawrence’s telling, the American struggle has always been animated by a common fight for freedom from bondage, from chattel slavery (panel 5) to British impressment (panel 19). Lawrence never abandoned his art of black America. In “Struggle,” he integrates the black experience into the American experience and the other way around. As presented in a large blue exhibition hall at the Metropolitan, the panels form the portholes of a singular ship of state. “Hope has broadened the scene,” Lawrence said in 1957, comparing the series to his earlier work. “The statement is broader, even though it is the same statement.”
1 “Jacob Lawrence: The American Struggle” opened at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, on August 29 and remains on view through November 1, 2020. The exhibition will travel to the Birmingham Museum of Art, the Seattle Art Museum, and The Phillips Collection. It was previously on view at the Peabody Essex Museum, Salem, Massachusetts.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 39 Number 2, on page 52
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