Connected \\ October 17, 2019

Jacob Lawrence’s inclusive America

This winter, PEM will challenge visitors with an exhibition that allows us to see ourselves in a more inclusive American history, and to consider how our own voice has power in the continued struggle to build democracy and uphold America's core principles. On January 18, Jacob Lawrence: The American Struggle opens at PEM, featuring the work of the best known African American artist of the 20th century.

Working on Jacob Lawrence means you are never done. There is always more to say. His art continues to influence and impact so many artists, scholars, curators, collectors, and educators because his messages are present. Timeless. To work on a Jacob Lawrence project means I get to stand on the shoulders of giants, risk-takers and culture shapers, to do my part. And what an absolute privilege that is.

Born in 1917, Jacob Lawrence broke through the color line of New York’s segregated art world. By the age of 23, he had created a masterpiece: The Migration of the Negro (retitled later as Migration Series). By mid century, Lawrence had perfected his narrative invention of using modest scale same size panels to tell a story. In 1949, he sought to expand his historical framework to all Americans and began his research for Struggle: From the History of the American People, a narrative sweep that included first person accounts, letters, coded messages and revolts from individuals from all sides of the American Revolution. Struggle: From the History of the American People, included every example of human struggle — physical, political, emotional, economical — that Lawrence could excerpt from his sources at the 135th branch of the New York Public Library (now the Schomburg Center for Black Research and Culture).


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Jacob Lawrence seated in front of Struggle panels 26 and 27, 1958. © Robert W. Kelley/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images.


The numerous and complex layers of research taken on by the artist to produce Struggle: From the History of the American People, and the astounding number of series and works across his oeuvre, result in a mountain of publications exhibitions, lectures, symposiums and projects attributed to the great artist.

Jacob Lawrence’s artistic training was fostered by the luminaries of the Harlem Renaissance: Augusta Savage, Charles Alston, and Henry Bannarn. Too young to enroll in the government funded Federal Arts Project, Lawrence took to his immediate environment for inspiration: he painted what he saw in his community. But this wasn’t enough. Young Lawrence began to research the history of his community and his family, finding great inspiration in the stories of leaders like Toussaint Overture, Harriet Tubman and John Brown. The story of how black communities migrated to Harlem, Chicago, Seattle, and other cities across America, was his family’s story and served as inspiration for Migration, the first work of art by a black artist to enter the collection of the Museum of Modern Art (the series was split between MoMA and the Phillips Collection in Washington, DC).

Lawrence’s distinctive approach to express the stories excluded from the narratives of the dominant culture was to paint in egg tempera on a series of hardboards, each measuring 12 x 16 or 16 x 12 inches. Migration is 60 panels in all. But this seventh historical narrative (he created 10 total), is 30 panels, five of which remain missing and two have no image record at all. Even so, Struggle: From the History of the American People occasions a long overdue consideration of issues concerning the series’ meaning and significance. Visitors are not getting half a show. Not only does the exhibition reunite Lawrence’s series for the first time in more than 60 years, we are doing something different for a Lawrence show in both exhibition experience and design. Our project today explores not only what histories Lawrence decided to paint, but also what was going on around the artist as he was painting.

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Jacob Lawrence, . . . we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes, and our sacred Honour —4 July 1776, Panel 6, 1955, from Struggle: From the History of the American People, 1954–56. Egg tempera on hardboard. Collection of Harvey and Harvey-Ann Ross. © The Jacob and Gwendolyn Knight Lawrence Foundation, Seattle/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Photography by Bob Packert/PEM.

In the 1950s, the national political climate was fraught, freedoms were under threat and the civil rights movement was gaining momentum. The Supreme Court ruled to desegregate American schools and violence against black people continued to erupt in America. Lawrence responded boldy from his Brooklyn home at 385 Decatur Street. For more than five years, he read and researched in order to expand his ambition to visualize a more complete American history. The result was Struggle: From the History of the American People (1954–56)—30 panels that, he wrote, “depict the struggles of a people to create a nation and their attempt to build a democracy.”

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Jacob Lawrence, Thousands of American citizens have been torn from their country and from everything dear to them: they have been dragged on board ships of war of a foreign nation. —Madison, 1 June 1812, Panel 19, 1956, from Struggle: From the History of the American People, 1954–56. Egg tempera on hardboard. Collection of Harvey and Harvey-Ann Ross. © The Jacob and Gwendolyn Knight Lawrence Foundation, Seattle/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Photography by Stephen Petegorsky.

This unprecedented reunion of Jacob Lawrence’s Struggle: From the History of the American People (1954-1956) occasions a reconsideration of the artist and Struggle within the context of current debates about democracy, justice, truth and the politics of inclusion. We have brought in the work of three contemporary artists—Bethany Collins, Hank Willis Thomas, and Derrick Adams—to further underscore distinct conceptual pillars of Lawrence’s Struggle: word, image, and time. Like Lawrence, these artists mine the historical archive to consider how the past is not a distant period, but an active space that is continuously questioned in the present. They tug on shared themes, including the struggles for freedom, citizenship and democracy in America, capturing a range of marginalized experiences and identities. Whereas Lawrence envisioned an integrationist history in Struggle, these artists lean into contemporary politics of race, taking critical aim at both American history and African American experiences today in practices that look at history to find new ways forward.

Using artist books, interactive photography, video and installation to turn history into art, each artist finds his or her own distinct solution for highlighting, selecting and correcting America’s stories of a people still struggling to build a nation that lives up to its ideals.


TOP IMAGE: Jacob Lawrence, . . . for freedom we want and will have, for we have served this cruel land long enuff . . . —a Georgia slave, 1810, Panel 27, 1956, from Struggle: From the History of the American People, 1954–56. Egg tempera on hardboard. Collection of Norma Crampton Bergquist © The Jacob and Gwendolyn Knight Lawrence Foundation, Seattle/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

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