New Images for an Old Struggle: Jacob Lawrence at Seattle Art Museum

This sweeping painting elongates the limbs of its subjects' raised fists, so they appear mountainous, triangular, and dynamic. The bottom and middle of the frame is crowded with individuals of this form, creating the sensation that a group is on the verge of riot. In the top left, a man in black garb leans forward, stretching his body across the top of the piece, pointing his finger. Deep, dark colors, including shades of brown, black, red, green, and one sharp flash of blue, dominate this piece.
Jacob Lawrence, . . . is life so dear or peace so sweet as to be purchased at the price of chains and slavery? —Patrick Henry, 1775, Panel 1, 1955. Collection of Harvey and Harvey-Ann Ross, © 2021 The Jacob and Gwendolyn Knight Lawrence Foundation, Seattle / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

Eleven electrified figures crowd the picture plane of Jacob Lawrence’s Panel 1 (1955), a scene lit by a brick-red glow that implies a night illuminated by fire. The crowd’s outstretched arms punch fists skyward in solidarity and fury, and the calm suggested by the hues of their garments—golden browns, flat grays, moss greens, and sea blues—is belied by Lawrence’s depiction of the fabric’s folds as a series of razor-sharp isosceles triangles. The figure that towers over the others stabs an index finger horizontally into the darkness: Onward. Lawrence frequently wrote on the backs of his paintings, and Panel 1 is inscribed with a quote from Patrick Henry’s 1775 speech in Richmond: “…is life so dear or peace so sweet as to be purchased at the price of chains and slavery?” No, the painting answers. Liberty, or death.

The American Struggle reunites the panels of Lawrence’s series Struggle: From the History of the American People, 1954–56 for the first time in sixty years, and the Seattle Art Museum (the only West Coast site in this touring exhibition) is a fitting venue: Lawrence and his wife, painter Gwendolyn Knight, moved to Seattle in 1970 when Lawrence was appointed to the School of Art at the University of Washington, where he served as a professor until 1980, and then as Emeritus until his death in 2000. Given the upheavals of this last year, the renewed vitality of social justice movements, and the ongoing national and global conversations about power and equity, it feels obvious to say that the exhibition, which depicts scenes from American history that center Black people, Indigenous people, and women, is here at the right time and in the perfect place.

The bayonettes of rifles protrude from under soldiers' rain jackets like jagged trees, and the ships that hold the soldiers climb mountains of waves, in this sharp-edged and provocative painting.
Jacob Lawrence, We crossed the River at McKonkey’s Ferry 9 miles above Trenton . . . the night was excessively severe . . . which the men bore without the least murmur . . . —Tench Tilghman, 27 December 1776, 1954. Egg tempera on hardboard. 12 × 16 inches. The Metropolitan Museum of Art © The Jacob and Gwendolyn Lawrence Foundation, Seattle / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.
Two oxen, painted using swift and hard brustrokes, struggle to pull an old wagon through shallow blue water. Their noses drip from grunting. Blood oozes from wood panels.
Jacob Lawrence, Old America seems to be breaking up and moving Westward . . .—an English immigrant, 1817, Panel 30, 1956. Iris and B. Gerald Cantor Center for Visual Arts, Stanford University, gift of Dr. Herbert Kayden and family in memory of Dr. Gabrielle H. Reem, 2013.96, © 2021 The Jacob and Gwendolyn Knight Lawrence Foundation, Seattle / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

Each egg-tempera-on-hardboard panel is a modernist revelation, a galvanizing melee of flat planes that illustrate various figures, usually massed together as though staged for the camera. Lawrence’s paintings often have art-historical predecessors: Panel 10 (1954) reimagines Emanuel Leutze’s stoic, heroic Washington Crossing the Delaware (1851) as bone-cold soldiers huddled in boats that heave nauseatingly among icy December waves; Panel 15 (1955) depicts the signers of the Declaration of Independence not as John Trumbull famously did in his 1826 Declaration of Independence—fragrant with decorum and rectitude—but in a savage tangle of sweaty, quarrelsome men pontificating to each other until their knees buckle with exhaustion. The wall text notes that this was the group that “agreed that Black people would be counted for the census but not given freedom, citizenship, or the right to vote.” Lawrence equates their lack of compassion with death, portraying them with eyes shut and mouths turned down in the ghoulish rictus of corpses.

The emotional tenor of Lawrence’s characters imbues them with more intensity than if they had been painted in a photorealistic manner. Part of that richness can be chalked up to the artist’s manner of turning historical context into incisive detail (the perspiring signers of the Declaration worked for months in the humid misery of a Philadelphia summer). These bodies are fallible, infused with palpable energy that underscores the messy, flatulent human-ness of history. Whereas most paintings found in history textbooks depict events as a set of valorized and sanitized fait accompli, the vibrantly chaotic moments that Lawrence reconstructs here hold within them their own contingencies—a sense that things could have easily turned out another way. Panel 18 (1956) regards a meeting between two rifle-carrying settlers, their Lemhi Shoshone translator Sacajawea, and two Indigenous chiefs in feathered headdresses. Sacajawea appears caught in mid-gasp while her interlocutor gazes at her tenderly (the Shoshone chief who faces her turned out to be her long-lost brother Cameahwait). However, the settlers standing behind her glower coldly, while the other chief eyes them unflinchingly. Amid the joy of sibling reunion—rendered in celebratory reds, yellows, and blues—Sacajawea’s fraying braid hints at the horrors yet to come for her people.

The feathered and furred headdresses of these native peoples stretch and yawn upwards and sideways. Brilliant, blood reds, earthen browns, and shadow blacks dominate this oblong depiction of the meeting of five peoples.
Jacob Lawrence, In all your intercourse with the natives, treat them in the most friendly and conciliatory manner which their own conduct will admit . . .— Jefferson to Lewis & Clark, 1803, Panel 18, 1956. Collection of Harvey and Harvey-Ann Ross, © 2021 The Jacob and Gwendolyn Knight Lawrence Foundation, Seattle / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.
A patterned chair is placed before a ladder, wrapped in photographs and propped against a portion of wall and floor that is also covered in photos. Above the ladder hangs a painting of a man leaning on his elbow, holding a cup of coffee.
Derrick Adams, Jacob’s Ladder, 2019. Mixed media installation. Courtesy of the artist, Rhona Hoffman Gallery, and the Jacob and Gwendolyn Knight Lawrence Foundation; Commissioned by the Peabody Essex Museum, 2019, ©2020 Peabody Essex Museum. Photo: Kathy Tarantola.

Lawrence maintains his impassioned argument for re-envisioning history even when there are no human figures in the image. Drooling oxen drag two prairie schooners across the nation in Panel 30 (1956). So large they block the rest of the terrain from view, the wagons’ bonnets are crisp and white, but crimson blood leaks from the margin of one, and the animals are so fatigued that their long horns knock into each other and into their yoke. The warped perspective in Panel 30 makes these vehicles of Manifest Destiny into a dream—the kind that slides away from the dreamer into the territory of nightmare. But on the panel’s back, Lawrence has inscribed a caption from an 1817 pamphlet by an Illinois abolitionist: “Old America seems to be breaking up and moving Westward…”

Old America is breaking up, and the tremors and disorder that accompany revolution remind us to look to our past for inspiration. The American Struggle also includes works by contemporary artists, and among these an installation by Derrick Adams, Jacob’s Ladder (2019), stands out. The title alludes to the Biblical bridge between earth and heaven—what we have now and what we aspire to. A section of floor and wall are pasted with photographs of Lawrence, alone and with other people—his personal history. Amidst this archive a faded armchair faces a ladder (also pasted with photos) that leans against the wall; there’s a vintage record player tucked into the space beneath the ladder, and a framed portrait of Lawrence hung above its topmost rung. Adams has altered a Sweet Honey and the Rock album so that the vinyl run-out area (the small groove between the final track and the label) loops and replays its warm-toned crackle. Listening to this loop, I heard the old admonition that people who don’t learn their history are doomed to repeat it, while my companion heard a heartbeat; we were both right. The three years in which Lawrence was working on the panels of Struggle mirror our own times: Mass vaccinations for polio began; the Supreme Court ruled in Brown v. Board of Education that segregated schools were unconstitutional; Claudette Colvin and Rosa Parks refused to give up their bus seats, leading to the Montgomery Bus Boycott. Lawrence’s research into this nation’s early years culminated in this collection of vibrant, earthy visions that point the way to reckoning with more recent histories, from the heart as well as from the head, so as to learn from them more fully, and to thus become more fully ourselves.


JACOB LAWRENCE: THE AMERICAN STRUGGLE
MAR 5 – MAY 23 2021
SEATTLE ART MUSEUM

Author: Bean Gilsdorf

Bean Gilsdorf is an artist and writer. Her projects have been exhibited at MCA Santa Barbara, the Wattis Institute, and the American Textile History Museum, and her essays have been included in publications such as Artforum, Art in America, Frieze, and the Los Angeles Review of Books. She lives in Portland, Oregon.