'Social Expressionist' Celebrated Harlem's Working Class

Article excerpt

Dubbed both "primitive" and "modern," the work of African- American artist Jacob Lawrence (1917-2000) embodied traits of both camps. His paintings display the vigor, directness, anecdotal quality, and invention of African tribal art. His work also projects the originality and utter self-determination of modernism.

Like so many supposedly binary styles, maybe these polarities are not mutually exclusive after all. Lawrence was a blend of homespun and avant-garde, of roots and revolution. He was uniquely himself. Being Jacob Lawrence was no small thing, as this stunning retrospective, including more than 200 works from seven decades, demonstrates. "Over the Line: The Art and Life of Jacob Lawrence" at the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, until Feb. 3, shows Harlem as a microcosm of the world. Lawrence celebrated the dense details of the area above 125th Street in Manhattan and the polyphonic atmosphere of a modern city. His view was both microscopic and telescopic.

If "it takes a village" to rear a child, Lawrence was lucky he came to Harlem in 1930 at age 13. He was the first black artist to be completely trained in Harlem - first in an after-school daycare center, then at a Works Progress Administration arts workshop. His pictures sing the percussive beat of the streets, energized by jazz, spirituals, and swing music, inspired by sights of daily life.

From the earliest paintings shown, done during the Depression when he was 19, to the last at the end of the century, Lawrence captured the lives of the working class. What makes the work transcend local color is Lawrence's innovative visual technique, as well as his universal theme of struggle for social justice.

At a time when art split into Social Realism (Thomas Hart Benton, Grant Wood) and Abstract Expressionism (Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning), Lawrence forged his own path. He called his work "reality rather than realism." We can call his style Social Expressionism.

He insisted on social content. For him, art was too powerful a mode of communication to focus on aesthetics. He used the visual devices of abstraction - geometric structure, elemental shapes, and dynamic patterning - to animate his paintings, ensuring they rose above mere narrative and never descended into facile emotion.

"Self-Portrait" (1977) shows how he transformed the flat poster paint he habitually used into a coherent composition that almost bursts off the surface. …