Jacob Lawrence, American Master

I caught a retrospective of Jacob Lawrence’s brilliant work at DC Moore Gallery at Fifth Avenue and 57th Street. Lawrence (1917-2000) was a little late for the Harlem Renaissance but was nonetheless influenced by it; he shared with Romare Bearden a commitment to casting light on the African American experience.

Lawrence’s pictures tell stories; the characters are usually expressive, elongated and bunched together in postures indicative of their isolation. Whether working with gouache only or with elements of collage, Lawrence portrays figures as distinct shapes; he tended toward primary colors and energetic diagonals. His composition are sometimes hectic, always highly charged. He often depicts children as mute witnesses; in one picture, a white woman draped in a mink coat is illumined as she walks out a door; inside the room she left, a naked baby is splayed, face down on a bed in a posture that embodies his family’s desolation.

It was wonderful to see works dating from the Migration series, which chronicled the cycle of African-Americans’ journey from the rural south to the industrial north, but I was most taken by the  Hiroshima sequence from 1982, designed for a limited edition of John Hersey’s book. It was one of Lawrence’s convictions that human experience transcends race; accordingly, the figures in the Hiroshima series are not identified as Japanese. Using skeletal figures stained with blood, Lawrence presented vignettes that speak to the horror of August 6, 1945 and, given the context of our times, argue against the atrocity of any and all wars.

Above: Jacob Lawrence, Hiroshima Series: Boy with Kite (1983, tempera and gouache on paper, 23×18). Courtesy DC Moore Gallery.
The DC Moore Gallery is the exclusive representative of the Jacob Lawrence estate. A catalogue with essays by David Driskell and Patricia Hills is for sale. For more information, call Sandra Paci at 212-247-2111,

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