Jacob Lawrence: The American Struggle

Curators Sylvia Yount and Randall Griffey on "Jacob Lawrence: The American Struggle"
Detail from brightly colored painting wth highly stylized representations of pioneers encountering native americans

Jacob Lawrence, (American, 1917–2000). In all your intercourse with the natives, treat them in the most friendly and conciliatory manner which their own conduct will admit . . . Jefferson to Lewis & Clark, 1803, Panel 18, 1956, from Struggle: From the History of the American People, 1954–56 Collection of Harvey and Harvey-Ann Ross © The Jacob and Gwendolyn Knight Lawrence Foundation, Seattle/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Photo by Bob Packert/PEM

Music Credit: “NY” composed and performed by Kosta T from the cd Soul Sand, used courtesy of the Free Music Archive.

(Music Up)

Sylvia Yount: There is that wonderful quote that Lawrence made sometime in the 90s about “We’ve become the country we are because of conflict and I always say that conflict can be very beautiful in what comes out of it.” So, this was at the core of his work throughout his career, of course, but it really became the subject matter in the struggle series.

Jo Reed: That was Sylvia Yount—she’s Lawrence A. Fleischman Curator in Charge of the American Wing at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. She’s talking about the exhibit Jacob Lawrence: The American Struggle, which she and Randall Griffey—a Curator in the Department of Modern and Contemporary Art, co-curated.

And this is Art Works the weekly podcast from the National Endowment for the Arts, I’m Josephine Reed.

Jacob Lawrence was a giant among 20th century American modernist painters. Born in 1917 and living until the end of the century, Lawrence was known for creating series of painting that depicted the everyday life as well as epic narratives of African-American history and historical figures. Painting in a style he called dynamic cubism, he brought African-American experiences to life with works like the Migration Series. And like every great artist, he continues to speak to the moment—particularly this moment-- as anyone who has seen Jacob Lawrence: The American Struggle can attest to. Painted during Joseph McCarthy’s Red Scare and the beginning of the Civil Rights Movement, the artist called the series “Struggle From the History of the American People.” It consists of 30 panels representing moments in early American history from 1775 thru 1817 often seen through the eyes of marginalized peoples—African-Americans and Native-Americans who he shows are woven into the tapestry of American history from the outset. The exhibition, Jacob Lawrence: The American Struggle reunites the panels in the series for the first times in over 60 years. Organized by and first exhibited at the Peabody Essex Museum in Massachusetts, the exhibit is now at the Metropolitan Museum of Art where it was co-curated by Sylvia Yount and Randall Griffey—a Curator in the Department of Modern and Contemporary Art, I’ll let them pick up the story from here….

Sylvia Yount: What really makes this Struggle Series so distinctive is it’s not only an American epic. He had begun thinking about it as actually being a history of African American people in this country and decided he wanted to broaden that. But it’s distinctive because it really explores the founding years of the US through the lens of the largely then, and even still now, one could argue, overlooked contributions of women and people of color, specifically black and indigenous Americans.

Jo Reed: I really didn’t realize he was only 23 when he painted The Migration Series.

Sylvia Yount: Yeah, 24-- 23, 24, yeah.

Jo Reed: Young.

Sylvia Yount: Yeah, incredibly young, but we all think of the Migration Series, 1941-42, exhibited in ’42 at the Downtown Gallery, but in fact, he had done very important series’ even before that. His first important historical narrative was the Toussaint L’Ouverture, the Haitian freedom fighter. That was ’37, Frederick Douglass in ’38, Harriet Tubman in ’39, then The Migration Series, then John Brown. I mean, we like to think of the Struggle Series, maybe it came out of nowhere, but it actually had all of these really important precedents in his career. By the time he gets to the 50s, he’s already done these very important earlier series of historical kind of black revolutionaries.

Jo Reed: He focuses so much on history in his work. Why do you think he created series after series of paintings so focused on history?

Randall Griffey: That’s a really good question. Well, I think that some insight into his early ambition, his desire to take on big topics, including history and especially the expansive topic of black experience over the course of American history is indicated by his early desire to be part of the mural project of the Works Progress Administration. When he first applied, however, he was too young and was rejected and so, I think, to some extent, his predisposition to work in a kind of serial format throughout his career is really tied to that desire to work on these big, ambitious ideas and to return to them.

Sylvia Yount: I think he also really saw himself as a public artist and that certainly links into his experience of the mural projects. But also, he’s credited comic books as being important to him. He wanted to get some readable visual histories and visual narratives. So, a range of different influences, but I think it was first and foremost, he wanted this work to be accessible to a broad range of people, specifically the people he’s growing up with in the Harlem community.

Jo Reed: Well, let’s talk about Struggle. First of all, it’s a very interesting title, no?

Randall Griffey: The title just, to be certain, is-- the title of the series is Struggle from the History of the American People and so, we truncated a little bit for the title of the show.

Jo Reed: But still, featuring the word Struggle so prominently in the title, I think, is incredibly telling. What was his original concept for the series? And what did he actually create?

Sylvia Yount: Well, he originally conceived the series to be 60 panels, really, from Jamestown through European Colonization up to World War I and then for a variety of reasons, Randy and I think a lot probably because he didn’t get the funding and we actually have two of his applications to the Guggenheim Fellowship, to the Guggenheim Foundation featured in the exhibition that lays out the ambition for the project. But he ended up doing 30 between 54 and 56, as Randy said, and those 30 cover the range of, really, Patrick Henry’s famous “Give me liberty or give me death,” speech to about 1817, kind of the move toward Western migration.

Jo Reed: Let’s talk about some of the technical aspects of this: what size are the works? What paint does he use?

Randall Griffey: Well, the panels, like many listeners will identify with Lawrence’s work, the panels are all 12x16 or if they’re oriented the other way, 16x12. They’re kind of classic format for Jacob Lawrence and they’re all tempera paintings, which was, of course, a medium that he was especially predisposed to work in and especially skilled at. So, in essence, this is a body of work that people may not know quite so well because it hasn’t been shown as a body of work for 60 years, but with regard to materials and format and medium, it will register as classic Jacob Lawrence.

Jo Reed: Well, each panel is captioned and the words are excerpts from lyrics, from speeches, from the US Constitution and while they shed some light on each panel, they certainly make the intent of the painter very clear, I think.

Sylvia Yount: Yeah. As we know from his earlier series, Lawrence was a inveterate researcher. He was really a student of African American and American history and spent-- we know did all of his research at the 135th Street branch of the New York Public Library, then the Countee Cullen Library, and now, the Schomburg Center and what’s so extraordinary is that yes, he was working with some secondary historical surveys. We have two examples in the show, but also doing some deep dives into primary research through the clippings, files, still secondary, I guess, at the Schomburg Center and choosing texts that are not necessarily-- the images do not necessarily illustrate the texts that he’s using and that’s what’s kind of extraordinarily nuanced about it. He’s actually underlying, in many cases, the ironies or the hypocrisies of this fight for American independence and democracy, at the same time, the colonists who were actually enslaving Africans and seeking to take the lands of Native Americans, but he’s doing it in such a subtle and not heavy-handed way, I think it’s even more powerful and then the scenes really do represent conflict, resistance, self-determination. That is absolutely the narrative, not heroic, great men narratives, which you would more associate with an American history series.

Jo Reed: He depicts that famous crossing of the Delaware River during the Revolutionary War and George Washington is nowhere to be seen.

Randall Griffey: Right. Of course, that’s the panel that the Met is fortunate to hold in its collection. It’s one of the reasons that we’ve really wanted to play a part in this project because it’s an incredible opportunity for us to see this great work by Lawrence in the Met’s collection in the larger body of work, which it was intended to be understood and of course, Sylvia is Head of the American wing, where the most conspicuous and famous depiction of Washington crossing the Delaware resides and so, Lawrence’s work, to some extent, is a retort to Leutze’s famous, famous rendition.

Jo Reed: It’s so interesting that the way he paints, that kind of blending of abstraction and figuration, it’s so much like history itself. You have to look and look again and look again and the more you look, the more you see and the multiple perspectives become clearer.

Sylvia Yount: That’s a great metaphor and I think Randy and I do feel that at least formally, these are the most technically sophisticated compositional pieces he’s ever done. You’re right. You really need to spend time with these panels in person, ideally, and they slowly come into focus. It’s a great point about just thinking about history being written in a similar way in its right.

Jo Reed: Yeah. Most specifically, the panel of-- I know her as Molly Pitcher because I grew up being taught about her.

Sylvia Yount: Oh, Margaret Corbin. Molly Pitcher, I love it.

Jo Reed: Yes. Let me briefly describe the panel: During the revolutionary War, Corbin accompanied her husband to a battler, he was killed and took his place firing the cannon at the British. We see just the back of Margaret Corbin—she’s off to the side of the painting…Deborah McDowell wrote the commentary for this panel in the catalog. and she refers to the grimace on Corbin’s face and I’m looking at this and I’m thinking “What face? I don’t see a face. I don’t see a face anywhere,” and if she had not directed my attention towards a face, I never would have found it. It really took a lot for me to find it.

Sylvia Yount: Josephine, that’s so funny. That’s exactly the same experience I had with that panel, The Woman Mans a Cannon, which as Randy knows, is actually now my favorite panel because of that. It is so extraordinarily complex and you don’t see the figure of Margaret Corbin standing very erect and heroic to the left-hand side of the composition. You’re really focused on the more vertical thrust of the cannoneers and that’s how many of the panels work. You kind of have to go from left to right, up to down to start seeing it come into focus in a lot of ways and I think Randy and I have now spent a lot of time with these and I’m still seeing things in them that I didn’t notice at first.

Randall Griffey: Yeah. They really, really reward extended looking. They really reward extended looking and even in that panel too, it’s easy to miss her fallen husband in the foreground. The key protagonists there are easily missed and so, the panels then are challenging to start because they don’t reveal themselves immediately but then the reward is all the greater as you spend time with them.

Sylvia Yount: And again, the titles don’t always link up to the focal point of the subject matter. I think of the Massacre in Boston panel, the second in the installation we have, that really features Crispus Attucks, the first casualty, the first martyr of the American Revolution and yet, he could have very readily said Crispus Attucks or something to that effect. He doesn’t call him out individually, but he absolutely the focal point of that composition and that’s what I mean about the relationship between word and image in Lawrence’s work. I think it reaches a new level of sophistication in the series than in his previous work.

Jo Reed: Well, throughout the series, he is integrating African Americans and Native Americans into American history, not as a separate people, not as a separate history but as integral to America.

Sylvia Yount: Absolutely.

Jo Reed: There’s this intersectionality. But yet, at different moments, he also shows the particular struggles of African Americans and I’m thinking about panel five, We Have No Property, We Have No Wives.

Sylvia Yount: The slave petition, Felix, yeah.

Jo Reed: Which is also the cover of the catalog.

Sylvia Yount: That’s right.

Jo Reed: Can you talk a little bit about those two approaches that he has: the intersectionality on one hand and the very particular struggles of African-Americans on the other?

Randall Griffey: Well, as Sylvia said a bit earlier, he, by this point, has worked extensively on works of art and these series that focus on black experience and black history and so, one of the great new aspects of struggle his attempt at an epic, integrated history. So, that, I think, is groundbreaking for him in this context, but he does so in a way that doesn’t preclude the particulars, as you call the particular struggles, the cruelty, the injustice endured by black Americans.

Sylvia Yount: And he’s also-- I mean, let’s remember when he’s painting this, in ’54, ’55, ’56. This is actually when the US Military is becoming fully integrated too and he’s very interested. He talks about this in a later interview in 1968, really wanting to highlight the role of black soldiers in the Revolution and Native Americans as well. Obviously, sometimes fighting on the other side, but many fighting with the Continental Army and he does feel like that is a story. It’s a history that’s not as well-known.

Jo Reed: Well, he was also a veteran.

Sylvia Yount: Absolutely. That’s right.

Jo Reed: He painted a series about soldiers in war.

Sylvia Yount: The War Series, that’s right. Right before this, actually.

Jo Reed: Well, he has this ability to marry art and history, but he’s never polemic.

Sylvia Yount: I mean, I see Lawrence as very much a political artist, but yes, my point about the nuanced way that he’s bringing word and image together and not hitting you over the head with something. You’re discovering it yourself and kind of being surprised and I think we’re seeing that in our visitors today. Many of the episodes do deal with, as Randy likes to say, folkloric episodes-- Paul Revere, Washington crossing the Delaware, but they’re very much counter-narratives. They’re not the expected representation of this subjects and then there are things that you’ve probably never heard of. I certainly have not heard of Margaret Corbin, I’m embarrassed to say. I did not know some of the details of the War of 1812 that he’s highlighting. There are some really surprising episodes that he’s focusing on.

Randall Griffey: I think this is a topic that Sylvia and I have discussed at length by this point-- but this is Lawrence’s lens on this period in earlier American history very much about the mid-1950s. So, as Sylvia mentioned, McCarthyism, but this is Jacob Lawrence turning his lens on this earlier period in American history, very much from his own vantage point as a black intellectual and artist in the midst of McCarthy and the nascent Civil Rights Movement. And the way he inflects his subjects has to do about his moment in time. So, he draws these amazing parallels between, say, the colonists-- the subjugation of the colonists under the British crown as a kind of enslavement that has parallels to the institution of slavery as it carried forward in time.

Sylvia Yount: The legacy in civil rights.

Randall Griffey: Yeah, the legacies and the ongoing struggle and the unfinished business of struggle.

Jo Reed: Yeah. Almost every single panel has blood spilling or trickling in some place.

Sylvia Yount: You know, I actually counted the other day and there are only 11 without. So, there you go and only a few kind of quiet, peaceful scenes and I think one that I know is Randy’s favorite is the Sacagawea panel.

Jo Reed: Oh, mine too. Oh, my god, that is so beautiful.

Randall Griffey: Our signature image, yes.

Jo Reed: It is stunningly gorgeous.

Randall Griffey: Yeah. For me, it exemplifies the intellectual and emotional core of this project, which, I mean, quiet obviously here is where you have an indigenous woman taking center stage and the famous protagonists of Lewis and Clark are literally sidelined to give way to the experience and role and contribution of Sacagawea.

Jo Reed: And the look on her face is just so moving to me.

Randall Griffey: Yeah. It’s just, in and of itself, a drop dead, beautiful, gorgeous painting and once again, you spend time with it, understand, again, this nuance, again, you have this interesting relationship between what he’s painting with Sacagawea and then Jefferson’s letter to Lewis and Clark about respecting the indigenous people as you encounter them and that combination is, again, like teaming with irony, teaming with intended irony. It’s aspirational.

Sylvia Yount: There is that wonderful quote I came in front of the other day that Lawrence made sometime in the 90s about “We’ve become the country we are because of conflict and I always say that conflict can be very beautiful in what comes out of it.” So, this was at the core of his work throughout his career, of course, but it really became the subject matter in the struggle series.

Jo Reed: When the series was first shown, can you tell me about its reception, where was it shown? Was it shown in Toto?

Sylvia Yount: Yeah. It was first shown at the Allen Gallery. Charles Allen was Lawrence’s dealer, and there was an exhibition of the first, to that point, the 30 that he had completed. I think it was at the end of 1956. Let’s just say it that way and the reception that I could find, there was a piece in Time Magazine that really just focused on the anomalous nature of the series, I would say, that here was the great “Negro Painter” of the Negro experience painting American Revolutionary subjects. How curious. No one seemed to make the connection between the moment, which is often true of critical reviewers, as we know, not seeing what’s staring them in the face. And then Allen exhibited again in May of 1958, still hoping that they could sell a few of the panels, that he could continue the series, as Randy made a wonderful decision to research the specific fellowship applications and, as I said, we do have both applications he submitted to the Guggenheim Foundation in ’54 and ’58-- is that right, Randy? Did not get funding either time, possibly because he had received funding for the War Series and they may not have been giving grants, fellowships to artists in consecutive order like that. But in any case, finally, in January 1959, Allen finds a buyer for the 30 panels. One buyer, a real estate developer in Long Island, he buys all of them. Within a few years after his death, his widow begins to sell the panels individually and that’s why we believe that we don’t really-- the series isn’t as well known and five panels, in fact, are still missing and we would like to think that they are out there in some private collection and they don’t even know-- the owners don’t even know that it’s part of a larger series. So, we live in hope that those five may still come to the surface ideally before the end of the tour about a year from now.

Jo Reed: How did you factor those missing panels into the show?

Randall Griffey: Well, our talented design team created a screen print, basically, that went on to the wall. So, we basically have held spots for them and then there are these kind of ghostly apparitions holding the space for them and in certain instances, we do have black and white archival photos of the missing panels and in those cases, we do have images in black and white. But there are two instances where we don’t even have images. So, there are just these ghostly apparitions

Jo Reed: When I was going through the catalog again, I kept thinking of what Jacob Lawrence has done is, I think, very similar to what Lin-Manuel Miranda did very recently with “Hamilton,” taking that kaleidoscope and looking at history and just giving it a turn and seeing what falls into place and what shifts and what’s different. I think there’s real parallels there.

Randall Griffey: Well, of course, Hamilton is one of the scenes in the series. So, it really lends itself to that reference, of course. Number 17 is a very imaginative and powerful recreation of the Burr-Hamilton duel.

Sylvia Yount: And Josephine, I would just add that to your point, I think Lawrence approached this as a public history. He wanted this to be accessible to all peoples and he really wanted to focus on the fact that you all have a stake in this democracy that is still-- we’re still struggling to create that perfect union, that more perfect union. So, I do see that as well. I do see certain parallels between what Hamilton the musical has tried to do and has clearly done in just exciting people about an earlier phase in our history that seems very distant to, certainly, many today.

Randall Griffey: And it definitely makes it seem very relevant and timely, right? I mean, it brings history alive in a way that really draws you in. But I just want to follow-up to Sylvia’s excellent point about reception because this is a remarkable instance of when this was reviewed in the 50s, nobody detected the fact that it’s a commentary on Lawrence’s present moment. These were perceived to be benign historical images, in a way, and anomalous for Lawrence, in some sense. So, this was an amazing case study of, as Sylvia said, how criticism, in a way, can be blind to its own moment when engaging in history. But now, there are certain instances that seem, to my mind, to be as much or more about the mid-1950s as they are about the history subjects that he’s depicting.

Sylvia Yount: And likewise, today, I think it’s why people are responding to this series and this exhibition so strongly. You can’t help but not think about our present moment as you’re looking at these episodes.

Randall Griffey: Yeah. The work is bringing a number of our visitors to tears, we know.

Jo Reed: I can see why it would because he makes clear that struggle is continuing and it’s a good thing, but it’s also difficult and it’s challenging and often violent.

Sylvia Yount: Often violent, exactly. But also, that importance to focus on the resistance, that this is something that’s a revolutionary act. Resistance is involved, it’s about rebellion and then of course, the ongoing struggle for self-determination of so many peoples.

Jo Reed: Correct. Can you just give me a little bit of background of how this travelling exhibit came together?

Sylvia Yount: It is a wonderful kind of origin story. Beth Turner, who’s one of the co-curators, who used to be a curator at the Phillips Collection in Washington and actually organized the last major retrospective of Lawrence’s life while he was still living, that was in 2000. It actually traveled to the High Museum of Art in Atlanta, where I was a curator in 2002 and I had the great pleasure of working on that project with her. There were just two of the panel series from the struggle series, actually, in that retrospective. She then became a Professor of Art History and a Dean at University of Virginia in Charlottesville and we continued to stay in touch and then soon after I arrived at the Met in 2014, she actually came to meet with me and said she was hoping to bring together the panels owned by this one individual, Harvey Ross, at the Phillips Collection, and then to use that over the course of a year or two to teach a seminar with her students at UVA with the goal of hoping to bring back all 30 panels and hopefully find those missing five. It seems that at the same time or around the same time, unbeknownst to both of them, Austen Barron Bailly at the Peabody Essex Museum, also a very good friend of Randy’s, also had the idea to do something around this project. So, the two of them pretty much came together, brought many other people who had been interested in this work together and there is now a five-venue tour-- is that right, Randy? Opened at the Peabody, came to the Met, next goes to the Birmingham Museum in Alabama, then to the Seattle Art Museum in Washington state, where he taught, where Lawrence taught for decades and lived, and then closing at the Phillips Collection in Washington next fall.

Jo Reed: Now, the Met obviously was closed during the worst of the pandemic in New York, which meant you had to hang this exhibit during a pandemic and I’m just very curious about the challenges of that.

Randall Griffey: Well, luckily, a lot of the planning for this project was very much in place before we shut down in mid-March. Luckily, in a way, it’s not so large and not overly complicated from a design perspective. So, many of those plans were very much in place. But you’re right. I mean, we went on hold and this long period of kind of uncertainty and when we got the-- but we had to move ahead and keep planning and scheduling for installation with the assumption that we would open at the end of August, which we did finally, of course, get the green light to open. So, then there was just all of the kind of increasingly complicated planning and scheduling for entry into the museum with new protocols. But I have to tell you that it was such a great return to the museum and return to engage with this art and colleagues that I care about and just to engage with these great works by an artist as fantastic and as creatively powerful as Jacob Lawrence did so much to help me get through this.

Sylvia Yount: Absolutely! It was so important to have this project to work on, amongst other projects during the closure, but Randy and I, we wrote the labels from our respective homes and throughout the spring into the summer doing the editing process and then to have this project be the project that called us both back to the museum, and it was really glorious, I have to say. As Randy knows, I walked into his gallery’s areas and started-- really welled up. It was a very emotional experience and then to have this subject matter be the subject that we were reopening with, partly reopening with and sharing with the public was really extraordinary and continues to be on a daily basis. It’s a really, really powerful experience.

Randall Griffey: We have to control our numbers. The gallery that this great series is in is capped at about 40 or 42 individuals and everyone has to be wearing a face mask. So, just seeing people coming through but queueing up, the appetite-- first of all, the appetite for art, I think, generally because we’ve been deprived of that kind of experience through quarantine, but then for people to be seeking out Jacob Lawrence, people really want to be hearing Jacob Lawrence’s voice and seeing his work. But to see people coming through -- it’s the widest range of visitorship, I have to say, I’ve ever seen at the Met-- young, old, black, white, gay, straight. I mean, everyone loves Jacob Lawrence, as they should, in my opinion, but to see them queuing up to see Jacob Lawrence wearing masks and the masks, of course, are such a powerful emblem of our struggle right now. So, it’s quite an experience just to go in and see people sort of spectate, in a way, people taking in what Lawrence has to say to us.

Sylvia Yount: I know we couldn’t have planned for it. In some ways, it’s the ideal COVID installation. It’s one single gallery. The works are arranged not chronologically, but really 15 on one wall, 15 on the other. There’s a linear progression that visitors are certainly taking. It’s not necessarily how you have to receive the works, understand the works. But people are being very-- what should we say? There’s a lot of reverence in that gallery. It’s a very interesting experience to enter that space. I mean, the installation itself is just very elegant and majestic and then the time people are taking to really look closely at the panels, as you were suggesting, Josephine, you need to do even in reproduction and to read the labels and then to move through very carefully and being wary-- not wary, but aware of who was around them and taking their time that way, it’s really kind of a wonderful thing to witness.

Jo Reed: As somebody who’s gone to the Met many, many times and been in exhibitions where it felt like a subway car because it was so crowded, it really must be quite wonderful in some way to have a limited number of people in the gallery for the people in the gallery. So, they can look without being crowded and take their time.

Sylvia Yount: Yeah. We’ve become a local museum right now. There’s no question. We are New York’s museum and I think both Randy and I had a few concerns when we decided-- we were thrilled we were moving ahead with the exhibition. It was supposed to have been in June. It obviously opened at the end of August. But our one maybe slight heartbreak was that more people would not be able to experience the show because we knew our national and international visitorship would be down considerably, practically to zilch. But we’ve been really pleased, as Randy said, to see how many people across the region are coming in for this show. At one point, we thought it would just be Upper East and Upper West Siders who could walk to the museum, but that is not at all the case and I think we’re seeing that throughout the museum, not just in Jacob Lawrence. I’ve certainly seen that in the permanent collection galleries. Then to Randy’s earlier point about it is such an extraordinary time as New Yorkers to experience Jacob Lawrence, given that we have the Struggle Series at the Met through November 1st, the War Series that we discussed earlier, which is in the permanent collection at the Whitney Museum, is in their permanent galleries. The Migration Series, the full series, the 30 panels that MoMA owns in their fabulously new reinstalled gallery on social realism, front and center, and then in the Mexican Muralist Show that Barbara Haskell curated at the Whitney Museum, which has been extended through January, she borrowed the other 30 panels of The Migration Series from the Phillips. So, they’re not together, but they’re in the city. So, in one day, you could see three of his major series on view-- the Migration, the War, and the Struggle, of course, and even in that order and see the development of his style and his conceptualization. It’s really an extraordinary time.

Randall Griffey: This must be an unprecedented time to see Jacob Lawrence in New York, no?

Jo Reed: Talk about speaking to the moment, my God. You really couldn’t have planned it better, nor could have he. Why does he feel like he’s painting tomorrow?

Sylvia Yount: I just think he always saw the past as being so critical to our present...And he was just one of those artists who had that extraordinary historical perspective from a very young age, as you pointed out. The age of 24, a great success with The Migration Series, but again, his first work is of Toussaint L’Ouverture, the freedom fighter. These are the stories he is growing up hearing about on street corners and libraries, the YMCA in Harlem. This is how he is being formed as a young man and thinking about the importance of history to contemporary times, for black Americans as well as all Americans. It was just in his DNA.

Jo Reed: Just in closing, I know this is maybe a difficult question, but his place in American art. How would you place him?

Sylvia Yount: Well, I think no question, he is one of the leading American modernists, mid-century modernists. No one would question that and obviously, also, the best-known, I would still say, the best-known and most beloved African American artists of the 20th Century. I think what people forget about Lawrence, though, that we all associate him, of course, mostly with The Migration Series, it’s the best-known series for many good reasons. We forget he continued to paint until the end of his life and he did always-- he had this kind of serial approach to subject matter and thematic subject matter. He certainly did one-off topics, like many artists did, but I think with many artists, we hone in on one particular area of this productive and then the rest is forgotten and I think that’s one of the reasons the Struggle Series is not as well-known as those earlier and even later series, the Builder Series, some of the civil rights paintings he did, the Black Belt paintings. It really did kind of get lost in the shuffle. I think not only because it was broken up, not only because it was being painted in the heyday of abstract expressionism, but because no one was really associating this black painter of the black experience with general American subject matter from the 18th Century, not even from the Civil War or Reconstruction period. It’s just it seems to be such a curious choice at that time and honestly, when I first came across some of the panel subjects years and years ago, before looking at the date or anything, I assumed that he did them around the Bicentennial because many American artists were doing kind of thematic, historically thematic pictures. And to think that he was doing these in the mid-50s and from what we understand from the curators’ research, Beth and Austen’s research, he first had this concept in 1949. So, just thinking about that process of evolution and where he-- the story he was trying to tell, really thinking about “How can this speak to all Americans?” is kind of extraordinary.

Jo Reed: Agreed.

Randall Griffey: Yeah. I would just add too-- I’m really not really adding other than just echoing much of what Sylvia said there-- it’s just having now spent so much time around this body of work, it’s really underscored to me that Lawrence is absolutely in the top tier of 20th Century modernists, American modernists. There’s no question, especially when you see and get to know a body of work that for me, other than the Met’s panel, I didn’t know these works. It’s been such a revelation and it’s just-- I revered Lawrence prior to this, but being involved in this project has catapulted him, in my estimation, in the very top echelon of 20th Century American artists, bar none. I think also, I’d just point out that this is quite a confrontational Jacob Lawrence.

Sylvia Yount: Very angry. Very angry

Randall Griffey: It’s angry. We made reference to how bloody the series is, but this is also a slightly different Jacob Lawrence than other people may be aware of or think they know. It’s edgy, literally and figuratively. There’s the suggestion of danger and uncertainty and it’s confrontational here in a way that people may sometimes think of Lawrence as a kind of politically engaged, but ultimately reassuring artist, to some extent, and I don’t find any reassurance in these images. There are aspects of hope and renewal and narratives of renewal in the midst of destruction, but one of the many things I love about this body of work, unlike other conventional historical art or art that is engaged in historical subjects is that there’s no predetermined outcome.

Sylvia Yount: And that’s a great commentary too on his moment, of course. In the midst of just the beginnings of the rumblings of the Civil Rights Movement, he doesn’t know where it’s going.

Jo Reed: And I think the fact that he’s presenting something in struggle enables it to speak to our moment as well.

Randall Griffey: Absolutely. I mean, more than we would have ever intended.

Jo Reed: And I think that’s a great place to leave it. Sylvia, Randy, thank you both so much. Thank you for putting this on at the Met and I just hope to God I can get up to New York to see it and experience the Jacob Lawrence moment in New York.

'Sylvia Yount: Thank you, Josephine and thank you to the National Endowment for the Arts for supporting this project.

Jo Reed: That was Sylvia Yount, Lawrence A. Fleischman Curator in Charge of the American Wing and Randall Griffey—a Curator in the Department of Modern and Contemporary Art, at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. They are co-curators of Jacob Lawrence: The American Struggle, The exhibit will be at the Met until November 1, it then travels to the Birmingham Museum of Art in Alabama, the Seattle Art Museum and finally the Phillips Collection in Washington DC.

You’ve been listening to Art Works, produced at the National Endowment for the Arts. Don’t forget to subscribe to Art Works and please leave us a rating on Apple because it helps people to find us. For the National Endowment for the Arts, I’m Josephine Reed. Stay safe, stay kind, and thanks for listening.

The exhibit Jacob Lawrence: The American Struggle is an American epic--depicting moments in early American history from 1775 thru 1817--some well-known, others not-- often seen through the eyes of marginalized peoples. Struggle consists of 30 panels painted by Lawrence during the early 1950s during Joseph McCarthy’s Red Scare and the beginning of the Civil Rights movement. Lawrence is well-known for painting the everyday life as well as epic narratives of African-American history and historical figures—think of The Migration Series. But with Struggle, Jacob Lawrence presented a radically integrated view of early American history—one in which African-Americans and Native Americans were woven into heart of the nation’s story. Yet, Lawrence also incorporates their particular struggles into the work as he examines the messy work of making a democracy. The exhibition, Jacob Lawrence: The American Struggle reunites most of the 30 panels in the series for the first times in over 60 years. Organized by and first exhibited at the Peabody Essex Museum in Massachusetts, it is now at the Metropolitan Museum of Art–with support from the National Endowment for the Arts--where it was co-curated by Sylvia Yount, Lawrence A. Fleischman Curator in Charge of the American Wing and Randall Griffey a Curator in the Department of Modern and Contemporary Art. Sylvia Yount and Randall Griffey join me for a deep-dive into the work of Jacob Lawrence in general and Struggle in particular, his great belief in the past as critical to the present, and the ways that the work of Jacob Lawrence continues to shed light on the moment we find ourselves.