Promised Land: Jacob Lawrence at the Cantor, A Gift from the Kayden Family

Review

Promised Land: Jacob Lawrence at the Cantor, A Gift from the Kayden Family

By Lea Feinstein May 26, 2015

Jacob Lawrence’s contribution to the history of American art is invaluable, and Promised Land, on view now at the Cantor Arts Center at Stanford University, is a fine introduction to his work. The Kayden family’s gift of fifty-six works—including paintings, silkscreen prints, and a commissioned artist’s book—constitutes one of the largest collections of Lawrence’s work in a single museum, and it is the largest on the West Coast, exhibited here in its entirety for the first time. The taut and brightly colored works span Lawrence’s creative life from the 1940s to the 1990s. Concurrent Lawrence exhibitions are on view at the Museum of Modern Art in New York and the Phillips Collection in Washington, D.C. Another large retrospective is planned for the Phillips in 2016.

As a young man in the 1930s in New York, Lawrence studied with Charles Alston, a prominent painter with the Harlem Art Workshop. The pulsing cultural scene in Harlem included writers and musicians such as Langston Hughes and Duke Ellington, and fellow artists Romare Bearden and Augusta Savage (Bearden and Lawrence played pool together). Alston introduced Lawrence to Arthur Wesley Dow’s precepts of color harmony, simplicity of line and shape, and abstract pattern. But the young artist’s frequent trips to the Metropolitan Museum of Art were his real education, and his attentive study of the Old Masters of the Italian Renaissance is evident in his work.

Jacob Lawrence. People in Other Rooms, 1975; silkscreen; 30 3/8 x 22 1/4 in. Gift of Dr. Herbert J. Kayden and Family in memory of Dr. Gabrielle H. Reem, 2013.108. © 2015 The Jacob and Gwendolyn Lawrence Foundation, Seattle/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Courtesy of the Cantor Arts Center, Palo Alto.

The influence of these painters, who often also worked in egg tempera on panel, can be felt just as readily as that of artists working in the same timeframe as Lawrence: Diego Rivera, José Clemente Orozco, Ben Shahn and other artists of the WPA, and the German painter Max Beckmann. (Beckmann taught at the Brooklyn Museum School from 1948 to 1950, and it is likely that Lawrence knew of his art.) Lawrence’s work demonstrates that he was knowledgeable about and an active participant in his era. His unique contribution was to visualize and bring to life his own vibrant style, which reflected the hard work and difficult histories of black people in America.

He worked not only in egg tempera, but also in gouache and graphite on hardboard and paperboard. Many of his tempera works were also translated into silkscreen. The works on display at the Cantor are small in scale (many just sixteen to twenty-four inches across), but powerful in effect. Tempera on board yields rich, opaque color, and the passages of paint are rendered in short strokes with small brushes. The movement of the hand and the wrist, rather than the swing of the arm, is felt. The artist favored the classic red, blue, and yellow of the Old Masters. When mixed, the pigments yield a range of lovely browns. Hardboard and Masonite are already warm brown, and Lawrence often left areas unpainted to take advantage of this.

Jacob Lawrence. Ordeal of Alice, 1963; egg tempera on hardboard; 24 x 20 in. Gift of Dr. Herbert J. Kayden and Family in memory of Dr. Gabrielle H. Reem, 2013.98. © 2015 The Jacob and Gwendolyn Lawrence Foundation, Seattle/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Courtesy of the Cantor Arts Center, Palo Alto.

Like the Italian masters who depicted scenes from the Bible, Lawrence created extended narrative cycles. He chose to chronicle the stories of normal citizens like himself—largely invisible in the art of the time—and situate them in the history of America. Daily lives, street scenes, and people at play, at worship, and at work feature prominently. So do historical narratives of slaves, as in Harriet Tubman and the Promised Land (1993), and abolitionists, as in The Legend of John Brown (1978), and the mass migration of black people from Southern farms to factories in the North and Midwest. Lawrence created a vernacular visual history, much of which is still missing from history textbooks today.

The works on view include pieces that refer to the compositions of earlier masters. Carpenters No. 3 (1981) is a clear echo of Paul Cézanne’s Card Players (1894–95). University (1977) and People in Other Rooms (1975) share the complex multiple perspectives of 14th-century Italian Renaissance painters, or perhaps 17th-century Dutch genre paintings. In University, the compressed composition forces a flood of figures to the foreground. They mass and spill through arched doorways into classrooms shown on the side panels. It is a truly utopian school, or maybe just an average day in New York, where people of all shapes and colors mingle together. In People in Other Rooms, rendered in tones of brown, blue, black, and gray, the sidewalk is the stage for vibrant Harlem street life. We look down into subway stairs, up to an apartment stoop, and through an open window where two children watch a dancer on TV. A young boy chalks a picture on the sidewalk, and a girl walks her dog. A musician saunters from center stage down to the left and a dapper old man with cane and fedora shuffles right. Partial figures indicate bustle, people entering and exiting.

Jacob Lawrence. University, 1977; gouache, tempera, and graphite on paper; 32 x 24 in. Gift of Dr. Herbert J. Kayden and Family in memory of Dr. Gabrielle H. Reem, 2013, 105. © 2015 The Jacob and Gwendolyn Lawrence Foundation, Seattle/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Courtesy of the Cantor Arts Center, Palo Alto.  

Responding to events of the time, Lawrence was also compelled to tell darker stories. But when he wanted to depict an explosive contemporary scene, he often channeled that strong emotion into a composition that situated the conflict in a broader historical context. Thus, in The Ordeal of Alice (1963), a little girl charged with integrating a white school, subjected to taunts and hurled objects, becomes the martyr Saint Sebastian, pierced with arrows and surrounded by ghouls and other monstrous figures. Dreams, No. 3: Toreador (1966) depicts three assailants with drawn swords, formally arranged, torturing a white dog. The bright colors do not mask the violence, the allegorical meaning of which can only be guessed at.

In drawing inspiration from iconic works of art history, Lawrence indicated that the stories he painted were part of the larger human context, not just specific to the African American experience. His conversation was with all of humanity, and he was an illustrator of the human journey, just as Giotto illustrated the life of Christ scene by scene in the Scrovegni Chapel in Padua circa 1305. The job of artists has always been to tell stories in pictures, and Lawrence’s gift is demonstrated again and again in this excellent exhibition.

Promised Land: Jacob Lawrence at the Cantor A Gift from the Kayden Family is on view at Cantor Arts Center at Stanford University, in Stanford, through August 3, 2015.

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