Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
July 28, 2011
Patricia Hills Painting Harlem Modern: The Art of Jacob Lawrence Berkeley: University of California Press, 2010. 368 pp.; 112 color ills.; 205 b/w ills. Cloth $49.95 (9780520252417)

Jacob Lawrence is best known for his multi-panel series The Migration of the Negro (1940–41), with the Philips Collection in Washington, DC, owning the odd-numbered panels, and the Museum of Modern Art, the even-numbered ones. In November 1941, Fortune magazine published twenty-six of the works, and in December of the same year Edith Halpert showed the entire series at her Downtown Gallery. With this exposure, Lawrence became, at the age of twenty-four, a nationally recognized artist. The sixty small paintings that document the wave of black migrants from the rural South to the urban North have been widely reproduced and exhibited since their creation. In Painting Harlem Modern: The Art of Jacob Lawrence, Patricia Hills brings new material to the interpretation of these panels, comparing them to the photographs reproduced in Richard Wright’s photographically illustrated 12 Million Black Voices: A Folk History of the Negro in the United States, published the same year. Her book is not just about this series, however. In an introduction, eight chapters, and an epilogue, Hills offers a comprehensive examination of Lawrence’s painting from 1939 to 1970 that extends our knowledge of his series and that highlights some of his lesser-known works.

Hills’s book is organized into two sections: the first part deals with Lawrence’s early life in Harlem, his artistic training, and his patrons; the second half of the book, by far the larger section, focuses on the major themes and issues related to Lawrence’s painting, including storytelling, history and memory, racism and the Jim Crow South, the tenements and streets of Harlem, masks and masking, and the civil rights and anti-war movements. This project arises out of Hills’s long-term interest in artists of the 1930s and radical politics, and her fascination with Lawrence as an artist who was committed to racial and social justice, and who was dedicated to creating socially engaged art throughout his career. The book is a celebration of Lawrence and his art, and provides a “thick context” for thinking about the social, civic, and political environments that influenced Lawrence. As the title suggests, Harlem is a central component in her narrative; Hills delves into the ways in which this neighborhood and the community of artists, writers, and musicians who lived there sustained and influenced Lawrence, and how Harlem served as the reference point for many of his paintings.

Throughout her book, Hills constructs “a history of Lawrence’s cultural surround” (5) and explores this history through close readings of Lawrence’s art. She reads Lawrence’s racial and social identity as essential to understanding his art. Central to her consideration of this cultural surround and the close readings are the leftist politics of the 1930s and the idea of personal experience as important to the production of art. By creating art based on his experience as an African American male in a Northern urban community, Lawrence, according to Hills, created an art that was specific to his experience, and one that spoke to an essential American experience.

Hills briefly addresses Lawrence’s style: it is modernist in its emphasis on limited color, simple form, and complex pattern, even while his subject matter remained representational and rooted in African American history and experience. She states that Lawrence produced art in an “expressive cubism” mode that appealed to a range of people in the art world: some deemed his work modern because of his concern with form and color; some linked Lawrence’s painting to folk art, seeing his work as naïve and even “primitive”; others trumpeted his use of black history and racial themes; and still others admired his focus on working class, African American experience. Because Hills is not interested in stylistic or iconographic analysis, but rather in cultural context, she does not delve deeply into why Lawrence’s art looks the way it does, nor does she trace artistic or iconographic influences.

Hills’s chapter on mid-century Harlem and its tenements and streets is illustrative of her consideration of the “thick context” of Lawrence’s art (168–203). Like the previous and following chapters, Hills begins with a series of epigraphs that indicate her major concerns. Here she quotes Mike Gold’s “Towards Proletarian Art” (1921), Roi Ottley’s “New World A-Coming”: Inside Black America (1943), and Claude McKay’s inscription in a copy of A Long Way Home (1937), which he gave Lawrence. These quotations deal with the urban experience as legitimate subject matter for art making, the vibrant yet segregated life of Harlem, and Lawrence as the painter of the Harlem scene. Hills traces Lawrence’s paintings of the neighborhood from the late 1930s to the 1950s. During the 1930s, Lawrence focused on the cultural geography of Harlem instead of specific streets and landmarks, drawing from his imagination to render life on the street. In these paintings, he highlighted the day-to-day life of workers, shoppers, prostitutes, tradesmen, street corner preachers, and children. Hills proposes that in the early 1940s Lawrence’s encounter with Harlem underwent a slight shift after his return from several trips to the South: he became even more concerned to depict the intensity of Harlem and its street life, their beauty and abjection. Hills links Lawrence’s numerous panels from this period to Ottley’s text that emphasized the poverty and substandard living conditions in Harlem, while also insisting on the resiliency of its citizens. Hills then suggests a connection between Lawrence and Langston Hughes’s fictional character Jesse B. Semple, whom Hughes created for his opinion column in the Chicago Defender. She proffers that Lawrence painted Semple’s working-class Harlem, “the Harlem of expectations, distortions, contradictions” (189). Hills concludes this chapter with a close look at Lawrence’s Harlem scenes from the 1950s—images of Harlem’s streets that are teeming with people engaged in a variety of activity. She argues that during this time Lawrence depicted the sidewalk as the modern space of urban public life and the “streets of Harlem became the public sphere where civic life takes place” (202). In reading this chapter, I realized that Lawrence was deeply connected to Harlem as a physical space where he lived, and that he related to Harlem as a complex and colorful space of his imagination.

While I appreciated what this situation of Lawrence brings to the experience of his work, I wanted a fuller anchoring of Lawrence within the context of American modernism. And I desired to know more about his relationship with Halpert and the patrons who purchased his work. Did Halpert, who began to sell Lawrence’s work in the 1940s at the Downtown Gallery, understand his work as modern art or folk art? (She sold American folk art at the space, and she also represented Horace Pippin, an artist of African descent often categorized as a folk artist.) Did Halpert promote Lawrence as a “Negro” artist or as an American artist? Modernism and patronage make up the “thick context” of Lawrence’s painting and are largely ignored by Hills. Perhaps Hills felt other scholars have dealt with these issues recently, including Paul J. Karlstrom in Over the Line: The Art and Life of Jacob Lawrence (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2001).

Notwithstanding this criticism, Hills offers an in-depth rereading of Lawrence’s painting, and a deep consideration of the cultural moment in which he produced his art. She makes new connections between Lawrence and other black cultural producers in Harlem, and anchors his work to a neighborhood in which he lived and thrived for forty years.

Renée Ater
Associate Professor Emerita, American Art, University of Maryland