Lawrence Exhibit Shows Black Strife

NEW YORK (AP) — A man clad in a black top hat and white gloves escorts a woman in a fur coat. The abstract figures are simple, but tell a complex story.

``The Negroes who had been North for quite some time met their fellowmen with disgust and aloofness,'' reads an accompanying text.

The 53rd of 60 casein tempera on hardboard panels and its corresponding words can be interpreted on their own. But the full series of ``The Migration of the Negro'' by Jacob Lawrence shares the compelling story of one of the most significant migrations in American history.

The series, part of the first major retrospective of Lawrence's work, went on display today at the Whitney Museum of American Art. The show, organized by The Phillips Collection in Washington, D.C., includes works on public view for the first time. It runs through Feb. 3.

``The migration series is probably the fulcrum of his work. It's so abstract, just very simple, unpretentious,'' said Barbara Haskell, curator of prewar American art at the Whitney. ``It's such a powerful statement about human struggle.''

Lawrence, whose style infuses cubism and expressionism, painted all 60 of the 18-inch-by-12-inch panels at the same time from 1940-41, laying colors one at a time on the different boards. Organized before his death last year at the age of 82, ``Over the Line: The Art and Life of Jacob Lawrence,'' includes more than 200 paintings created over more than 60 years.

The show is presented chronologically, beginning with ``Chow,'' a simple graphite on paper from 1936, and ending with ``Games-Pocket Pool,'' a gouache on paper from 1999.

The last image depicts four men playing pool, with the figure in the center — a hulking, muscular man with deep purple skin draped in mustard yellow — lifting the cue above his head. It retains the abstract images used in the early works, but portrays a very different feeling — that of a strong, free man who can now enjoy life and recreation.

``Lawrence once said he thought American art was not as passionate as the American people,'' said Beth Turner, senior curator of The Phillips Collection. ``He really insists on growing with his experience.''

Lawrence's widow, artist Gwendolyn Knight Lawrence, walked through the show, following the panels of the migration series along the walls. They are laid out to give the viewer a sense of turning the pages of a book.

``You go and go,'' she said. ``You're really reading a book. He couldn't tell a story in one painting; he needed 60.''

As the political and social issues in Lawrence's work evolved, so did the images.

``The Visitors,'' an egg tempera on hardboard from 1959, again retains the abstract qualities of simpler works, but manipulates color, light and perspective to create a layered image that leaps off the canvas.

Two windows offer a glimpse into the outside world of cramped apartment buildings, while a painting on the wall depicts a mountain desert scene. Two ornate doorways guide the viewer from the busy living room into a bedroom and a kitchen. Green walls throughout each room give the painting a sense of continuity which is disrupted by a purple, floral carpet in the main room. A vase on the coffee table holds masklike flowers, a recurring symbol in his work.

Lawrence was born in Atlantic City, N.J., where many Southern blacks found work on their passage north. His mother, a domestic worker, was from Virginia; his father, a cook, from South Carolina.

Once in Harlem, his mother enrolled him in an after-school arts and crafts program, and he would visit the Metropolitan Museum of Art, where he was drawn to the works of the early Renaissance masters.

During the Depression, Lawrence held menial jobs, went to art school, worked for the Works Project Administration Federal Arts Project, until finally, in 1940, he won a grant that allowed him to rent a studio big enough to undertake ``Migration.''

In the unheated loft at 33 West 125th Street, he and his wife laid out five dozen 18-inch-by-12-inch hardboard panels. Then, although he had never been to the cotton fields, tenant farms and railway stations of the South, Lawrence began to paint the great migration of his people.

Over the years, Lawrence's work has included a series on the abolitionist Harriet Tubman (included in the Whitney show), a work on the civil rights movement and a ``Builders'' series — colorful, lively images of strong construction workers with various tools.

Most works focus on nameless blacks, their faces nondescript in keeping with Lawrence's abstract style. But they represent a more universal struggle of human beings, Haskell said.

``The timelines of his work comes at a time when America is struggling against adversity,'' she said, referring to the aftermath of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. ``In a quiet, modest way, it's an extremely heroic celebration of human dignity.''

The unveiling of ``New York in Transit,'' a colorful 6-foot-by-36-foot glass mosaic mural designed by Lawrence coincides with the Whitney exhibit. The mural's debut at the Times Square subway station was not planned in conjunction with the show. It portrays passengers and vignettes of city life as seen from a subway car window.

After the Whitney, the show travels to The Detroit Institute of Fine Arts, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and The Museum of Fine Arts in Houston.

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