The American scene

Cantor Arts Center debuts new collection of Jacob Lawrence paintings

Forging a successful career as a visual artist is no mean feat, even for the wealthy and well-educated. For an African American raised in Harlem during the Depression, with little art training and not much hope of gallery representation, the odds were astronomical. This, however, is the improbable story of Jacob Lawrence, now considered one of the most influential black artists of the 20th century.

"Promised Land: Jacob Lawrence at the Cantor" gives viewers the opportunity to enjoy the full arc of the artist's work, from paintings to drawings and an illustrated book. The exhibition, on view now through Aug. 3, is the result of a major gift to the Cantor Arts Center from the late Dr. Herbert J. Kayden and his daughter, Joelle Kayden, a Stanford MBA alumna. The museum now owns one of the largest Jacob Lawrence collections in the country, a collection that will be utilized for both display and classroom instruction (the exhibition layout and design was planned by an undergraduate class led by Elizabeth Mitchell, the Cantor's curator of drawings, prints and photographs).

Mitchell spoke of Lawrence as a "phenomenal draftsman and incredibly sophisticated storyteller, adding that this collection demonstrates "his great capacity to use fresh, vivid colors and the abstracted human form to express a socially relevant narrative."

Lawrence, who was born in 1917 and died in 2000, was part of the post-World War I migration of blacks from the South to the northern states, where they sought a better life. After his parents divorced, Lawrence's mother took him and his siblings to New York, settling in Harlem in the late 1920s. The northern Manhattan neighborhood was densely populated and teeming with noise and activity. Fearing that the quiet and withdrawn Jacob would fall into a street gang, his mother enrolled him in an art class at the local library. That class would prove to be the catalyst for what would become an illustrious career. It was Lawrence's first introduction to art materials and artistic expression. With little exposure to art history, books or museums, the young artist had only the world around him for inspiration. Luckily, his teachers recognized his talent, and he was encouraged throughout his youth to pursue his artistic endeavors, eventually taking free classes offered at the Harlem Arts Community Center.

As art critic Robert Hughes noted, Lawrence was "younger than the artists and writers who took part in the Harlem Renaissance," but was influenced by "the Harlem cultural milieu." Although several noted artists -- including Charles Alston and Augusta Savage -- guided and encouraged him, Lawrence was essentially self-taught. Working with inexpensive materials, he captured the Harlem he saw each day: street peddlers, cafes, children playing in the street and the interiors of crowded tenement apartments. From the very beginning, and throughout his long career, Lawrence worked in a figurative style because it was the best way to tell a story.

In his "Philosophy of Art," written for an exhibition at the Whitney Museum and later quoted in "A History of African-American Artists" by Romare Bearden and Harry Henderson, Lawrence stated, "My pictures express my life and experience. The things I have experienced extend into my national, racial and class group. So I paint the American scene."

In one of the earliest pieces included in the Cantor exhibition, "At Times It Is Hard to Get a Table in a Pool Room" (1943), Lawrence's unique vision is revealed in broad, flat areas of densely saturated color. A stylized figure of a beat cop, portrayed in deep blue, walks past the entrance to a pool parlor. Inside, its denizens sit lined up on a bench, waiting for a chance to play. The work is a study in geometry and strong, contrasting primary colors. The rectangles of the Pool Parlor sign, with its simplistic depiction of two pool cues and brightly colored balls pops out from the scarlet red wall of the building. The piece is executed using gouache, resulting in a much more opaque pigment than oil paint. Lawrence's use of gouache -- and tempera, in his earliest works -- was born of necessity rather than choice; they were the least expensive materials to obtain. Lawrence was able to experiment with media later in life when he was enrolled as a Works Progress Administration artist. He found that mixing his own colors and working on a small scale best suited his subject matter.

Bucking the prevailing style of Abstract Expressionism (and at the risk of being labeled "naive" or "primitive"), Lawrence's style was figurative, precise and carefully composed. He began every piece with a well-developed under-drawing, rendered lightly in graphite. Any revisions or reworking would be done at this stage. Once the drawing was finished, he would begin to apply a fast-drying medium in overlapping brushstrokes. When he painted a series, such as "The Life of John Brown," a group of 22 paintings based on the life of the controversial white abolitionist, Lawrence worked on all of the panels simultaneously, applying the same color to every panel in order to keep the hues uniform.

The result, as can be seen in the "John Brown" series on display at the Cantor, is a moving and consistent narrative. Figures are rendered in Lawrence's own stylized version of Cubism, elongated and without detail, with overlapping areas of vivid color creating depth and dimension. A sense of action is generated by strong diagonals, and the flat, saturated color elicits emotion as we follow Brown's path to the noose.

In a later series also included in "Promised Land" at the Cantor, "Eight Studies for the Book of Genesis," (1989), Lawrence's palette is characteristically bold, but his draftsmanship is freer and more expansive. There is high drama in each panel, as God, clad in brightly colored robes, creates heaven and earth. Lawrence may have worked in diminutive scale and with humble materials, but his message was always forceful and impressive.

In part because of his strong narrative sense, Lawrence has been compared to George Grosz and José Clemente Orozco, both of whom used painting as a form of social commentary. Lawrence did observe and relate the story of the African-American people as he saw it, but not necessarily as a means of protest. His reaction to the disturbances surrounding the Civil Rights Movement is graphically portrayed in "Ordeal of Alice" (1963), as demonic figures hover menacingly around a young black child attempting to enter a segregated school. Lawrence resisted pressure from young militant art students to label himself a "Black Artist," later explaining, "I worked out of my experience, and if somebody wants to call that black art, that's all right."

The artist spent the latter part of his career as an educator, eventually becoming a professor of art at the University of Washington. He continued to paint, focusing on the theme of builders and the contribution of black workers and tradesmen to the development of the country. Among the works from this period are "Construction" and "Builders No. 3," both of which are included in "Promised Land," and both of which reinforce Lawrence's virtuosity as a colorist and a storyteller.

Lawrence was a pioneer on many fronts: the first black artist to be represented by a New York gallery (the Downtown Gallery, in 1941) and to receive recognition by the National Institute of Arts and Letters in 1953. His most powerful legacy, however, is that of an artist who depicted America as he saw it, unswayed by any movement or vision other than his own.

What: "Promised Land: Jacob Lawrence at the Cantor"

Where: Cantor Arts Center, 328 Lomita Drive, Stanford

When: Through Aug. 3. Gallery hours: Wednesday-Monday, 11 a.m.-5 p.m., Thursday, 11 a.m.-8 p.m. Faculty Panel, "Jacob Lawrence and the Harlem Renaissance," Thursday, April 23, 5:30 pm. Lecture, "Pool Parlors and Beat Cops: The Colorful Noise of a Jacob Lawrence Street Scene," Thursday, May 7, 6:30 pm.

Cost: Free

Info: Go to museum.stanford.edu or call 650-723-4177.

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