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Report from the Front

Art criticism, sometimes with context, occasional politics. Published in hard copy 2-4 times a year. New shows: "events;" hard copy rates & how to support the online edition: "works."

 

JACOB LAWRENCE: THE EDUCATION ARTIST AT MOMA

Jacob Lawrence. The Migration Series. 1940-41. Panel 3: “In every town Negroes were leaving by the hundreds to go North and enter into Northern industry.” Casein tempera on hardboard, 12 x 18″ (30.5 x 45.7 cm). The Phillips Collection, Washington D.C. Acquired 1942. © 2015 The Jacob and Gwendolyn Knight Lawrence Foundation, Seattle / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Photograph courtesy The Phillips Collection, Washington D.C.
Various U.S. Presidents have claimed to be “the education President,” but none with claims to equal those of Jacob Lawrence (1917-2000) to be “the education artist.” This is far less because – like so many other artists – he spent many years teaching. It is far more because his art combines art with history.

In fact, as our city's children head back to school, I can't think of a better way to show them that history need not be dull and dry than to take them, over the Labor Day weekend, to see that cycle of 60 paintings which are currently the centerpiece of “One-Way Ticket: Jacob Lawrence’s Migration Series and Other Visions of the Great Movement North” at the Museum of Modern Art.

Alas, I made a serious mistake in posting this item so late --I thought the show would be up through September 27, but I now see that it will close September 7. However, I also see that MoMA has posted its computerized version of "The Migration Series" at its website. It will be up for the next five years, too, so if you can't make it to the actual show itself, you can get at least some idea of it from the c0mputerized version (discussed below).

“The Migration Series” was originally entitled “The Migration of the Negro” and created in 1940-41 (when the progressive way to refer to African Americans was still as “Negroes”). It is a sequence of 60 tempera on board paintings, all measuring either 18 x 12 inches or 12 x 18.

Every picture in this series is accompanied by a brief text, written by the artist to explain it. In the current presentation (and presumably all the series’ previous presentations) these lines of text are posted on the walls under the relevant images.

This may sound awful, and it is a bit distracting, but the information contained in these texts is frequently so unfamiliar and so interesting that even the most dedicated purist may – and should -- have trouble focusing exclusively on the images.

This makes the whole undertaking a combination of esthetics and information.

In lesser hands, it might make these images merely into illustrations, but Lawrence was too sophisticated for that. In the overwhelming majority of cases, he also created images that are viable in themselves.

WHAT IS THE HISTORY HERE?

The historical event that “The Migration Series” chronicles is the movement of millions of African-Americans, between World War I and the 1960s, from the rural South and mostly to the urban North (some few African-Americans from the South resettled in the urban West instead).

This movement began during World War I, when labor shortages in the North prompted employers to look South.

It ended in the 1960s, when the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 effectively ended segregation in the South, and enfranchised African Americans for the first time since Reconstruction ended in 1877.

Make no mistake: the migration that Lawrence chronicled was enormous. According to statistics at the exhibition, in 1900 only 8 percent of the African-American population in the U.S. lived outside the South; by 1970, this number had been multiplied by nearly six times, to 47 percent.

When this series was first displayed at the Downtown Gallery of Edith Gregor Halpert in 1941, half of its 60 panels were acquired by MOMA, and the other half by Collector Duncan Phillips for his museum, the Phillips Collection in Washington, DC.

The current exhibition brings together the 30 panels owned by MoMA, which are the even-numbered ones, and the 30 owned by the Phillips Collection, the odd-numbered ones, into a dramatic single presentation which is the core of the MoMA exhibition.

“One-Way Ticket” is a typical MoMA multimedia extravaganza, where the paintings are only part of the show, buttressed by novels, poems, tracts, photographs, movie excerpts, recordings and related events.

With them all, the museum is seeking to document “the movement’s transformative impact on American culture, politics and society.”

The whole undertaking was organized by MoMA curator Leah Dickerman, with the aid of Jodi Roberts, curatorial assistant.

To be sure, a number of the supplemental exhibits are very likable. They include a recording of Paul Robeson, singing “Ol’ Man River,” among other musical selections.

Film footage shows Billie Holiday singing “Strange Fruit,” and Marian Anderson singing “De Gospel Train,” in front of the Lincoln Memorial in 1939 (I had not realized how very appropriate that song was to the Northern migration then taking place).

But, when I went to see “One-Way Ticket” this summer, I stayed much, much longer in the central smallish gallery, where the Lawrence “Migration” series is displayed, I’m glad I did, because the vast majority of these images are rewarding to contemplate.

In the center of that gallery space is a long desk-like arrangement, supplied with 12 chairs and 12 matching shiny screens.

Upon the screens, glossy color photographs of the images are displayed (all computerized, so that if you sweep a finger across a screen, the images move on and you can see different ones—what a lovely toy! I should add that the website presentation of this sequence isn't interactive -- you have to click on the arrows over to the left to move the images along).

These photographs are accompanied by Lawrence’s original captions, alternative (longer) versions of the captions, and quantities of additional artistic and/or historical information. Though I could have done without a lot of it, some of it illuminated the images in new and surprising ways.

A good example of this is the first part of the additional text that accompanies the image I’ve chosen to illustrate this review, # 3 in the sequence. This image depicts heavily burdened migrants “leaving by the hundreds to go North,” while above their heads small black birds are flying in the same direction.

The additional text points out that black birds, especially crows, were often associated in the popular mind with African Americans, and not least through the term, “Jim Crow.” This term is today best known for referring to the legalized segregation enacted throughout the South to re-establish white supremacy after 1877.

However, it seems to have originated with a song called “Jump Jim Crow.” It was made popular in the 1820s by a white actor named Thomas “Daddy” Rice performing with his face blackened to resemble an African American (and pictured on MoMA’s shiny screens in a colored theatrical print from 1833).

This racist practice of performing in "blackface" had begun in American theaters as early as the 1790s but evolved in the 1840s and 1850s into the “minstrel shows” which lasted clear into the early 1900s. “Jim Crow” became a stock comic character in these minstrel shows.

However, as the shiny screen at MoMA points out, the birds in Lawrence’s image have a double meaning. In addition to referring to segregation, they also refer to the freedom that birds enjoy--of being able to fly anywhere they want, just as the African Americans in this image are fleeing toward greater freedom.

EYEBALLING THE EXHIBIT

The desk-like arrangement in the center of the gallery was quite popular when I was there, not least with family groups of parents and their children, but silly me! I go to an art museum to look at art. So, for the most part I ignored the screens, and worked my way around the walls with the 60 panels on them, taking notes as I went.

This procedure astonished one of the guards: he asked curiously what was I doing?

Since these paintings are tempera on board, they have flat matte surfaces, nothing glossy about them in either an actual or figurative sense. Instead, they are honest, modest and straightforward. They have a story to tell and they tell it well.

In style, they are a combination of figurative & stylized or hierarchical. I saw fragments of people or simplified forms, as well as bold symbolic devices. The total impressions created lay somewhere in a middle ground between very sophisticated, maybe even cubist forms and carefully unsophisticated, almost primitive ones.

Put another way, they struck me as being equally suggestive of cubist or heraldic devices and cartoons (serious cartoons of the period, more Prince Valiant in spirit than Popeye).

In sum, they are tough to describe but frequently arresting to look at. Their colors are not unexpected, but their compositions are always well-balanced, frequently striking and widely varied. When groups of figures are portrayed, they are always moving from right to left.

A number of these figural groups deal simply with the movement of African Americans from South to North, so it's only to be expected that they are all going in the same direction.

However, this right-to-left movement is repeated even in panels that portray other subjects – in one case, a funeral, with mourners bearing a coffin, and in another, cattle streaming into the stockyards of Chicago.

Another device that comes up a number of times is a group of figures arranged in a pyramid, but this, too, is almost always effective, and in general, the paintings are almost always evocative of their printed topic.

Only occasionally does the emotional content of this printed topic overwhelm the image so that it becomes cluttered, confused and unsatisfactory. Still less common are paintings that leave too much empty space.

Reviewing my notes, I see that I’ve made very positive evaluations of 30 out of the 60, and definitely negative evaluations of only 10. Another handful – maybe 5 to 10 – got noncommittal evaluations, and the remaining 10 were not mentioned. I consider that a good enough batting average to make the show well worth seeing.

On the whole, I liked those paintings better which were simpler and had more empty space (some of the more crowded ones also came off).

An example of a simpler, heraldic-type device might be #2, which shows a profile view of a large single African-American man naked to the waist. He has raised a sledge hammer high over his head, and in front of him is a stake or something like a stake that he is about to pound into the ground. In the background is only a small simple window.

This picture follows #1, one of the number which show crowds of people heading toward northern cities. Its caption explains that World War I had created labor shortages in the North. The caption to #2 reads, “The Negro was the largest source of labor to be found after all others had been exhausted.”

Number #28 dealt with a topic new to me; its composition was also striking. At the bottom is a Caucasian man, seen from the side with a list and pencil.

Rising like a flat-topped pyramid through the center is a line of five African-American men waiting to see him. They are presented frontally, one behind the other, with one barren little tree in the top right background.

The text below it reads, “The labor agent who had been sent South by Northern industry was a very familiar person in the Negro counties.”

More of the paintings deal with men than women because, as the caption to #57 explains, “The female worker was one of the last groups to leave the South….” This picture features a single, lonely female worker, but some family groups also appear.

For example, #45 shows a whole family (complete with children) in a railroad car arriving in Pittsburgh, factories visible through the train car window.

Some of the pictures are still (sadly) applicable today, most notably #22, which shows the backs of three men, handcuffed to each other and with jail bars in front of them.

Text: “Another of the social causes of the migrants’ leaving was that at times they did not feel safe, or it was not the best thing to be found on the streets late at night. They were arrested on the slightest provocation.”

At moments, I felt (uneasily) that the North was being presented like The Promised Land in the Bible, perfect in every respect when I knew that it wasn’t – and isn’t.

To this day, for example, de facto segregated housing continues in Northern cities from New York to Chicago & God knows where else--and with it, de facto segregated educational facilities.

Yet I also recognized that Lawrence chronicled the bad in the North along with the good – overcrowded housing, high incidence of tuberculosis, and race riots occasioned by Caucasian bosses who had lured low-paid African-American workers from the South to scab on more highly-paid Caucasian workers in the North.

All in all, though, his composite portrait is more optimistic than pessimistic. Two of the last panels -- # 58 and #59– show students benefiting from better schools in the North and – wonder of wonders! – a chance to participate in democracy by voting.

FROM PROMISING YOUNGSTER TO STAR

Lawrence didn’t make the journey from South to North, but his parents had. He was born in New Jersey, and moved to Harlem at 3.

He dropped out of high school at 16, but studied art first in a WPA school in Harlem with Charles Alston, already a leading figure in the Harlem Renaissance, and second, downtown at the American Artists School.

Before he began “The Migration Series,” he had already completed series on three other historical figures of African descent: Toussaint l ’Overture, leader of the Haitian revolution, Harriet Tubman, conductor of escaping slaves over the Underground Railroad, and Frederick Douglass, the abolitionist.

All these projects must have been preceded by much library research, although the literature accompanying “One-Way Ticket” at MoMA only documents it with regard to “The Migration Series.”

Lawrence mostly found his historical materials at the 135th Street branch of the New York Public Library, now the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, but already a repository for such material in the 1930s.

The nucleus of its collection had been acquired in 1926 from Arturo Alfonso Schomburg, a Puerto-Rican-born scholar of partly African descent.

When Lawrence’s Toussaint l ‘Overture series was shown at the Baltimore Museum of Art in 1939, it was greeted enthusiastically. He was only 22.

The next year, he received the first of three fellowships from the Julius Rosenwald Fund. This foundation had been founded by the Chicago-based president of Sears, Roebuck to promote "Negro" culture. Lawrence used the fellowship to set up a studio and paint “The Migration Series.”

For the next seven years, his career was such that most artists of any race can only dream of. This I learned while working on my dissertation, on painting in New York in the 1940s. Two pages of it were about Lawrence, whom I called the youngest of the “social realist” painters, and “in many ways, the most successful.”

In the fall of 1941, a friend had sent him to Halpert . Her Downtown Gallery was one of the city’s most successful, with a stable of modernist Americans ranging from Precisionists like Charles Sheeler to abstractionists like Stuart Davis.

Halpert also sold American folk art. This put her on cordial terms with Abby Aldrich Rockefeller, one of the three ladies who had founded MoMA in 1929. Mrs. Rockefeller still sat on MoMA’s board of trustees--and was also an avid folk art collector.

When Halpert met Lawrence, she was organizing a group show of “Negro” art, but was so impressed by his work that she gave him a solo exhibition of his “Migration Series.” As indicated above, it promptly sold out to Duncan Phillips and MoMA.

MoMA’s acquisition was a gift from Adele Rosenwald Levy, a trustee who was the daughter of Julius, and the wife of Dr. David M. Levy, an eminent child psychiatrist.

(Full disclosure: My mother told me she sent me to Dr. Levy when I was two or three, and a couple of bad hospital stays had left me waking myself up screaming at night. My mother said she didn’t know quite how Dr. Levy communicated with me, as I didn’t talk very well yet, but he did get me quieted down. I remember nothing of this.)

Fortune magazine also reproduced 26 panels from the “Migration” series in color, and all 60 went on a national tour. That was just the beginning of the decade.

Lawrence’s second solo show at Downtown, in 1943, was of the series “Harlem” and won a three-star rating from the critic for the New York Times. Vogue reproduced five paintings from it, at about the same time that Lawrence was entering the Coast Guard. Some paintings he made while in the Coast Guard were exhibited at MoMA in 1944.

After the war, his first show was of his “John Brown” series, begun before he went into the Coast Guard and exhibited at the Boston Institute of Modern Art before it appeared at the Downtown in December 1945.

The reviews were mixed, but once again the show sold out, to Milton and Edith Lowenthal, a well-known pair of Manhattan collectors who eventually donated the series to the Detroit Institute of Arts. It also went on a national tour.

With the aid of a Guggenheim fellowship, Lawrence completed another series, “War.” It was based on his experiences in the Coast Guard, distilled and generalized. When it went on view at the Downtown in late 1947, it was greeted by unanimously favorable reviews—and for a third time, purchased in its entirety.

This time, the buyers were Roy and Marie Neuberger, an even more celebrated pair of collectors. Roy would subsequently be featured in Look magazine as a stockbroker who decorated his offices with his art collection.

He would ultimately give Lawrence’s “War” series to the Whitney Museum of American Art. The Whitney this summer had (and may still have) all or most of it on view for the inaugural show at its Gansevoort Street location. It, too, makes a striking impression.

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