SAVANNAH, GA. — Sixty-five years ago, Jacob Lawrence (1917-2000) made a painting about a Harlem card game, depicting four nattily dressed card players in the midst of a hand. Left to the devices of a lesser artist, an image of black people engaged in a game of cards could easily be dismissed as hackneyed at best. Executed by Lawrence, for whom the ordinary African American experience was a sacred subject, it’s masterful.
Blocks of blue, red, and green dominate the image of two men and two women, which is notable for its composition and subtle, yet defining details. Both women wear radiant earrings that sparkle with the artist’s emphasis. In the foreground, Lawrence lets the wide neckline of one woman’s dress fall to one side, exposing her shoulder just so. Billows of white drapes arranged with architectural folds frame the scene, creating an intimate interior space. It’s a beautiful painting.
Lawrence’s “The Card Game” is on view at the SCAD Museum of Art. It’s at the center of a special exhibition celebrating the centennial of the artist’s birth. “Jacob Lawrence: Lines of Influence” opened Sept. 7, 100 years to the day after the acclaimed artist was born.
“Lines of Influence” features rarely seen works by Lawrence and explores his connections with other artists. The show is divided into two parts: Relations and Legacy. In the first section, paintings by Lawrence are presented in context with related ephemera and works by his mentors and peers, 20th century figures including Richmond Barthe, Aaron Douglas, Diego Rivera, Horace Pippin, Romare Bearden, and Marsden Hartley, among others.
The final galleries feature works by contemporary artists inspired by Lawrence’s legacy. Works by Nina Chanel Abney, Sanford Biggers, Njideka Akunyili Crosby, Kerry James Marshall, Faith Ringgold, and Kara Walker, are on view alongside new commissions made specifically for the exhibition. It’s a fitting tribute to Lawrence, a storyteller who documented both transformational moments in U.S. history and everyday aspects of the African American experience with a modern, disciplined approach to color and line, techniques that remain fresh today.
The exhibition is a fitting tribute to Jacob Lawrence, a storyteller who documented both transformational moments in U.S. history and everyday aspects of the African American experience with a modern, disciplined approach to color and line, techniques that remain fresh today.
Artists invited to make commissioned works for “Jacob Lawrence: Lines of Influence,” from left, Derrick Adams, Meleko Mokgosi, Barbara Earl Thomas, and Aaron Fowler (Hank Willis Thomas, not shown), standing before “Letter from Home (Letter from Africa)” by Mokgosi at “Jacob Lawrence: Lines of Influence” exhibition, SCAD Museum of Art, Savannah, Ga. | Photo by Victoria L. Valentine
IN OCTOBER, THE MUSEUM HOSTED a two-day symposium to expand upon the exhibition and further explore Lawrence’s legacy. SCAD Museum of Art Head Curator Storm van Rensburg opened the program and Walter O. Evans, the collector, SCAD benefactor, and president of the Jacob and Gwendolyn Knight Lawrence Foundation, offered brief remarks. New scholarship was presented and panels featured the artists who contributed commissioned works to the exhibition—Derrick Adams, Aaron Fowler, Meleko Mokgosi, Barbara Earl Thomas, and Hank Willis Thomas. Van Rensburg also hosted a tour of the exhibition with Evans, and a few of the commissioned artists were on hand to talk about their works.
Evans, a retired surgeon who donated his extensive collection of African American art to SCAD, purchased “The Card Game” from a gallery in New York. He told the group gathered for the tour, most of them students, that it was the second work he acquired by Lawrence. (The first was a silkscreen from his John Brown series.) The 1953 painting was on consignment and he was immediately drawn to it. “Went in there. Saw it and came home with it,” Evans said.
The collector didn’t know the artist at the time, but explained how he soon came to form a relationship with Lawrence. “I found out that he was listed in the Seattle phone directory. I got the address from there. I don’t think you can do that today. But anyway, I wrote him a letter and I made up this little tale that I wanted to interview him for a museum and that was partially correct,” Evans said. “He wrote me back and I still have the letter at my house now. He said come on out. So I packed up my twin daughters, who were about 8 or 9 years old. Went out and met him and we became fast friends.”
Evans added that he probably assembled the largest collection of Lawrence’s works over the years—more than 35 original works and hundreds of prints. So many, he is unsure of the number.
Installation view of “Jacob Lawrence: Lines of Influence,” SCAD Museum of Art, Savannah, Ga. | Courtesy SCAD Museum, Photography by Dylan Wilson
THROUGHOUT THE EXHIBITION, similarly compelling backstories underly the many works on view. After the group tour, I walked the exhibition with van Rensburg and he explained how the show came together, pointed out significant works, and noted particular artists and their connections with Lawrence.
Dominating an entire wall, a majestic image of Lawrence and his wife Gwendolyn Knight Lawrence provides a dramatic opening to the exhibition. The prominent placement of the 1947 photograph of the couple by Irving Penn emphasizes the influence Gwen had on Lawrence’s practice and career. An artist in her own right, she was a source of invaluable feedback and helped Lawrence write the narrative captions that accompanied The Migration Series. They were married in 1941 after the seminal body of work was completed.
“They had a very close relationship and they would critique each other’s work. …I think she critiqued his a little more. …She was very much a part of his work,” Evans said.
“[Jacob and Gwendolyn Knight Lawrence] had a very close relationship and they would critique each other’s work. …I think she critiqued his a little more. …She was very much a part of his work.” — Walter O. Evans
SCAD Museum of Art Head Curator Storm van Rensburg said he reached out to the Ulrich Museum of Art about a loan and the curator brought up another work, saying you know we have this portrait of Jacob and Gwendolyn Knight in our collection. “I hadn’t seen any images of it. I didn’t know much about its history. When it was acquired. How it came into the collection. Dr. Evans didn’t know about it. Barbara [Earl Thomas]. No one knows about it,” van Rensburg said. Shown, Detail of MOSES SOYER, “Gwen and Jacob Lawrence,” 1962 (oil on canvas). | Collection of the Ulrich Museum of Art, Wichita State University, Photo by Victoria L. Valentine
BORN IN ATLANTIC CITY, Lawrence grew up in Harlem where his artistic talent was encouraged by local artists, now regarded as pivotal figures in the African American art. Charles Alston and Augusta Savage were his instructors and mentors. Lawrence first encountered Alston when he was 13 in an after-school arts and crafts program and he continued to study with him through high school when the elder artist was teaching art in a WPA workshop.
“He’s left to explore his own style by Charles Alston. Charles Alston said he doesn’t want to interfere with this kind of particular voice …while he resolves his style and way of working,” van Rensburg said.
A pioneering sculptor, Savage established the Savage Studio of Arts and Crafts in the early 1930s and was appointed founding director of the Harlem Community Art Center in 1937. At the behest of Alston, Lawrence visited the center, where Savage took an interest in him. She was also a guiding force for Gwen, Romare Bearden, Norman Lewis, Robert Blackburn, and other young artists.
Works by Alston and Savage are included in the exhibition. A rarely seen bronze bust titled “Gwendolyn Knight” by Savage is installed next to “The Card Game.” Part of the collection gifted to the museum by Evans, the sculpture is a 2001 cast of the 1934-35 original.
Installation view of “Jacob Lawrence: Lines of Influence,” SCAD Museum of Art, Savannah, Ga. | Courtesy SCAD Museum of Art, Photography by Dylan Wilson
ON THE SECOND DAY of the symposium, Julie Levin-Caro, a professor at Warren Wilson College, gave a lecture about the summer Lawrence spent at Black Mountain College in 1946. Josef Albers invited him to teach painting. An artist and educator, German-born Albers brought modern European methods of art education to the United States, particularly those associated with the Bauhaus movement. It was five years after Lawrence completed The Migration Series. He was 28-years-old and it was his first-ever teaching experience.
“I’ve always thought of that. . . why did he invite me? Because I’m a figurative painter, but I think it was because, well I’d like to think it was because, he felt I had something to offer,” said Lawrence in a 1999 interview with the Black Mountain Studies Journal. “But I think it had something to do with my hard edge painting. And very, very limited palette, …using, um, primary colors, plus black and white, so I think that was his interest.”
He and Gwen traveled from New York to Ashville, N.C., where the school was located in the segregated South. Given this, they never left the campus the entire summer.
Lawrence said his time at Black Mountain College had a quite an impact on his teaching, but did not influence his practice. Asked by the journal whether the summer affected his work, he said it did not. “I don’t think so, no. I don’t think so, I think it would have been more or less the same,” Lawrence said. “Hoping that it would have more scope of course, greater dimension, but my work hasn’t changed over a period of years.”
Paintings by Albers featured in the exhibition uphold his tenets about the basics of line, shape, and color. The same basic approach, with very different outcomes, was present in Lawrence’s work early on.
Van Rensburg points to the evidence in “Homecoming,” a painting made when Lawrence was only 19, honing his craft in Harlem. The 1936 painting depicts the interior hall and stairway of a city apartment building. A mother is returning home and her children eagerly approach to greet her.
Paintings by Josef Albers featured in the exhibition uphold his tenets about the basics of line, shape, and color. The same basic approach, with very different outcomes, was present in Jacob Lawrence’s work early on. Curator Storm van Rensburg points to the evidence in “Homecoming,” a painting made when Lawrence was only 19.
From left, Detail of JACOB LAWRENCE, “The Homecoming,” 1936 (Tempera on brown paper). | Collection of Joyce B. Cowin, Photo by Victoria L. Valentine; AUGUSTA SAVAGE, “Gwendolyn Knight,” 1934-35 (Bronze copy of plaster original, cast 2001, 18 1/2 x 8 1/2 x 9 inches). | Walter O. Evans Collection of African American Art, Courtesy SCAD Museum of Art
“He’s already clear about it. He’s used five colors. He’s stopped where there’s no need to make a line that doesn’t drive the narrative,” van Rensburg said. “…Everything runs to this figure. The homecoming. Already the scene is set. The title is strong. She’s coming home. They live upstairs and must have heard the door opening. Her coming in. This is the second floor (indicated by the numbers on the apartment doors), so she’s already walked upstairs. They are coming down and he’s coming to help her carry. They are lonely. There is no money for somebody to look after them.”
The curator also points out that Lawrence has created a very strong composition in the way that he paints the tiles. They do not continue all the way across the floor because the lines would intersect with the stair railings. So he stops, once he has established the pattern. Lawrence has also left the door to apartment No. 26 open, giving the building an indication and sense of community. “The door is open. Nobody is waiting there. It’s just open and I love that,” van Rensburg said.
Elsewhere in the gallery, works representing the arc of Lawrence’s career and the spectrum of his oeuvre are on view. Works such as “Brownstones” and “Builders No. 1” capture Harlem. “Street to Mbari,” a 1964 painting of a bustling market scene, documents time Lawrence and Gwen spent in Nigeria, eight months during which he painted and held informal workshops.
There are portraits of political figures on loan from the National Portrait Gallery. Lawrence’s 1966 ink, gouache, and charcoal on paper portrait of Black Panther leader Stokely Carmichael hangs alongside the original painted portrait of Jesse Jackson commissioned by Time magazine. The portrait graced the cover of the April 6, 1970, issue titled “Black America 1970.” Both images demonstrate Lawrence’s economic use of color and line. Glass cases of related materials display historic exhibition brochures, books and magazines featuring Lawrence’s work, and album covers the artist illustrated for Jelly Roll Morton.
DERRICK ADAMS, “Jacob’s Table” series, 2017 (acrylic, cardboard and fabric on wood panels, 51 x 84 inches each). | Commissioned by SCAD Museum of Art, Courtesy of the artist
DURING THE GROUP TOUR, Derrick Adams said Lawrence has had a major influence on his work since the beginning of his career. For the exhibition, the multidisciplinary artist created a quartet of four paintings that literally reference tables that appear in four of Lawrence’s works—”The Life of Frederick Douglass, No. 22″; “The Card Players”; “Two Builders Playing Chess”; and “You Can Buy Bootleg Whiskey for Twenty-Five Cents a Quart.” Adams said the tables set the stage for what is happening in the paintings. They are central to the composition and activate the scene for the viewer.
“I appreciate the formal structure [of the paintings] because the relationship to the narrative is so familiar to me that it doesn’t have to be the major part of my interaction with the work. I understand the narrative, so I can move past the narrative and look directly into the formal and really appreciate that and also be influenced by that. So when I was invited to do the show, I thought about these tables that appear in several of the paintings,” said Adams, who was born in Baltimore, and lives and works in Brooklyn.
“The Card Game” is one of his favorite paintings. “The thing I like about that particular painting is that it really suggests a level of normalcy in the community that I’m used to,” Adams said. “I just love the little nuances of that painting. The woman with the dress off the shoulder is really a very interesting part. It’s kind of like an entry point into the painting. The sparkly earrings and then the table itself is kind of a dramatic stage for the piece. I wanted to talk about that in my work for the show.”
“I understand the narrative, so I can move past the narrative and look directly into the formal and really appreciate that and also be influenced by that. So when I was invited to do the show, I thought about these tables that appear in several of [Jacob Lawrence’s] paintings.” — Derrick Adams
From left, Detail JACK WHITTEN, “Black Monolith IV for Jacob Lawrence,” 2001 (acrylic on canvas). | Mott -Warsh Collection, Flint, Michigan, Photo by Victoria L. Valentine; JACOB LAWRENCE, “Wounded Man,” 1968 (gouache on paper, 29.5 x 22 inches). | Collection of Dr. Walter O. and Linda J. Evans, © 2017 The Jacob and Gwendolyn Lawrence Foundation, Seattle/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York
FROM THE OUTSET, examining Lawrence’s influence on contemporary artists was a critical aspect of the centennial tribute. When van Rensburg was organizing the show, he had a number of specific works in mind. He said it was essential to include “Monolith IV for Jacob Lawrence” by Jack Whitten, who died earlier this month. The mosaic-tile painting is part of Whitten’s series of Black Monolith works paying tribute to African American visionaries—intellectuals, jazz musicians, and visual artists.
“Monolith IV for Jacob Lawrence” is installed in the same gallery as commissioned works by Hank Willis Thomas, Meleko Mokgosi and Aaron Fowler. “That piece had to be in,” van Rensburg said. “I didn’t see it necessary for Jack to make a new work because he’s already made the work that I want in the show.”
When the work was on view in “Jack Whitten: Five Decades of Painting” at the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego, the artist shared the immense regard he had for Lawrence.
“Jacob Lawrence was truly a black monolith. What he did. The stature of him. I’ll never forget his saying I’m going to tell these people’s story. Nobody’s telling their story. I’m going to do it,” Whitten said. That’s what his paintings are about. He’s one of our great narrative painters in the history of painting.” CT
“Jacob Lawrence: Lines of Influence” is on view at the SCAD Museum of Art through Feb. 4, 2018
TOP IMAGE: JACOB LAWRENCE, “The Card Game,” 1953 (Tempera on board, 19 x 23 ½ inches). | SCAD Museum of Art Permanent Collection, Gift of Dr. Walter O. and Mrs. Linda J. Evans. © 2017 The Jacob and Gwendolyn Lawrence Foundation, Seattle/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York
A catalog documenting the exhibition “Jacob Lawrence: Lines of Influence” is expected this year. “Jacob Lawrence: The Migration Series” was published to coincide the “One-Way Ticket: Jacob Lawrence’s Migration Series,” the Museum of Modern Art exhibition inspired by Lawrence’s seminal series. Also consider, “Jacob Lawrence: Moving Forward: Paintings, 1936-1999” and “Over the Line: The Art and Life of Jacob Lawrence.” The complete Jacob Lawrence catalog raisonne was published in 2000. “Jake Makes a World: Jacob Lawrence, A Young Artist in Harlem,” is a great introduction to Lawrence for children.
Installation view of “Jacob Lawrence: Lines of Influence,” SCAD Museum of Art, Savannah, Ga. From left, JACK WHITTEN, “Black Monolith IV for Jacob Lawrence,” 2001; HANK WILLIS THOMAS, “Rich Black Specimen #460,” 2017; SANFORD BIGGERS, “Quilt #25 (Yemanja),” 2013 | Courtesy SCAD Museum of Art, Photo by Dylan Wilson
Installation view of works by Josef Albers, “Jacob Lawrence: Lines of Influence,” SCAD Museum of Art. Savannah, Ga. | Courtesy SCAD Museum of Art, Photo by Dylan Wilson
Installation view “Jacob Lawrence: Lines of Influence,” SCAD Museum of Art, Savannah, Ga. | Courtesy SCAD Museum of Art, Photo by Dylan Wilson
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