Critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
April 28, 2016
Leah Dickerman and Elsa Smithgall Jacob Lawrence: The Migration Series Exh. cat. New York and Washington, DC: Museum of Modern Art and Phillips Collection, 2015. 192 pp. Cloth $50.00 (9780870709647)
Exhibition schedule: One-Way Ticket: Jacob Lawrence’s Migration Series and Other Visions of the Great Movement North, Museum of Modern Art, New York, April 3–September 7, 2015; People on the Move: Beauty and Struggle in Jacob Lawrence’s Migration Series, Phillips Collection, Washington, DC, September 10, 2016–January 17, 2017
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Jacob Lawrence figures prominently in the small cohort of African American modernists to achieve renown in their lifetimes. In his case, that recognition came early, bound up with the reception of The Migration of the Negro, his narrative painting cycle of 1941 that is now known as the Migration Series. Over a couple of years, he earned a fellowship to develop it, researched and painted its sixty tempera panels, and published twenty-six in Fortune Magazine. In 1942, he sold the cycle to the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), which acquired the even-numbered paintings, and the Phillips Memorial Art Gallery, which acquired the odd-numbered paintings and is known today as the Phillips Collection. By that point Lawrence was twenty-four years old. Duncan Phillips exhibited the whole series that year, and MoMA organized a national tour of the entire set that culminated in an installation at the museum in 1944. That combination of shows and sales marked an unprecedented institutional validation of contemporary African American art that would go largely unmatched for decades. In contrast, MoMA took nothing as purchase or gift from its exhibition of William Edmondson’s sculpture in 1937, its only other solo show of a black artist until 1971.

The Migration Series’s bifurcated acquisition arrangement informs its most recent reunion in two exhibitions: MoMA’s One-Way Ticket: Jacob Lawrence’s Migration Series and Other Visions of the Great Movement North, organized by Leah Dickerman in 2015, and the Phillips Collection’s forthcoming People on the Move: Beauty and Struggle in Jacob Lawrence’s Migration Series, which Elsa Smithgall is organizing for 2016–17. The accompanying catalogue, Jacob Lawrence: The Migration Series, serves both shows and comprises three sections: essays by Dickerman on the series’s production and Smithgall on its acquisition; entries by curatorial assistant Jodi Roberts on the formal, social, cultural, and historical references encoded in each panel; and ten newly commissioned poems selected and introduced by poet Elizabeth Alexander.

In line with the curatorial attention to poetry, One-Way Ticket apparently takes its title from Langston Hughes’s four-stanza poem of 1949. Both poem and paintings distill in deceptively simple form the sprawling phenomenon of the migration and the admixture of optimism and desperation on which it operated:

I pick up my life
And take it on the train
To Los Angeles, Bakersfield,
Seattle, Oakland, Salt Lake,
Any place that is
North and West—
And not South

It is unsurprising that the theme would attract Hughes, a luminary of the Harlem Renaissance, and the younger Lawrence, a student of that vibrant tradition. By the 1940s, few African Americans were untouched by the massive population shift that had been underway since World War I, as thousands of black people abandoned lives and homes in the rural South for new ones in Northern and Western cities. The subject was hardly academic for Lawrence, who was born in New Jersey in 1917 to Southern parents making their way to Harlem, where he finally arrived in 1930.

Despite this experience, Lawrence organized the Migration Series as a universal, not personal, narrative. The first panel sets the tone by depicting stylized men, women, and children pouring through passenger gates marked Chicago, New York, and St. Louis, presumably in a Southern train station. The uniformly brown-skinned figures may be distinguished by generic attributes (e.g., clothing, babies, baggage) but lack identifying details, including facial features, that would permit tracing a given protagonist across the cycle—unlike Lawrence’s previous series on Toussaint L’Ouverture (1938) and Harriet Tubman (1940), which frame the black liberation struggle in terms of heroic biography. The Migration Series’s restricted palette and abstracted compositions reinforce the generalization, as do captions that cast the story in epic terms (e.g., “1. During the World War there was a great migration North by Southern Negroes”). That wording evokes the objectivity and reserve of the history and sociology texts in which Lawrence researched his subject, even as Hughes’s first person conjures the intimacy of a memoir.

To extend the comparison, poet and painter each recount with notable restraint the pressures pushing migrants North. The former epitomizes the dismal state of race relations in the American South in a clear-eyed précis:

I am fed up
With Jim Crow laws,
People who are cruel
And afraid,
Who lynch and run,
Who are scared of me
And me of them.

The latter takes an expansive approach, cataloguing those failures in multiple panels on lynching, unjust law enforcement, exploitative labor practices, and segregation. Most depict violence and suffering only by implication, as with the juxtaposed images of an empty noose and grieving figure. Compounding these man-made cruelties are environmental ones—flooding and boll weevil infestation—that stripped tenant farmers of their livelihoods. Lawrence complements those realities by enumerating the promises that drew rural African Americans—better jobs, schools, living conditions, and voting rights—and the social dynamics that facilitated their egress, including the support of the black press, community members, and industrial interests. Whereas Hughes ends his poem with escape—“Gone up North / Gone out West / Gone”—Lawrence follows the migrants to their destinations and inventories the difficulties awaiting them, especially squalid housing, illness, and new forms of inter- and intra-racial discrimination and violence. That unsentimental cost-benefit analysis comprises roughly half the paintings in the cycle. Another quarter is devoted to images of transit, which Lawrence deploys in syncopated intervals to consolidate his sweeping narrative and signal the migrants’ agency and inexorable progress.

If Lawrence orders the sixty paintings to convey and contain his story’s enormous scope, he consistently reasserts its very human dimension via the panels’ visible facture and twelve-inch by eighteen-inch dimensions. That size suggests intimacy and portability, apt associations for representations of those forced to travel light (cf., Boîte-en-Valise [1935–41], which Marcel Duchamp devised in France around the same time). In the 1940s, the small paintings often engendered dense installations that reinforce the set’s formal and conceptual resonances, relationships that are slightly less obvious in One-Way Ticket’s airier arrangement.

One-Way Ticket’s main gallery is flanked by thematically oriented spaces that explore the Migration Series’s foundations and context. “Painting North and South” considers Lawrence’s depictions of Harlem and New Orleans from 1938–1941. “The Writers of the Migration, 1920–1940” gathers books on the theme by Harlem’s leading literary lights. “The Artist as Activist” screens footage of Marian Anderson’s concert at the Lincoln Memorial and Billie Holiday’s performance of her anti-lynching song “Strange Fruit,” while “Music of the Migration” airs a playlist heavy on migrant musicians to demonstrate the range and influence of Southern blues. The largest of the satellite galleries, entitled “The Artist as Historian,” explores how photographers, artists, and sociologists treated the series’s subjects. The most sizeable of those groups is the interracial roster of documentary photographers, often sponsored by the Farm Security Administration, whose images of the South’s dire conditions and the North’s burgeoning cities circulated in books and the mass media. By contrast, the paintings and drawings on view of similar subjects by William H. Johnson, Charles White, Lawrence’s mentor Charles Alston, and his peer Romare Bearden reached a narrower audience, partly due to the period’s racial inequities.

As used here, the categories “Activist” and “Historian” bear some consideration. One might wonder about the logic for identifying musicians with the former and artists with the latter, especially when the federally sponsored social documentary initiative of the 1930s was at least as concerned with improving its subjects’ abysmal conditions as with preserving a record thereof for posterity. That correlation of musician/activist and artist/historian would seem to reinscribe, subtextually, an ambivalence toward politically engaged fine art that is more characteristic of mid-century modernism than of either the sensibilities of the 1930s and 1940s or those of today, when activist art has been recuperated as a viable classification. Another manifestation of this apparent unease is the evasion of the term “social realism” in the catalogue essays, even though it seems an obvious association for Lawrence’s project. That lacuna is hard to square with Dickerman’s text, which posits the Migration Series “as an ingenious form of political speech—a call for action” (29).

Her finely grained essay synthesizes and expands on the satellite galleries’ themes to elaborate a context for the series sited in Harlem that was underplayed in its original reception. Building on Patricia Hills’s monograph Painting Harlem Modern: The Art of Jacob Lawrence (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2010) (click here for review) and the exhibition catalogues Over the Line: The Art and Life of Jacob Lawrence (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2000) and Jacob Lawrence: The Migration Series (Washington, DC: Rappahanock Press and the Phillips Collection, 1993), Dickerman attends to Lawrence’s debt to black aesthetics, cultural production, and intellectual networks rooted in the New Negro Movement and facilitated during the Depression by federal programs (under pressure from the Harlem Artists’ Guild) that underwrote black artists, including Lawrence, and the community art workshops where he trained. That formative experience induced him to understand his work as a vehicle for education and empowerment, an orientation echoed in documentary photography publications like Richard Wright’s 12 Million Black Voices (New York: Viking Press, 1941), likewise federally supported, that share the Migration Series’s subject matter and interdependence of text and image.

Lawrence’s participation in counterhegemonic cultural networks has long been a locus of study, but his skillful engagement with hegemonic ones, aside from his well-documented relationship with dealer Edith Gregor Halpert, has received less attention. Dickerman highlights his exposure to fellow Works Progress Administration painters, friendship with film curator Jay Leyda, and sensitivity to mass media. Smithgall details how the Migration Series came to be divided between two preeminent modern art collections. At the heart of her report is a diverse nexus of art mavens outside Harlem whose various collaborations, sometimes unbeknownst to Lawrence, helped shepherd his art to public attention. Her account corrects two myths about the series’s split acquisition: that it was the result of a contentious, institutional rivalry and a source of lasting disappointment to Lawrence. By tracing the personal and professional alliances mobilized to advance his budding career, she complicates conceptions of the series’s reception that emphasize racial binaries. In that respect, she manifests Lawrence’s own expansive vision for the series, as he stated at its outset: “My project would lay before the Negroes themselves a little of what part they have played in the History of the United States. In addition, the whole of America might learn some of this history of this particular minority group, of which they know very little (quoted in Hills, Painting Harlem Modern, 98).

Jodi Roberts’s catalogue entries draw from various fields to map the broad geography of the Migration Series itself and reinforce the didactic effect for which Lawrence was aiming. Alexander sees the pitfalls of such an ambition, as she explains in her introduction: “We can be fooled by the historical and serial aspects of Lawrence’s work, neglecting to see how it is also open-ended, inventive, allusive, fascinating, strange” (170). To counter narrow readings of the Migration Series, she asked poets Yusef Komunyakaa, Crystal Williams, Nikky Finney, Terrance Hayes, Lyrae Van Clief-Stefanon, Tyehimba Jess, Rita Dove, Natasha Trethewey, Patricia Spears Jones, and Kevin Young to “look at the paintings one by one and unlace them from their context” (170). Together, they deploy diverse styles and degrees of personal reference to evoke the affective dimension of the migration experience for its heirs in the twenty-first century—a project of increasing urgency as fading memories render that experience fugitive.

The result is that the “Poetry Suite” opens the otherwise tightly circumscribed exhibition catalogue and suggests the potential for fresh art-historical perspectives to do likewise. Given the book’s emphasis on reconstructing the Migration Series’s original context, new analyses that position the cycle within the larger art world of the late 1930s and 1940s would seem apt. Two fields come immediately to mind, self-taught art and regionalist painting, both ascendant in that moment and subjects of renewed attention of late.

At least partly thanks to Lawrence’s youth and community-based art training, he was sometimes classified as a “modern primitive,” the category under which much contemporary self-taught art was then marketed. Lizzetta LeFalle-Collins in Over the Line and Bridget R. Cooks in her Exhibiting Blackness: African Americans and the American Art Museum (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2011) have considered the label’s problematic racial connotations and how Lawrence transcended them, but work remains to understand how he fits within a company that included Edmondson, Horace Pippin, and Bill Traylor, who each debuted in New York around 1940, and that was dominated by European and European-American artists like Henri Rousseau, Camille Bombois, and John Kane. Such interracial aesthetic categories are rare in the modern period, and more attention to Lawrence’s relationship to this one would illuminate the social, cultural, and patronage networks operative in its construction and maintenance as well as the dynamics of racial and canon formation at play in his success. As a bonus, dismantling those art-historical silos would establish a more accurate understanding of the field; for example, One-Way Ticket incorrectly names Lawrence as the first African American artist represented by a commercial New York gallery—a credit that belongs to Pippin (or an artist awaiting identification); some recent reviews erroneously cite his solo show in 1944 at MoMA as another first, a credit owed Edmondson.

Similar benefits could arise from thinking about the Migration Series in relation to regionalism, especially in light of discussions by Cooks and John Ott (“Battle Station MoMA: Jacob Lawrence and the Desegregation of the Armed Forces and the Art World,” American Art 29, no. 3 [Fall 2015]: 58–89) of how Lawrence’s military service was used in the 1940s to suggest a united, American war effort. The series’s fundamental theme is the unfettered movement of black people across the country and between farm and city, putting the lie to the kind of geographically and racially determined conception of national identity championed by regionalism and its supporters. How might the series operate as a multiform critique of hegemonic modes of American Scene painting? How would such a critique intersect with the interwar years’ quasi-multicultural alternative to racially homogeneous and homogenizing models of American art that Jacqueline Francis described in Making Race: Modernism and “Racial Art” in America (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2011)? (click here for review) Compounding the questions’ relevance is Halpert’s role in promoting “racial art” and Lawrence’s career.

Dickerman describes the Migration Series, fittingly, as a mode of history painting. The current century’s catalogue of continuing violence against African Americans telegraphs that the structural inequality Lawrence documents is not confined to the past and that the “whole of America” has yet to absorb the lessons he aimed to teach. More than a century after the first wave of migrants left the South, One-Way Ticket and its catalogue distill the import of that massive social dislocation of disenfranchised citizens who risked everything in search of something better for themselves and their descendants. At the same time, it indexes the work that remains to fulfill, belatedly, the mission its author envisioned for his project.

Anne Monahan
independent scholar

I was The Phillips Collection-George Washington University Postdoctoral Fellow for 2014–15 but have had no role in the Lawrence project.

Please send comments about this review to editor.caareviews@collegeart.org.