Saturday, August 15, 2015

MoMA's Jacob Lawrence Show

The Museum of Modern Art did a wonderful job with the Jacob Lawrence One-Way Ticket show. They are presenting the entire 60 panels of The Migration Series, 1940-41 (made when Lawrence was 23). Shown in one room, the tempera drawings on hardboard panels are single-spaced in clockwise order, all in simple wood frames. Clearly modernist in style, they were conceived as a narrative at the very time that the New York art world was moving away from storytelling.

Harry Sternberg, Steel, 1937-38, oil on masonite, 24 x 48 inches
Born in Atlantic City, NJ, and raised in Harlem, New York City, Lawrence (1917-2000) researched his subject with the help of his future wife, the artist Gwendolyn Knight. He went into amazing detail in both the pictures and the captions, using the First World War as his jumping off point. He analyzed the recruitment by agents for factories -- especially steel mills, and the use of railroads for transportation but also source of jobs leading to one of the first Black labor unions -- the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, in spite of opposition from the Pullman Company. The travels costs were usually paid by employers to be re-reimbursed from future pay envelopes.

Lawrence drew scenes that referenced lynching and law enforcement, as well as floods and insect infestations that had drastic effects on farming. He noted the North was NOT free of racism, and that women labors and Black professionals such as doctors were along the last to make the transition. He considered the emotional toll of families now in crowded urban conditions and the lonely relatives in small southern towns that they had left behind. Improved childhood education was an important motivation, but the anxiety of the children is nearly palpable. He even discussed, with touching sympathy, the plight of communities emptied of their labor forces. His own parents, from South Carolina and Virginia, were part of this great shift north that really ended only in the 1970s, so this saga was personal. In the hallway leading to the show there’s a timeline showing the increase of African Americans from tens of thousands in the teens to hundreds of thousands over just a few decades. Philadelphia, Chicago, Detroit, and especially New York City, were the primary beneficiaries.

Lawrence achieved such mastery that while the works form a unified cycle, each individual piece can stand alone. The Migration Series was first shown by Edith Halpert at her Downtown Gallery, NYC, in 1942, and subsequently went on a two-year national tour. The Museum of Modern Art and the Phillips Collection acquired half each. In what must have seemed like a flash, Lawrence’s career was established. In 1944, while in the Coast Guard, he had a one-man show at the Museum of Modern Art.

In this show dealing with the “Great Movement North” MoMA included related photographs with several of Arkansas and Tennessee by Ben Shahn, additional works by Lawrence and African-American colleagues, and an extensive collection of publications, largely books of the period with their amazing covers. Music and historical and sociological information enrich the experience as well.

Above is Harry Sternberg’s Steel, 1937-38. It just wasn’t in me to use his Southern Holiday. Even Lawrence wasn’t that literal.

Sunday, August 9, 2015


There are only a few more weeks to see the William Baziotes show at the Allentown Art Museum, so we made a return visit.

Columbia Country Courthouse
Approaching Allentown from the northwest we visited Broomsburg, the Columbia County seat.  An impressive courthouse on Main Street was begun in 1848, has an 1868 addition, and a newer  front building and facade from 1980, designed by A. S. Wagner in classic Romanesque Revival brownstone. To the courthouse’s west there is a wonderful Art Deco building, with the name of The Farmers National Bank still visible. In the nineteenth century Bloomsburg went through iron ore mining and production and textile manufacturing. These industries apparently produced civic-minded citizens who wanted a town they could be proud of, with a fountain, civil war monument, and park-like avenues. The town planning and old houses are fascinating. On Market Street the (probably) biggest of the turn-of-the-century mansions looks down on the town from it’s centered and elevated site. 

Travelling from Bloomsburg to Allentown we went through the Lehigh Tunnel through Blue Mountain. It’s wonderful country with fabulous views of the Pocono Mountains with forests, small towns, and farmland.

William Baziotes, Yellow Bull's Head, 1936-39

                     At the Allentown Art Museum, the William Baziotes Surrealist Watercolors show was as wonderful as ever. Seeing it a second time was revelatory! It was all so fresh and bright. But that made the lightening threating the swimmer more dangerous and the bulls’ heads more ferocious. 

The circus-themed amoebas were outdoing themselves, and the gritty roof tiles under the Sunbather practically sparkled. On view through August 23.

William Baziotes, Two Figures in Trapeze Act, 1936-39

Doylestown was our next stop. The Michener Art Museum was showing Iron and Coal, Petroleum and Steel: Industrial Art from the Steidle Collection (owned by Pennsylvania State University), on view through October 25. With the exception of Rockwell Kent and Henry Varnum Poor, most of these New Deal Era artists were unknown to me, including a new favorite, Molly Wheeler Wood Pitz. Using categories of Big Steel, The Worker, and King Cole, and including glass blowing and stone quarries, the curator, Kirsten Jensen allowed the grandeur of the subjects to speak for themselves. All the drama of blast furnaces and night-shift mining comes through, along with grim realities of the soot-coated houses and hardly conscious laborers. Definitely my kind of show.  Thank you Bill M.