Jacob Lawrence, “The Migration Series” (1940-41), panel 52: “One of the largest race riots occurred in East St. Louis” (1941), casein tempera on hardboard, 18 x 12 inches. The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Gift of Mrs. David M. Levy (© 2015 The Jacob and Gwendolyn Knight Lawrence Foundation, Seattle / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Digital image © The Museum of Modern Art/Licensed by SCALA / Art Resource, NY)

Spring, 1968. All my students were black, and I wasn’t. Jacob Lawrence, who was teaching a course down the hall from me at Pratt Institute, was a famous artist and a real teacher; I wasn’t either of those things.

When I introduced myself as a third-year undergrad at Pratt and told him about the Life Drawing class I was offering, Mr. Lawrence smiled. I explained that the college was providing a free model and drawing lessons for low-income adults in the area as part of a program I had helped initiate. “Drawing from a live model is important,” he said.

This highly accomplished man, older and far wiser than me, represented a different kind of model. When I asked if he’d say a few words to my class, his smile broadened. Not surprisingly, he made a big hit that evening, and every evening session thereafter, spending almost as much time in my classroom as he did in his. His eye and mind and storytelling skills were always spot-on. Though I remember him as being too kind to say anything too critical about anyone’s work, my students and I learned a great deal.

Summer, 1968. I continued to learn from Jacob after the class ended because, along with painters like Phillip Pearlstein and Ben Shahn, he was one of the artists-in-residence at Skowhegan School of Painting & Sculpture in Maine, where I was on scholarship that summer. Everyone knew who Jacob Lawrence was. But he was shy and didn’t know too many people there, so he talked to me a lot.

Rural and remote, Skowhegan was renewing. Hectic and tense, Brooklyn was exhausting; poverty and anger were in the air, deep breaths not a good idea. The night after Martin Luther King was murdered, my African American roommate (born and raised near where Jacob grew up in Harlem after his family had migrated from the south) roamed the Brooklyn streets in violent protest. Americans dropped bombs in Vietnam, while anti- and pro-war advocates screamed at each other back home. People forgot they were alike, something Jacob was incapable of doing. He seemed as full of peace and patience in New York as in Maine, and as giving with me and every other student and fledgling artist he talked to as he was with Pearlstein and Shahn.

60 Panels. Lawrence was also as comfortable painting friends and neighbors in carpenter shops, churches, pool halls, and libraries as he was portraying race riots and lynchings. His paintings, currently on display at the Museum of Modern Art in a show titled One-Way Ticket: Jacob Lawrence’s Migration Series and Other Works, testify to the generous sweep of his mind, heart, and brush. Lawrence’s series of 60 small, unpretentious panels illustrate the journey of the approximately six million African Americans who migrated from the rural South to the urban Northeast, Midwest, and West in the first half of the 20th century. The dream before them: to secure better opportunities for their families and themselves. They would leave segregation and Jim Crow behind. In Lawrence’s paintings, people work, walk, wait, and die. They gather at train stations, school blackboards, and voting machines, as well as in courts, jails, and funerals. At MoMA, I felt the tensions of the arduous exodus he had heard and read about since he was a child. I felt the artist’s great big ambition to tell a great big story in a way that would allow 8- and 80-year-olds alike to understand and experience it. I felt a peoples’ desperation. I felt Black History in my gut.

The Migration Series (1940-41) was originally shown the year it was completed (under the title Migration of the Negro) at the prestigious Downtown Gallery in New York, marking the first time a New York gallery represented an African American artist. Another first: When MoMA bought half the series (all the even-numbered panels; the Phillips Collection in Washington, D.C. bought all the odd numbers), Jacob Lawrence became the first African American to have work included in the Modern’s permanent collection.

Although each painting is an independent composition, this Jackie Robinson of the New York art world meant for the entire suite to be viewed as a single narrative: “I consider it one work, not 60 works,” Lawrence said. By bringing all the panels together in one large room—and by filling adjacent rooms with other paintings, as well as photographs, cartoons, cinematic footage, music, writings, and various objects documenting the migration story—the exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art is a comprehensive, educational, moving event.

“When the subject is strong,” Lawrence once stated, “simplicity is the only way to treat it.” Accordingly, the migration paintings are raw and powerful in their plainness. Each panel is accompanied by a short, simple text. Examples: “They were very poor” (caption for panel 10). “There had always been discrimination(panel 19). The artist’s wife, the painter Gwendolyn Knight, whom he married in 1941, when he was 23 years old, wrote some of these captions. Lawrence completed the Migration Series that same year. The written words built into this major work by the newlyweds were sincere and strong, like the couple’s 59-year marriage.

Discussing her initial attraction to her husband, Knight recalled in an interview with the Seattle Post-Intelligencer that Jake “was a sweet little fellow” who “was doing these great paintings.” Well, that “sweet little fellow” produced one of the 20th century’s most important American works of art, the Migration Series, and he shares creative blood with one of the 19th century’s most important Spanish works: The Disasters of War series by Francisco de Goya. Both series are comprised of small works that aim to collectively chronicle a drawn-out historical event fraught with tragedy. Like Lawrence, Goya attached captions to his suite of visual images. Another connection is that both artists are as sensitive to form as they are to content. Part of the sadism that ignites Goya’s “Que hai gue hacer mas” (“What more is there to do?”), an etching from his War series, is that its beauty matches its repulsiveness. On the inhale, a museum-goer can luxuriate in the rhythm and volumes of the forms, the richly varied mark making, the drama of the light, or the Spanish master’s eye for choosing which details to celebrate and which to ignore. On the exhale, that same art lover can watch a poor, upside-down bastard getting sabered from crotch to skull. As in several of Lawrence’s paintings and many of Goya’s etchings, the savagery and sorrow are difficult to look at, but so seductively portrayed, you do.

Francisco Goya, “Qué hai que hacer mas? (What more can one do?” (1810-1814), from Los Desastres de la Guerra (The Disasters of War) (via Wikimedia.org)

Panel 52. Goya’s etching came to mind while I was standing in front of Lawrence’s painting with the caption, “One of the Largest Race Riots Occurred in East St. Louis.” The Baltimore riots occurred less than two weeks before the opening of this exhibition. The riots in Ferguson, a suburb of St. Louis, occurred less than 6 months before that. As a Baltimore-based artist, panel 52 in particular struck close to home, although in Baltimore, the physical damage was directed mainly at property rather than people. In panel 52, a lifeless body looms above the rioters like a collapsed roof falling upon the frenzied men below. He is topped only by the chimney of an oversized hand and a knife blade, blue like the horizon it’s about to sever on its way toward the broad-backed man. Of all 60 panels, the St. Louis painting is the most violent, involving the most active and extreme example of hate. But in its formal elegance, for me, it is the most beautiful.

Hate is ugly. If there’s no structure to that ugliness, however, we’re not likely to take the message in. Not for long, anyway. You look away and don’t look back. In panel 52, Lawrence hammers carnage into place. We see the brawlers’ same-style shoes; it takes a minute to separate these from those. Yet each of the solid shapes filling the spaces between the figures is exquisitely distinct. Likewise, while the long-limbed battlers are stylized in a similar manner, they are inventively—beautifully—choreographed, dancing in the blue.

Mud above. Sky below. Even as the men and the spaces between them jigsaw their puzzle pieces into place, the world rendered in the St. Louis riot painting is topsy-turvy. Sky is not where it’s supposed to be. Or it’s become sea. This is a bold, bare-bones moment painted in a limited palette, the three primary colors (along with green) clashing with blacks and whites. The yellow rain slicker is key. Turn its switch on in your imagination and everything around it starts banging and yawing. Lawrence interprets color, form, and space expressionistically, not through literal depiction. Wending from here to there, limbs tie the fighters together, like veins, like human calligraphy. Clothed figures, flayed. Rage. Flat, opaque shapes wasting down to billy club legs, all sharp edges and angles. No light source, so no modeling of form and no cast shadows. No flab. No sense of place. Just stark figure/ground, staged.

Franz Kline, “Mahoning” (1956), on display as part of “America is Hard to See” at the Whitney Museum of American Art (photo by Tiernan Morgan for Hyperallergic)

I don’t know whether Lawrence’s slightly older contemporary, the Abstract Expressionist painter Franz Kline, ever saw this composition, but if he did, I bet he’d have felt a painterly kinship to its zigzag of rumbling lines, shapes, and spaces between. Beyond its borders, that rumbling has leaned slightly in distance and leaped greatly in time from St. Louis to Ferguson; it has rampaged through Newark, Detroit, Boston, Baltimore, Cleveland, Houston, Charleston . . . sadly, through too many cities across our country. Returning our eyes, ears, and mind back in time to St. Louis, I bet Kline would’ve dug the Dizzy Gillespie-like rendition of “Taps” that seems to trumpet from Lawrence’s combo of battlers. Dug it and grieved.

Another combo: the four boll weevils that ravaged a crop of sunny cotton balls earlier in Lawrence’s narrative (panel 9), reappear here in panel 52. Having been accidentally railroaded north, the insects now lay crushed inside the blackness of the dead man’s trouser pocket. Well, sort of. No boll weevils are actually portrayed, but I imagine them in panel 52 because I saw them in panel 9. Memory and imagination play a part in reading any work of art, especially in multi-scene works like the Migration series, where story unfolds over time, as in a novel, movie, song, or ballet. After all, what is not pictured is often more poignant than what is.

0. An example of this is panel 15 where, within a barren landscape, an empty noose hangs dead center. We see two people: a forlorn, faceless figure (pictured) and the hanged man (in our mind’s eye). Death is both conspicuously absent and overwhelmingly present. Likewise, no sign of tears. But there are tears. Listeners are moved to them by the film footage of Billie Holiday singing “Strange Fruit” in an adjoining gallery. Mesmerizing in its mournful, drawn-out notes and pauses—as much death in the silences as in the sounds—I heard Holiday’s song as I looked at Lawrence’s painting. I pictured the singer walking the same streets that Freddie Gray walked in the Sandtown-Winchester neighborhood of West Baltimore, where both Gray and Holiday were raised, and where Gray’s fatal arrest led to April’s unrest. I thought of the report I recently read, stating that almost 4,000 black men, women, and children were lynched in the south between 1877 and 1950.

Here is fruit for the crows to pluck,
For the rain to gather, for the wind to suck,
For the sun to rot, for the trees to drop.
Here is a strange and bitter crop.

Billie Holiday’s “Strange Fruit” is about the lynching of an African American in this “pastoral scene of the gallant south.” But lynching is not named in the lyrics, just as, in Jacob Lawrence’s painting, the hanged man is not pictured.

Jacob Lawrence, “The Migration Series” (1940-41), panel 15: “Another cause was lynching. It was found that where there had been a lynching, the people who were reluctant to leave at first left immediately after this,” casein tempera on hardboard, 18 x 12 inches. The Phillips Collection, Washington, D.C. Acquired 1942 (© 2015 The Jacob and Gwendolyn Knight Lawrence Foundation, Seattle / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Photograph courtesy The Phillips Collection, Washington, D.C)

On his way to the police station, the injured and handcuffed Freddie Gray was not filmed or photographed behind the police van’s closed doors. So there is no documentation of this “rough ride,” during which he was apparently unprotected from being tossed around in the back of the vehicle—a tactic that dates back to the Reconstruction, when bound prisoners were transported in harshly jolting horse-drawn carriages. We are left to imagine how Gray’s spine was broken at the neck while he was in police custody. The fact that riots broke out as a result of what was not actually seen is both a reflection of built-up outrage over injustice and a testament to the power of the implied.

On a related note, the lack of landscape details in panel 52, the previously described East St. Louis race riot, is consistent with that painting’s thrift. No predictable drips or pools of blood, for example, or even any buildings or trees to locate the action. The few carefully chosen details are not what you’d expect: red suspenders here, a vinyl, yellow rain slicker there, now part of a happening far worse than drooping pants or bad weather. Beneath a fecal sky, a deadly headlock represents the only human embrace. At least the man has a face; only two of the men do. Lawrence relies on elements of the composition itself— including the figures’ gestures and distortions of form and scale—to suggest facial expression, once again celebrating the viewer’s imagination over the artist’s delineation.

Remarkably, given the troubled times they recount, only three of the Migration Series panels portray anger or violence—riot scenes each—while images of struggle, sorrow, community, and hope are there in abundance. Yes, many of the paintings are disturbing. Nonetheless, one of Lawrence’s strengths is his gentleness. The size of the panels contributes to this. Private and public at once, they are intimate in inches, yet mural-scale in impact. And if his images jar now, think about their wallop when the Migration works were created. The Internet did not exist. TV hardly did, and only in black and white. The year the series was completed, 1941, marked the debut of television news, broadcast solely in New York on one channel, and only for a few minutes daily. Who imagined then that someday millions of viewers would see the same stories with the same visuals, every day, rerun all day long, all around the world?

1. There’s a great deal to be said for the power of technology to report events or “up close and personal” stories. But there is also much to be said for standing in a gallery before a single image, one-to-one, or for looking at a series of images, one-by-one. Sure, Lawrence’s paintings are available in books or online, but they are best lingered over in person. That’s when a work like the Migration Series can bring tears or anger, as can the realization that many of the very same injustices that caused millions to leave their southern homes continue to plague our country today. As I write this, cell phone cameras are capturing, at an alarming rate, unlawful force by police officers. The caption for panel 22 reads: “Another of the social causes of the migrants’ leaving was that at times they did not feel safe, or it was not the best thing to be found on the streets late at night. They were arrested at the slightest provocation.” Sound familiar?

Past. Present. Future. The recent turmoil in American cities spotlights longstanding racial problems. Maybe now, city and state legislatures will enact changes in the allocation of funds for education in low-income areas, for black unemployment, and for policing the police. By destroying property and neighborhood stores in Baltimore, rioters drew attention to long-standing inequities that have fueled their rage. But they also undermined the quality of their own lives and the lives of their neighbors by putting innocent people out of work and by eliminating already limited neighborhood services. Heroically, beginning the day after the fires and looting, a great many inner city residents who played no part in the destruction helped repair the damage. Volunteers, including students from Baltimore colleges, such as Maryland Institute College of Art, where I teach, joined them. Following the model of a socially conscious artist like Jacob Lawrence, many MICA students documented or interpreted through their artwork what they heard and saw.

Mud above. Sky below. When Leah Dickerman curated One Way Ticket: Jacob Lawrence’s Migration Series at MoMA, she had no way of knowing how timely the show would be. Or maybe she did. Happily, works of art do not have an expiration date. Unhappily, neither does discrimination. Lawrence, ever the quiet man, still has a lot to say. “Drawing from a live model is important,” he said. In panel 52, Lawrence lets nature serve as an out-of-whack model by defying laws of gravity when he places “mud above, sky below,” metaphorically connecting hate and death by positioning the fighters underground. Jacob Lawrence’s 60 groundbreaking panels eyeball subjects as small, yet agriculturally evil, as a boll weevil beetle, and as epic as Africa and the black diaspora.

The African-American writer James Baldwin noted that, “Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.” Through Lawrence’s paintings, we face a shameful period of our past. The Migration Series is a visual history lesson. Jacob Lawrence—ever the observer, the storyteller, the teacher—painted the past in a manner that looked toward the future: a future where there is no strange “fruit for the crows to pluck” or rough rides in paddy wagons, a future where the sky will be where it ought to be and mud will remain below.

One-Way Ticket: Jacob Lawrence’s Migration Series and Other Works continues at the Museum of Modern Art (11 W 53rd Street, Midtown West, Manhattan) through September 7.

Barry Nemett, Chair of MICA's Painting Department from 1992-2017, has exhibited his artwork in museums and galleries throughout the United States, Europe, Asia, and Africa. He lectures internationally...

2 replies on “Mud Above Sky Below: Love and Death in Jacob Lawrence’s ‘Migration Series’”

  1. This is a very thoughtful discussion of the paintings that make up Jacob Lawrence’s great work on the northward migration of African Americans. I appreciate that the author draws on his relationship with the painter. I want to offer comment on one particular passage, realizing it is not clear from the context whether it originated from the artist or the author of this piece. I was astounded to learn from a book from the highly regarded historian C. Vann Woodward called ‘The Strange Career of Jim Crow,’ that the practice to which it refers–the segregation of the races–originated in the North in the late decades of the nineteenth century. Hitherto the South in the post Civil War eras of Radical Reconstruction, and Redemption, tolerated mixing of the races in neighborhoods, public conveyances and places of work and entertainment. It seems the North embraced Jim Crow–physical segregation–after the U.S. Intervened in the Pacific and Caribbean and brought millions of dark skinned people under its protection. To me it is even more tragic to consider that African Americans left the South thinking to escape Jim Crow laws, which were implemented by vote seeking Populists (aka Democrats) in the South.

    This is the passage to which I refer:

    “The dream before them: to secure better opportunities for their families and themselves. They would leave segregation and Jim Crow behind.”

    What greater example and proof of Jim Crow laws in the North is there than Harlem?

  2. How timely for this show, as you said, Barry. This is a beautiful recount of your time with Lawrence and his influence. He sounds like he was a generous & thoughtful instructor. I can testify that you have carried that forward in your teaching career (class of ’85).

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