Jacob Lawrence, Library (1966), tempera and gouache on paper, 10-1/4″ x 14-1/4″
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The recent death of any individual is likely to put their life and achievement into high and not necessarily lucid relief–loss can breed hyperbole. So, I wonder, was the astonishment I experienced while attending the memorial retrospective of paintings by Jacob Lawrence, currently on view at DC Moore Gallery, intensified by the artist’s death last June at the age of 82?
Maybe. Certainly his art is now weighted by history, in all of its inevitability. But for sentimentality to amplify (or cloud) the accomplishment of this most unsentimental of artists would be, if not impossible, then close to it.
As a painter, Lawrence knew his own mind from the outset; the exhibition, while all over the place chronologically, is of a piece aesthetically. Transcending the fusty bromides of the Social Realism that was his cultural birthright, Lawrence plumbed the arts of ancient Egypt, the Renaissance, Africa and early Modernism to achieve a pictorial synthesis so magisterial, yet so plainspoken, that it’s going to take years for us to catch up with it.
Whether it be Brooklyn Builders or The Petition of Many Slaves, his images are charged with a deep-seated, affirming but by no means credulous humanism. Lawrence’s wasn’t political art, but to ignore its propulsive sense of mission is to deny the paintings of their stoic, steely power.
A major museum retrospective of the work opens at the Phillips collection this May. It’s hard to believe it will make a stronger case for Lawrence’s oeuvre than the DC Moore show. But it will.
© 2001 Mario Naves
Originally published in the February 16, 2001 edition of The New York Observer.