Shuttered since March by the coronavirus pandemic, the Museum of Modern Art and the Metropolitan Museum of Art are reopening with limited visitorship, various admonitions about masks and social distancing, and several new exhibitions, among them “Jacob Lawrence: The American Struggle.” That show, at the Met, reunites the panels of a lesser-known series that the storied modernist painted during the mid-1950s, exploring themes from the American Revolution to the Westward expansion.
Lawrence was a frequent visitor to both museums. In a 1996 interview referenced in the current exhibition, he told Michael Kimmelman, then chief art critic of The New York Times, that a favorite work of his in the Met’s European painting galleries was “The Journey of the Magi,” by the early Italian Renaissance artist Sassetta.
What follows is an edited, condensed, updated version of that interview.
Jacob Lawrence died in 2000, at 82. Four years earlier, for a Times series that, reimagined, became a book titled “Portraits,” I spent a day accompanying him around both MoMA and the Met. He walked with difficulty then, and opted occasionally for a wheelchair that his wife, the artist Gwendolyn Knight, had brought along just in case. The three of us looked at whatever interested him, from Dogon sculptures to Dubuffet. Lawrence was a bearish, humble man, courtly, endearing. “I guess there’s nothing wrong with a negative statement,” he reassured himself out loud at one moment, before screwing up his courage to dis Jackson Pollock.
Knight and Lawrence had long ago moved to Seattle from New York. But the Modern and the Met, he told me, still felt like home to him. As a teenager in the 1930s, he would walk the 50-odd blocks from the apartment he shared with his mother in Harlem to study early Italian Renaissance paintings at the Met. And in 1941, Lawrence’s “Migration” series, about the Great Migration of African-Americans from the South after World War I, which had brought his own family north, was acquired and split between MoMA and the Phillips Collections in Washington. He was 24 at the time.
The following interview, from nearly 25 years ago, reveals Lawrence as a man of his generation, a product of the Harlem Renaissance and a history painter whose art remains as timely as ever. During the ’40s and ’50s, when battle lines in the art world were drawn between abstractionists and social realists, he pursued a middle path. During the ’60s, when Black artists more militant than he was said his art wasn’t radical enough, he stayed the course. “Maybe I was fortunate not to have thought in intellectual or ideological terms,” he told me at one point. “I never became consumed by any particular artistic circle. That’s my temperament.”
The Museum of Modern Art
The taxi dropped Lawrence and Knight off on 53rd Street and the three of us went to see the Mexican muralists at MoMA. Lawrence grew up, he said, studying politically-engaged American artists like Anton Refregier, Ben Shahn, William Gropper and Philip Evergood, and he went often to look at Picasso’s “Guernica,” which, back then, was on view at the Modern.
But it was the Mexicans — Diego Rivera, David Alfaro Siqueiros and José Clemente Orozco — he said who had an outsize influence on his own development. At the museum he talked about Orozco’s “Zapatistas” and, a few galleries away, Rivera’s mural of Zapata.
“A good painting,” he said about the Rivera. “But when you look at the Orozco, every brush stroke of that work seems to have an energy that I don’t find in the Rivera. You’re aware of the skill and control of Rivera. You’re looking at his facility.”
As for the Orozco: “I often used this work to teach the dynamics of composition and the value of social content, passionately expressed. It’s very close to what I feel about the human condition. With the Mexican muralists, you had both content and form — social content and abstract form — and he was the best of the Mexicans.”
Then Lawrence recalled meeting Orozco in 1940. At the time Orozco was painting a mural called “Dive Bomber.” “I’d been taught that you do a small version of what the work is going to look like, you know, a study, ” Lawrence said. “But Orozco took out a piece of cardboard, the kind you get with men’s shirts from the laundry. And it had just a few vague chicken scratches on it. That was his study for the work. He told me, ‘That’s all I need.’
“It was a lesson he taught me. The point is that he was very spontaneous, very direct. Which is even more incredible because, with fresco, if you make a mistake, you have to dig out the plaster and start all over again.”
Lawrence also wanted to see the room of Pollocks. When the New York art world sided with Pollock and other Abstract Expressionists during the 1950s, Lawrence fell out of fashion. Looking at the Pollocks now, he said:
“There are certain figurative works that I can say I think are terrible, and I just don’t want to look at them. I don’t want to look at them because I feel strongly about them — I take them seriously, because they’re meaningful to me.
“But I couldn’t say that about Pollock. It doesn’t have that kind of relevance.”
The Metropolitan Museum of Art
At the Met, Lawrence chatted about the group of young Black artists that included Knight who would regularly visit the museum together and make the rounds of cutting-edge galleries like Alfred Stieglitz’s An American Place. “You felt the same way about going into every art institution or gallery then,” he said. “It wasn’t hospitable but no one would keep you out. Then we would head over to Horn & Hardart’s and argue about what we’d seen.”
What struck him as memorable? “John Marin’s paintings were a discovery,” he said. “Also Arthur Dove’s paintings.” He added the comic strips Katzenjammer Kids and Jiggs and Maggie (also known as Bringing Up Father) and the movies as influences. “I was interested in storytelling. As a young artist, I wasn’t getting big mural commissions, naturally, so the way I thought to tell the story of a person’s life was through a series of panels, a little like comics, I suppose.
“It was very important that the community in Harlem was supportive and left me alone to find my own way. I could have been pushed in other directions. People could have said, ‘That’s not the way to do it,’ or ‘The hands are out of proportion.’ I was using poster paint, a water medium, not oils. And I used egg tempera, because I liked its translucency; it was easy to use. Besides, I could buy a jar with a dime. No one steered me from it. People respected the subjects I was doing, like Harriet Tubman, John Brown. And they also appreciated what they felt was a certain naiveté. They said, ‘He’s producing something of value, even though he doesn’t really know what he’s doing.’”
I remember Lawrence laughing.
We started out in the Met looking in silence at “The Journey of the Magi” by Sassetta, the 15th-century Sienese painter.
“I can’t think of a better term to describe the effect than magic,” Lawrence decided. “It’s simplified but very complex at the same time. We say simplicity and imply it’s easy to accomplish. This isn’t easy. I don’t want to get too professorial about it. Sure, I can describe these shapes, the way they balance one another, the way the image moves from dark to light. But there’s something else that I can’t describe formally, a certain feeling, an intuitiveness, an emotional authenticity. And maybe this is because the artist wasn’t tied up with rhetoric — you know, talk, school talk, pedantics.
“I didn’t have years of formal training. Maybe this was fortunate. I was overwhelmed by my urban experience, arriving in New York [from a foster care facility in Philadelphia, to reunite with his mother] at 13, in 1930, and seeing for the first time the rhythm and geometry of the fire escapes, the windows, the tenements.
“Sometimes I look at that work I did in the 1930s and think, that’s how I want to paint now. But, of course, you can’t go back.”
Before a mid-15th-century Italian portrait by the Master of the Castello Nativity of a long-necked woman in profile, her hair in a pearl netting, he said: “It’s a stereotype. I’m thinking in ethnic terms, with this long neck and refined head. It’s almost as if the painter didn’t actually observe her. There are always certain characteristics pertaining to race and so on, and when you paint someone, you may think you’re seeing them, but you’re actually painting these traits. It’s like that saying — what was it? — minstrels were whites copying Blacks who copied whites copying Blacks, or something like that.”
In the American Wing, Lawrence stopped before Albert Pinkham Ryder’s “Toilers of the Sea,” of a sailboat under a full moon. “The mystery of it is wonderful,” he said. “That’s no longer a moon, it’s a shape that remakes itself into other shapes. And this shape here, the boat, is like a mouth. Everything’s unstable, reduced, uncluttered. And because it’s reduced, it becomes somehow more. The more you reduce something, the more it can become suggestive, dynamic.”
“This is one of the great, great works,” Lawrence said. “You see Blacks as real people responding to a man who is trying to better their lives. Look at those faces, that mother holding her baby, wanting the baby to come in contact with this person, and this person to come in contact with her baby.”
On the way out, Lawrence, who by now had settled into the wheelchair, asked a guard for directions. The guard pointed the way, then offered his hand.
“I just want to tell you how important your work is, and how much it’s meant to me,” he said. Lawrence broke into a big smile, thanked the guard and reached up from the chair to shake the guard’s hand.
Jacob Lawrence: The American Struggle
Through Nov. 1 at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, which reopens Aug. 29. (Member preview days are Aug. 27 and 28.) Visit metmuseum.org for an overview of safety protocols and ticketing information.