Promised Land: The Art of Jacob Lawrence (a reprint of my review of a show at Stanford, 2016)
Thanks to the generosity of the late Dr. Herbert J. Kayden of New York City and his daughter Joelle Kayden, Stanford MBA ’81, of Washington, D.C., the Cantor Arts Center at Stanford University now holds one of the largest collections in any museum of the work of Jacob Lawrence (1917–2000). Lawrence is among the most important artists of the 20th century and was a leading voice in the artistic portrayal of the African American experience.
The gift is comprised of five paintings, 11 drawings, 39 prints and one illustrated book, all dating between 1943 and 1998 and all given in memory of Dr. Gabrielle H. Reem, who is Herbert Kayden’s wife and Joelle Kayden’s mother.
Promised Land charts the evolution of Lawrence’s distinctive and dynamic visual style over six decades. Lawrence’s work offers a sweeping panorama of the black experience in America that includes images of the struggle against slavery, the rise of Harlem as a center of black culture, the contributions African American builders made to the transformation of America’s cities in the first half of the 20th century and meditations on the artist’s creative journey.
Lawrence referred to his work as “dynamic cubism,” with its bold colors and shapes although others have pegged him as a social realist. Some of his works reflect influences as diverse as ancient Egypt and the Italian Renaissance. But neither is adequate to describe the power of his visual storytelling.
He was strongly impacted by artist and childhood mentors Charles Alston, artist Josef Albers of the Bauhaus and the artists of the Mexican muralist movement. His narrative paintings often reflect his personal experience or depict key moments in African American history, including the accomplishments of people such as Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman and the achievements of the American civil rights movement.
One of the most powerful and frightening pieces in the show is the “Ordeal of Alice,” (1963), in which a young black girl is threatened by nightmare images coming at her from all sides. She is pierced with arrows like a contemporary St. Sebastian; she is pierced with arrows, an innocent sacrifice to racial hatred and bigotry.
The Cantor has brought together for the first time the complete series of “The Legend of John Brown.” Twenty-two silkscreen panels illuminate the legend of the white abolitionist, a fanatic who believed that he was chosen by God to end slavery. While Brown’s rebellion didn’t in itself end slavery in the United States, it was one of the catalysts that did – the power of this act told in austere, somber panels.
Born in Atlantic City in 1917, Lawrence grew up in Harlem, studying art in the 1930's at the Harlem Community Art Center and other schools. His early influences included Charles Alston and Charles Seifert. He was employed on a WPA project and won a scholarship from the progressive American Artists School (1936-8), an institution that had a long history of hiring faculty who were politically active and socially progressive.
Later, Lawrence was to write, “My pictures express my life and experiences. I paint the things I know about and the things I have experiences. …So I paint the American Negro working class.” (Twentieth-Century American and Modern Art, p 156).
Emotional balance, simple grace and unaffected elegance were the mainstays of Jacob Lawrence's long career, which ended with his death at the age 82.
In 1941, Lawrence became the first African-American artist to be represented in the permanent collection of the Museum of Modern Art, where he was honored with a solo exhibition in 1944. He was one of the first black Americans to win wide recognition in the art world.
Many are called to make political art but Lawrence was among the few chosen. He combined a deep feeling for social justice with story telling skills to make art that's still fresh, compelling and powerful today.