Thursday, September 07, 2017

Happy 100th Birthday Jacob Lawrence!

by Gregg Chadwick

100 years ago today, the seminal artist Jacob Lawrence was born in Atlantic City, New Jersey. When Lawrence was in his teens his family moved to Harlem in New York City, where he studied art with Charles Alston at the Harlem Art Workshop.

When Lawrence graduated from the American Artists School in New York he became a participant in the WPA Federal Art Project.  The young artist broke new ground in 1941 with The Migration Series which garnered national attention.

I find the video below from the Phillips Collection in which Lawrence discusses The Migration Series fascinating:

During World War II, while in the United States Coast Guard, first as a public relations specialist on the USS Sea Cloud, and then as a combat artist on the USS Gen. Richardson, Lawrence created a series of artworks documenting his vantage point on the war.

Jacob Lawrence
No. 2 Control Panel, Nerve Center of Ship,
gouache and watercolor on board
Collection USCG Museum
Shipmates and Jacob Lawrence with one of the paintings
he made while serving in the US Coast Guard during WWII.

After the war Lawrence was invited by Josef Albers to teach painting at Black Mountain College. Lawrence's exposure to Albers’ Bauhaus-inspired theories and teaching methods greatly influenced his artistic explorations.  Lawrence wrote, “When you teach, it stimulates you; you’re forced to crystallize your own thinking … you’re forced to formalize your own theories so that you may communicate them to the students … you go back to your studio and think about this again.”

Faculty of the 1946 Black Mountain College Summer Art Institute,
including Jacob Lawrence and his wife Gwendolyn Knight Lawrence

Black Mountain College Museum + Arts Center collection

In 1949, Lawrence  and his wife Gwendolyn returned to New York where Lawrence continued to paint. Lawrence, aware of his depression, checked himself into Hillside Hospital in Queens, where he stayed for 11 months and painted as an inpatient.

Jacob Lawrence
Tempera and Watercolor on Paper  1950
22 3/4"x31"

Whitney Museum

 After many years in New York, in 1970 Lawrence and Knight moved to Seattle when he was invited to teach at the University of Washington. Lawrence was an art professor at UW until his retirement in 1986.  He continued painting until just a few weeks before his death in June 2000 at the age of eighty-two. Lawrence's last commissioned public work, the mosaic mural New York in Transit, was installed in October 2001 in the Times Square subway station in New York City.

 Lawrence's powerful artworks grace numerous collections including the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Museum of Modern Art, the Whitney Museum, and the Brooklyn Museum. The vibrant paintings of Jacob Lawrence tell stories of liberation, resistance, and resilience.

Why the Works of Visionary Artist Jacob Lawrence Still Resonate a Century After His Birth

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