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Jacob Lawrence: In Focus


(above: Jacob Lawrence, American (United States), 1917-2000, Five Builders with Tool Box, 1996, soft ground etching and aquatint on paper. Gift of Dr. James and Vivian Curtis, 2000/2.125. © 2005 Gwendolyn Knight Lawrence / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York)


Jacob Lawrence (1917­2000) is best known for his striking narrative paintings and prints depicting the African-American experience. Introduced to art in his teens, Lawrence was a widely known artist by the age of thirty-three, and his seventy years of artistic output earned him worldwide acclaim. Jacob Lawrence: In Focus considers sixteen works by the artists that were donated in 1997 and 2000 by Dr. James Curtis and Vivian Curtis, whose gifts have helped to launch UMMA's growing collection of African and African-American art. From a tempera painting of basketball players completed in 1953 to his famed 1998 series of prints New York in Transit, completed just two years before his death, this small installation offers a sampling of work spanning forty-five years of the artist's career.

Born in Atlantic City, New Jersey in 1917, Lawrence moved with his family first to Easton, then Philadelphia, and finally, when he was 13, to Harlem. Lawrence began his first formal studies in art at the Utopia Children's Center after school when he was 13, and by 15, he was studying with legendary African-American artist Charles Alston at College Art Association classes at the Harlem Art Workshop -- early training which won him a scholarship to the American Artists School in 1937. He joined the Works Progress Administration (WPA) Federal Art Project the following year, and during this period began studying African art as well as African-American history. Finding the latter subject virtually uncovered by the history books of his time, Lawrence was inspired to create works based on narratives from African-American history. As early as 1937, he created a series of paintings dealing with the life of Toussaint l'Ouverture, a former Haitian slave-turned-revolutionary who liberated his island from French rule in 1795 and helped to establish the first black republic in the west. Series on the lives of Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman followed in 1938 and 1939. Each of these heroes symbolized the struggle for emancipation and equality. One of his best-known series, The Migration of the Negro, was completed in 1941. "I've always been interested in history, but they never taught Negro history in the public schools," stated Lawrence in 1940. "I don't see how a history of the United States can be written honestly without including the Negro. I didn't [paint] just as a historical thing, but because I believe these things tie up with the Negro today. We don't have a physical slavery, but an economic slavery. If these people, who were so much worse off than the people today, could conquer their slavery, we can certainly do the same thing....I am not a politician. I'm an artist, just trying to do my part to bring this thing about...."

Lawrence's work, however, extended to themes that transcend cultural and racial boundaries, and he saw himself as engaged in exploring, in his words, the "larger ethical or historical message about humanity as a whole." A fine example of this is his powerful series of prints developed for a children's book about the World War II bombing of Hiroshima, on view in its entirety in this exhibition. It portrays the horror of this cataclysm for the unsuspecting inhabitants of the doomed city at the moment the bomb dropped on August 6, 1945, devastating marketplace, park, and playground alike, incinerating every human in mid-gesture at a common moment. Speaking of this series, Lawrence said, "Is it not ironic that we have produced great scientists, great musicians, great orators, chess players, philosophers, poets and great teachers and, at the same time, we have developed the capability and the genius to create the means to devastate and to completely destroy our planet earth with all its life and beauty? How could we develop such creative minds and, at the same time develop such a destructive instrument?"

Jacob Lawrence: In Focus offers visitors an opportunity to savor the profoundly humane vision and colorful, graphic style of a key figure in twentieth-century American art.


About the author

Sean M. Ulmer is University Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art at the University of Michigan Museum of Art.


RL Editor's note: The above article was earlier published in the Museum's membership magazine. The exhibition Jacob Lawrence: In Focus is being held May 28 ­ September 11, 2005 in the Dr. James and Vivian Curtis Gallery for African and African American Art at the University of Michigan Museum of Art. The exhibition is made possible by Ford Motor Company Fund.

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