The Best of Ask Joan of Art: Jacob Lawrence

Media - 1990.36 - SAAM-1990.36_1 - 69140
February 3, 2011

This post is part of an ongoing series on Eye Level: The Best of Ask Joan of Art. Begun in 1993, Ask Joan of Art is the longest-running arts-based electronic reference service in the country. The real Joan is Kathleen Adrian or one of her co-workers from the museum’s Research and Scholars Center. These experts answer the public's questions about art. Last year, Kathleen began posting questions on Twitter and made the answers available on our Web site.

Question: What kind of Cubism was Jacob Lawrence known for employing?

Answer: Jacob Lawrence called his style "dynamic cubism." Additional information indicates it wasn't notably dynamic, except when he used flame-like forms and pushy oppositions of structure; generally the paintings tend to an Egyptian stillness, frieze-like even when you know the subject was moving. His debts to Cubism and to Matisse are obvious: the flat, sharp overlaps of form, the reliance on silhouette, and a high degree of abstraction in the color. But there is something more demotic behind those colors. They came, as Lawrence acknowledged, more from his experience in Harlem than from other art.

As Lawrence says in Robert Hughes's book American Visions: The Epic History of Art in America: "In order to add something to their lives, [black families] decorated their tenements and their homes in all of these colors. I've been asked, is anyone in my family artistically inclined? I've always felt ashamed of my response and I always said no, not realizing that my artistic sensibility came from this ambiance... It's only in retrospect that I realized I was surrounded by art. You'd walk Seventh Avenue and took in the windows and you'd see all these colors in the depths of the depression. All these colors.

There is also a great deal of information on Lawrence and his work on the Jacob Lawrence website at the Phillips Collection. For example, some references to his work in this online feature include:

"In the workshops he used poster paints and brown paper—both cheap and readily available—and used them throughout his career. Their limitations—flat, fast drying—suited his artistic aims..."

"Through the 1940s, Lawrence continued to depict Harlem subjects, focusing on workers and expressing their strength of purpose in bold colors and strong, simple designs..."

"Albers encouraged the younger artist, and their conversations helped Lawrence to see his paintings in the context of abstraction. Jacob always remembered Albers’s emphasis on economy of means—finding the indispensable line, the significant color, and the essential shape. During the 1950s, abstract expressionism dominated the art world, but Lawrence's images of the community remained figural. His compositions took on a sharper, edgy tone, their fractured planes suggesting interracial tensions that existed in the United States..."

"In the wake of these harsh images, Lawrence looked to Africa for renewal and inspiration, a means of moving toward a more universal, abstract, and philosophical outlook. His African paintings are a kaleidoscope of color and pattern, stemming, he said, from his early love of pattern in his Harlem environment and reawakened in this atmosphere of broad kinship..."

The Smithsonian American Art Museum has ten works by Jacob Lawrence in its collection.

The life and art of Jacob Lawrence are the subject of several books. A few examples: Peter T. Nesbetts and Michelle DuBois's Over the Line: The Art and Life of Jacob Lawrence, Elizabeth Turner's and Lonnie G. Bunch's Jacob Lawrence: The Migration Series, and Ellen Harkins Wheat 's and Patricia Hills's Jacob Lawrence: American Painter.



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