'Social expressionist' celebrated Harlem's working class

Dubbed both "primitive" and "modern," the work of African-American artist Jacob Lawrence (1917-2000) embodied traits of both camps. His paintings display the vigor, directness, anecdotal quality, and invention of African tribal art. His work also projects the originality and utter self-determination of modernism.

Like so many supposedly binary styles, maybe these polarities are not mutually exclusive after all. Lawrence was a blend of homespun and avant-garde, of roots and revolution. He was uniquely himself. Being Jacob Lawrence was no small thing, as this stunning retrospective, including more than 200 works from seven decades, demonstrates. "Over the Line: The Art and Life of Jacob Lawrence" at the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, until Feb. 3, shows Harlem as a microcosm of the world. Lawrence celebrated the dense details of the area above 125th Street in Manhattan and the polyphonic atmosphere of a modern city. His view was both microscopic and telescopic.

If "it takes a village" to rear a child, Lawrence was lucky he came to Harlem in 1930 at age 13. He was the first black artist to be completely trained in Harlem - first in an after-school daycare center, then at a Works Progress Administration arts workshop. His pictures sing the percussive beat of the streets, energized by jazz, spirituals, and swing music, inspired by sights of daily life.

From the earliest paintings shown, done during the Depression when he was 19, to the last at the end of the century, Lawrence captured the lives of the working class. What makes the work transcend local color is Lawrence's innovative visual technique, as well as his universal theme of struggle for social justice.

At a time when art split into Social Realism (Thomas Hart Benton, Grant Wood) and Abstract Expressionism (Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning), Lawrence forged his own path. He called his work "reality rather than realism." We can call his style Social Expressionism.

He insisted on social content. For him, art was too powerful a mode of communication to focus on aesthetics. He used the visual devices of abstraction - geometric structure, elemental shapes, and dynamic patterning - to animate his paintings, ensuring they rose above mere narrative and never descended into facile emotion.

"Self-Portrait" (1977) shows how he transformed the flat poster paint he habitually used into a coherent composition that almost bursts off the surface. Lawrence painted with his head cocked, holding a paintbrush on a diagonal. The angles of the image are all akilter. Shapes and lines seem to be tumbling, but tumbling together.

Early on, Lawrence established his mission of presenting unvarnished fact. "Subway" (1938) shows three weary commuters slumped in a car, with straps hanging above their heads like nooses - recalling the ever-present danger of lynching. "Dixie Café" (1948) deals with segregation, with one side of a restaurant marked "colored," the other "white." Expressionist devices, like jagged lines and stark, distorted figures, underscore the fractured nature of Jim Crow society.

Lawrence's 1941 series, "Migration," includes 60 panels with captions depicting the diaspora that transported more than one million blacks from the South to the North from 1916-30. Strolling through the gallery is like a tour of African-American history. Lawrence portrays the hopes that spurred so many to abandon discrimination and poverty for the Promised Land.

In panel 23 (captioned "And the migration spread"), herds of blacks pack into trains bound for jobs in the industrial North. A bowl of fruit suggests the abundance they sought. What they found was no utopia. No. 53 ("The Negroes who had been North for quite some time met their fellowmen with disgust and aloofness") shows two huffy, well-dressed blacks. An ochre wall implies solid obstacles newcomers faced, with only a glimpse of blue sky beyond, offering hope.

Lawrence remained optimistic through the civil-rights battles of the '60s and spent his final decades on a metaphoric series called "Builders." In these pictures, blacks and whites, men and women, work side by side. The interlocking composition and rhythmic repetition of shapes and colors reinforce the message of equality and unity. Lawrence saw himself as a builder: of meaning, change, and a more perfect society.

In a eulogy, the writer Toni Morrison said, "Jacob Lawrence seized beauty, whether it lay in an environment of heartbreak, survival, or triumph.... No romance leaps from his canvases to seduce us. No easy sentiment drips from his brush.... And thousands of us remain lit in his burning glare."

'Over the Line: The Art and Life of Jacob Lawrence' will travel to The Detroit Institute of Fine Arts, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, and The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston.

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