By Patricia Hills, author of Painting Harlem Modern: The Art of Jacob Lawrence
The beginnings of my serious study of Jacob Lawrence came in 1974, when I saw the exhibition of his work organized by the art historian Milton Brown for the Whitney Museum of American Art, where I was then a curator. I then took many slides, subsequently used in the classes I taught in both New York and Boston. In the early 1980s I organized an exhibition, Social Concern and Urban Realism, which included Jacob Lawrence. The exhibition, sponsored by District 1199, the Hospital Workers Union’s Bread and Roses project, was circulated across the country by the American Federation of Arts.
Of the 1930s artists I came to know when organizing that exhibition, Lawrence stood out as an artist whose art throughout the mid-century, continued to embody the democratic spirit of the 1930s. His subject matter and unique style exemplified the possibilities of an engaged art—an art that brings to the surface the underlying turmoil of the day, that does not shy from portraying the struggles for racial and economic equality, and that suggests possibilities for change. As he matured and his style became more nuanced, his engagement with history and the social scene did not abate—not during the 1940s, the decade of World War II and the beginnings of the Cold War; nor during the 1950s, the decade when the Civil Rights movement first gained momentum. And he continued to be faithful to his artistic idiom during the decade of the 1960s when the activist citizens of the country took to the streets to agitate over issues of racial and gender equality and the savagery of war. The unwavering consistency of his art making and the power of his political-humanist vision throughout those decades served as his moral compass.
The exhibition of silk-screen prints of the Toussaint L’Ouverture series, now on view at the DC Moore Gallery, remind us of the importance of poor people’s struggles for equality and citizenship; the Peabody-Essex Museum’s exhibition of Lawrence’s Struggle series, that will have a national tour in 2020-22, remind us that the US nation was created by diverse peoples and underscores the continuing relevance of his art.