Jacob Lawrence: A Visual Story Teller

There are many reasons to visit the new Whitney Museum including enjoying the art in the spacious and inviting galleries; the Renzo Piano architecture; and the views from the 7th and 8th floor terraces.  But what I was not expecting was to see Jacob Lawrence’s War Series.  Lawrence (1917-2000) was an Africa-American painter known for his depiction of African-American life. He’s best known for his narrative collections that he painted in story format using blacks and browns juxtaposed with vivid colors.

Lawrence served in the United States Coast Guard during World War II.  The fourteen panel War Series describes his first-hand  “sense of regimentation, community, and displacement” that he experienced during his service.  The “story” alternates between vertical and horizontal formats, literal and abstract depictions; and individuals and groups. The series supports Lawrence’s belief that one cannot “tell a story in a single painting.”

I’m not sure I would have examined these as closely had I not experienced Lawrence’s equally compelling Migration Series on view at  the MoMA. Created in 1941, The Migration Series tells the story of the Great Migration, the multi-decade mass movement of African Americans from the rural South to the urban North that started around 1915. The series is comprised of 60 small tempera paintings with text captions that read like a children’s story book. The color palettes in the two series are very similar, but the text in the Migration Series is much more evocative. It’s the first time all 60 panels have been shown together.

The Migration Series is only on view until September 7th while The War Series is, for now, in one of the Whitney’s permanent galleries.

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