Jacob Lawrence: Breaking the Line of Scholarship

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Peter T. Nesbett and Michelle DuBois, eds. The Complete Jacob Lawrence. Two volumes. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2000. Jacob Lawrence: Paintings, Drawings and Murals (1935- 1999)-A Catalogue Raisonne. 244 pages, 800 color ills., 100 b/w. Over the Line: The Art and Life of Jacob Lawrence. Includes essays by Lizzetta LeFalle-Collins, Patricia Hills, Elizabeth Hutton Turner, Paul Karlstrom, Leslie King-Hammond, Richard J. Powell, Lowery Stokes Sims, and Elizabeth Steele. 264 pp., 200 color ills., 20 b/w. Set, $ 150 hardcover; Over the Line, $ 50 paper.

A catalogue raisonne is a cinematic chronicle, an unwinding montage of an artist's career. No analogy would be more appropriate to describe the life work of Jacob Lawrence (1917-2000), the premier modernist artist than to use the serial narrative format in painting. To turn the pages of this compilation organized by Peter Nesbett and Michelle DuBois is to see an artist who has always thought in terms of anecdote, narrative, and sequential development.

The Complete Jacob Lawrence is a two-volume set that was published, regrettably, only months after the artist's death on June 9, 2000. One volume is the catalogue raisonne, consisting of four sections. The first documents all of his paintings from 1935 to 1999 that could be identified, including a few whose authorship was contested by Lawrence and his wife, Gwendolyn Knight Lawrence. The second is devoted to drawings and begins in 1936. The third is a group of studies after woodcuts by the sixteenthcentury anatomist Andreas Vesalius created between 1968 and 1996.The fourth part illustrates the artist's various mural projects from 1979 to 1991. Limited-edition prints have already been documented in their own catalogue raisonne.1 Additional discoveries will be posted on the Jacob Lawrence Catalogue Raisonne Project's Website, http://www.jacoblawrence.org.

While a catalogue raisonne is crucial for the scholarship on any artist, this format is particularly helpful because of the serial nature of Lawrence's oeuvre. Not only are the well-known series of the 1930s and 1940s (on the lives of Toussaint L'Ouverture, Harriet Tubman, Frederick Douglass, John Brown, and The Migration of the Negro) presented completely and in color, but the publication also afforded the opportunity to assemble series that are less seldom seen, such as War (1946-47) and to reconstitute others that have been broken up. Struggle ... From the History of the American People (1954-56) has not been shown in its entirety since 1959, when a collector purchased it and sold off individual pieces.

The editors make a point of distinguishing between series and what Lawrence called "thematic groupings." Series were originally designed as a single work whose individual members were never intended to stand alone. Thematic groupings are those, such as the Hillside Hospital paintings (1949-50), in which each portrayal is independent. Displaying all of the artist's pieces in chronological order reveals that their commonalities are based not only on themes but also on style, as in his theater-performance works of 1951-52.

Series and groups have always been seen as the tropes of Lawrence's oeuvre. The catalogue-raisonne format necessarily gives equity to each individual picture, and in this case it reveals how frequently the artist created autonomous works, particularly in the latter part of his career. Since much of the Lawrence scholarship has focused on the period from 1935 to the early 1950s in which series predominate, it is significant to see the surprisingly high number of single works, and this new information must be factored into our understanding. Many have been exhibited only infrequently since they were made, a fact that illustrates how much Lawrence writers have focused on the series and the first fifteen years of a sixty-five year career. Except for the retrospectives of 1974, 1986, and 2001 almost every other major traveling show has been devoted to the series of the 1930s and 1940s. …