The Phillips Collection

Washington D.C.



Over the Line: The Art and Life of Jacob Lawrence


My belief is that it is most important for an artist to develop an approach and philosophy about life -- if he has developed this philosophy he does not put paint on canvas, he puts himself on canvas. - Jacob Lawrence to Josef Albers, 1946


A major retrospective of works by Jacob Armstead Lawrence will open at The Phillips Collection on May 27, 2001. Bringing together over 200 works spanning the breadth of his long career, the exhibition will be the most complete assessment ever of Lawrence's artistic development and creative process and includes works that have never been exhibited before. Organized by The Phillips Collection, Over the Line: The Art and Life of Jacob Lawrence will be on view there through August 19 before traveling to the Whitney Museum of American Art, The Detroit Institute of Fine Arts, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, and The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston.

The exhibition was planned on the occasion of the publication of The Complete Jacob Lawrence. This two-volume catalog raisonné is the definitive publication on the work of Jacob Lawrence and inspired the artist himself to invite The Phillips Collection, a leading institution on Lawrence scholarship, to organize this major retrospective. Through its exhaustive research, the project located a number of significant works in private collections, many of which will be exhibited for the first time in this retrospective. (left: Blind Beggars, 1938, tempera on illustration board, 20 x 25 inches, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Gift of New York City WPA, 1943)

"Even though Jacob Lawrence painted from personal experience and the experiences of those around him, his themes are universal," said Jay Gates, Director of The Phillips Collection. "His stories of struggle, discrimination, and the quest for freedom, justice, and human dignity transcend racial lines and reveal truths that resonate with us today."

"Guided by mentors in his Harlem community, Lawrence found his own voice and vision in painting," added Elizabeth Hutton Turner, Senior Curator at the Phillips and organizer of the exhibition. "By presenting a broad overview of his life's work, in combination with a close examination of his creative process, this exhibition will allow us to see for the first time how the radical means of his teachers enabled Lawrence to invent his own, ultimately modern, pictorial language."

Over the Line: The Art and Life of Jacob Lawrence will underscore Lawrence's special relationship to The Phillips Collection. His work has been represented in the holdings of The Phillips Collection since 1941 (then the Phillips Memorial Gallery), when Duncan Phillips purchased the 30 odd-numbered panels of Lawrence's 60-picture epic Migration Series for the museum. Following an exhibition of the work at Edith Halpert's Downtown Gallery in New York, the first time an African American artist was represented by a major commercial gallery, the series was split by Phillips and the Museum of Modern Art. Phillips was impressed by Lawrence's distinctive combination of abstraction and socially relevant subject matter, and saw the significance of incorporating Lawrence's vivid palette and patterns into his ever-expanding definition of American modernism.

Exhibition Overview

Despite the critical acclaim and popularity of his work, the evolution of Lawrence's career has yet to be fully examined or understood. Over the Line: The Art and Life of Jacob Lawrence will be the first exhibition to examine the complex nature of his radical invention and to present to a nationwide audience the dynamic evolution of his style, technique, and methods. The exhibition will be organized around themes, such as "Interiors and Exteriors," "Performance and Games," "Work and Workers," and "Struggle," to demonstrate the artist's stylistic development and experimentation within his treatment of the same theme over time. (left: Harriet Tubman Series, Panel No. 4, 1939-40, casein tempera on hardboard, 12 x 17 7/8 inches, Gift of the Harmon Foundation, , Hampton University Museum, Hampton, Virginia)

Through the generosity of over 80 lenders, including institutions, organizations, and over 40 individuals, many paintings that have rarely, if ever, been on view, are being made available for this exhibition. For example, his 1936 drawings executed while he was in the Civilian Conservation Corps and works completed in the last years of his life, including new treatments of the "Games" theme, are being exhibited for the first time in a major exhibition.

In addition, the exhibition will address questions regarding Lawrence's creative process by presenting the results of a recent conservation study of his materials and techniques. Extended wall labels and case materials will consider Lawrence's exclusive use of water-based paints and primary use of underdrawings as critical components of his working process. (left: Dominoes, 1958, egg tempera on hardboard, 24 1/2 x 19 3/4 inches, Private Collection)

About Jacob Lawrence

For over 60 years, Jacob Lawrence addressed, in stark images and bold colors, many of the social and philosophical concerns of the 20th century, especially as they pertain to the lives and histories of African Americans, including migration, manual labor, war, family values, and education.

Lawrence was born in Atlantic City, New Jersey in 1917. Moving from there to Easton, Pennsylvania, and finally to Harlem in 1930, his family was part of the Great Migration of African Americans who relocated to the North from the South. Raised among the "New Negroes'- the emerging African American writers, artists, and poets, who were a manifestation of the Harlem Renaissance -- Lawrence was one of the first artists trained in and by the African American community in Harlem. At Utopia Children's House, a community daycare center where his mother sent him after school while she worked, Lawrence received his earliest art instruction from Charles Henry Alston, then a graduate student at Columbia University Teachers College. Alston, using theories from Arthur Wesley Dow's textbook Composition, taught Lawrence how to take charge of the picture plane -- to invent his own pictorial language based on personal decisions about composition and how to use space. Lawrence continued to study with Alston throughout the 1930's at the WPA Harlem Art Workshop and at Alston's studio at 306 West 141st Street. During this time he encountered notable artists, writers, and activists, such as Alain Locke, Addison Bates, Langston Hughes, Ralph Ellison, William Aaron Douglas, Orson Wells, and Augusta Savage, who had a profound affect on his development as an artist. (left: The Migration of the Negro, Panel No. 1, 1940-41, casein tempera on hardboard, The Phillips Collection, Washington, DC, Acquired, 1942)

The people, sounds, movement, and color of the Harlem community were an unlimited source of inspiration for Lawrence. He referred to his mother's efforts to create a beautiful home for her family despite the financial stress of the depression: "Our homes were very decorative, full of pattern, like inexpensive throw rugs, all around the house. It must have had some influence, all this color and everything.... I used to do bright patterns after these throw rugs; I got ideas from them, the arabesques, the movement and so on." Influenced by the geometric shapes that surrounded him, Lawrence used bold colors and repeating patterns to illustrate stories about African American people and their lives.

Early recognition of Lawrence came in February of 1938, with a solo exhibition of his work at the 135th Street YMCA. Inspired by the expressive power of abstraction while also sensitive to the struggle and hardships of the people in his community, Lawrence began to define a new brand of modernism, distilling subject matter based on the experience of life around him into bold colors and elemental shapes. Lawrence also painted what he learned from Harlem storytellers, and by the age of 21 had chronicled the lives of Toussaint L'Ouverture, Frederick Douglass, and Harriett Tubman.

Three years later, Lawrence burst onto the national scene with The Migration of the Negro. This powerful narrative of the Black migration unfurls over multiple panels to betray the struggle, strength, and perseverance of African Americans in search of a better life in the North. Although its exhibition at the Downtown Gallery enabled him to cross racial barriers, it would also mark the beginning for Lawrence of a
constant identity struggle, as he reconciled his experiences as an African American with his widespread acceptance by the predominantly white art community.
(left: Ironers, 1943, gouache on paper, 21 3/8 x 29 1/2 inches, Private Collection)

By the 1950's, the pervasiveness of New York abstraction, civil rights era agitation, temporary confinement in a psychiatric hospital, and his continuing artistic development combined to take Lawrence's figurative and narrative style to a greater psychological depth. A more complex layering of patterns and heightened use of shadow and light reveal a stylistic departure from his earlier work, introducing issues of identity through the use of mask as metaphor. The 1952 publication of Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man reminded contemporary audiences of how inherent the notions of visibility and invisibility were for many African Americans in the 1950's. Like Ellison, Lawrence was struggling with this question and examined it in a series of semi-abstract works depicting African American entertainers. In the well-known painting Vaudeville (1951), two African American comedians, frowning and set against an abstract backdrop of colorful, intricate patterning, face off against one another in an unsettling image that turns this world of slapstick humor into an examination of how the public perceived these African American entertainers. (left: Vaudeville, 1951, egg tempera on hardboard with pencil, 29 7/8 x 19 15/16 inches, Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Smithsonian Institution, Gift of Joseph H. Hirshhorn, 1966)

When the early 1960's saw civil rights agitation reach its height, Lawrence continued as before to respond in his art to the experiences of contemporary African Americans. For Lawrence, the theme of social protest was inescapable. News photographs and images of segregated lunchroom sit-ins and the journeys of the Freedom Riders triggered paintings like Praying Ministers (1962), which depicts African American and white ministers and rabbis bending their heads in prayer while students protest around them, and the dramatic scenes of conflict in Two Rebels (1963) and American Revolution (1962). (left: Praying Ministers, 1962, egg temperaon hardboard, 23 x 38 inches, Spelman College Collection, Atlanta, GA)

Although his work became less explicitly grounded in contemporary events, from the 1970's on Lawrence never swayed from his commitment to the African American experience. As he continued to experiment with composition and space, Lawrence bridged the gap between form and content to create a pictorial language that is truly modern. He continued his radical experimentation with abstraction and representation until his death, at the age of 82, on June 4, 2000. Today, the work of Jacob Lawrence can be found in almost 200 museum collections, including The Phillips Collection, the Art Institute of Chicago, the National Gallery of Art, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and has been the subject of three retrospective exhibitions. (left: Munich Olympic Games, 1971, tempera and gouache on paper, 39 7/8 x 28 15/16 inches, Seattle Art Museum, Purchased with funds from P.O.N.C.H.O)

Over the Line

Like Harriet Tubman, whom he portrayed crossing the American--Canadian border in his painting Over the Line (1967), Lawrence himself was able to cross borders time and again. He built pathways as he traversed between his commitment to telling the African American story and presenting it in the highly segregated art world, which fervently received it. Referring also in a concrete sense to Lawrence's technique, in which he first created an underdrawing and covered up the lines as he painted, the title, Over the Line, acknowledges this artistic and social climate and Lawrence's efforts to transcend racial barriers and find common ground among all Americans despite their differences.

Exhibition Catalogue

Republished with added exhibition-specific material, the critical monograph, Over the Line: The Art and Life of Jacob Lawrence, from The Complete Jacob Lawrence, will serve as the exhibition catalogue. A curator's statement, letter from director, lender's list, and an illustrated checklist will add to essays by eight leading scholars to explore the full range of Lawrence's development in light of critical issues occurring within artistic, social, and political contexts. Published by The Phillips Collection in association with the Jacob Lawrence Catalog Raisonné Project and the University of Washington Press, this full-color publication will be available at the Phillips Museum Shop.

From the Director

For more than 65 years, Jacob Lawrence (1917-2000) was both an impassioned observer and storyteller whose gaze was firmly fixed upon the complexities of our American tumult from the Civil War period of the 1860s to the civil rights movement of the 1960s -- to the end of the twentieth century. Lawrence's paintings made the realities of race and racial differences visible in the process of Americanization. Seized by the strength and beauty of his compositions, generations of viewers have embraced the triumphs and tragedies of America's struggle for freedom and justice. Yet while much attention has been given to Lawrence's changing subject matter, prior to the publication of the Jacob Lawrence Catalogue Raisonné and the opening of this retrospective, little time has been devoted to the evolution of his form. Ironically Jacob Lawrence did not see himself as a history painter or even a realist. In seeing and selecting this line or that color, in balancing this form with that pose or gesture, Lawrence, through his discipline of paint, espoused a philosophy, or rather constructed an approach to life. If, as he once said, painting was more like self-portraiture, then Lawrence's reflections upon American culture also bear closer examination for the ongoing narrative of his own creative struggle.
The Phillips Collection is extremely honored to present the exhibition, Over the Line: The Art and Life of Jacob Lawrence, organized on the occasion of the Jacob Lawrence Catalogue Raisonné publication released in the fall of 2000.
Countless individuals and institutions contributed to the successful realization of this exhibition whom we wish to acknowledge for their generosity and good will.
We are profoundly thankful to the late Jacob Lawrence for his enthusiasm and vital support of this exhibition. We also are extremely grateful for the warmth and good counsel provided by Gwendolyn Knight Lawrence throughout this entire project. For her keen artistic sensibility and first-hand insights into Jacob Lawrence's art and life, we owe a special gratitude.
This exhibition would not have been possible without the support and commitment of our funders. The Phillips Collection is immensely grateful to Exxon Mobil Corporation, whose strong financial support made the national tour of this exhibition possible. We are also deeply grateful to AT&T for their important additional support. Special thanks are also due to the National Endowment for the Arts for their grant in support of the exhibition.
Jay Gates,

From the Curator

Lawrence's art and life were lived and experienced, as the authors of the Catalogue Raisonné have described, "Over the Line." Trained in the art workshops of the Harlem community in the 1930s, Lawrence was the first voice of the black experience to speak to a mainstream audience. At the age of 23, with the exhibition and joint purchase by The Museum of Modern Art and The Phillips Collection of his narrative entitled The Migration of the Negro, Jacob Lawrence became the first modern African American painter to break into the highly segregated art world and receive ongoing support from major institutions. To be sure these "firsts" launched Lawrence's career. It was nevertheless a lonely journey into the largely segregated art world of New York at mid-century. As the sole African American within Edith Halpert's Downtown Gallery, and the sole African American teaching with Josef Albers at Black Mountain College, Lawrence, with his flat astringent color patterns of tempera, operated within overlapping imaginative worlds. But how? What happened to the artistic imagination of this black painter who was always conscious of representing his race? How did he choose to portray himself within the world of modern art that declared itself universal or race free?
When asked about what ignited and informed his imagination, Lawrence consistently spoke about three things: the magic of the picture plane, the architecture of experience, and the beauty of struggle. From the moment he first marveled at the sweat on a grape in a still life at the Metropolitan Museum, young Lawrence remained convinced that painting had magic. Lawrence's mastery of this magic came not by copying the little Dutch masters, but by developing his own command of the rhythms and geometries of composition. Within the compositional arena, the young artist donned new raiments of self. He became the architect of his own observations, as well as a designer of experiences for others. Art and experience came together for Lawrence as he connected vision and symbol with a language of form extracted from his surroundings. A child of the workshops, taught to see pattern and given only poster paint, Lawrence ascribed meaning and value to his continued use of only three tempera colors. He believed fewer colors could make a stronger work. Changing one color, shifting one shape can produce the needed movement. Limitations of circumstance bring experience, he has said.
Too young for the mural projects of the Federal Art Project, Lawrence told his story in the alternating rhythms of hard board panels, mining every aspect, every edge and angle of the continuum for its physical, social, historical and economic significance. The series format also provided the consistency necessary for Lawrence's virtually ceaseless exploration of perceptual fact and improvisations with form. From Harlem to West Africa to his last studio among the high-rises of Seattle, Lawrence's art evolves from the deliberately race conscious epics to the semi-narrative and part fantastic vision of his players, performers and builders. No subject -- not the Garveyite or the iceman, not the storefront church, the brothel or the poolhall, not Harlem, not Nigeria, not racism, not poverty, not war, not interracial marriage, not even the mental hospital or the plights of aging -- no aspect was too small or too large, or too overwhelming to escape his observation. Struggle brings a new dimension of meaning to human life, Lawrence has said. Much the same could be said of his paintings where opposition and tension inform the beauty of every pattern.
Rarely do form and content conspire to create such a narrative genius. We marvel at his surprising presence in the history of art. As Giotto was to the Renaissance, as Exekias was to the glory of Greece, so Lawrence shines with the dearest portrayal of our culture for the ages.
Elizabeth Hutton Turner
Senior Curator, The Phillips Collection

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For further biographical information on selected artists cited above please see America's Distinguished Artists, a national registry of historic artists.

This page was originally published in Resource Library Magazine. Please see Resource Library's Overview section for more information. rev. 5/23/11

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