I’m starting a new series of posts to this blog: Favorite Artists, and I’m kicking it off with JACOB LAWRENCE. I put his name in capital letters because that is how I feel about his work. And that’s how everyone should. He was the first black artist to be represented by a gallery, and the first black artist to have work purchased by MOMA.
I look up to Jacob Lawrence and his work for several reasons. One, he was very smart about discussing his work in a way that placed it well among other work of the 40s, 50s, and 60s… calling it “Figurative Formalism.” Representational painting and drawing were out of fashion, but through great attention to shape and color, Lawrence’s work still appealed to those who leaned towards formal, abstract work. This title is something I find helpful when describing my own work!
Two, he did his research by going to the library to gather histories both public and personal to use in his series. I took this tip to heart when setting out on my Disaster Calendar series… making sure that my own remembered family stories of natural disasters in Oklahoma could be backed up by weather records.
Three… well, I dunno except to say that I feel a sort of kinship to him and the choices he makes. When I look at his work, I get this defiant feeling of someone saying “These are our stories, and I’m making a picture of it, dangit!” At a time when the NEW THING in art was usually something avant garde in form, media, or concept… questioning what art could be, declaring painting dead, etc… Lawrence was saying “Hey, we haven’t covered everything yet. Slow down! There haven’t been paintings of people in Harlem playing pool and eating BBQ, so how could painting be out of gas?”
Ok, so, maybe he didn’t say that… and those words leave out the seriousness of his endeavor, to tell the epic stories of African American history in visual form. But it is something to consider… narrative and representational painting can never be fully exhausted… as long as there are still people who’s stories have gone un-exhibited, and as long as our stories and topics to represent keep changing, there’ll always be stuff to paint! And that may be as epic as painting the Great Migration, or as small as painting the corner store.