Soon after I began reading Sharon Wilkerson’s new book, The Warmth of Other Suns, which uses ethnography to explore the great migration of African-Americans from the South to Northern cities during the first half of the 20th century, I came face to face with another treatment of this subject during a visit to Washington, D.C. Wandering into the new addition to the Phillips Collection, I was confronted in the first gallery with a set of paintings by Jacob Lawrence entitled “The Migration of the Negro.” I had heard about these paintings, which chronicle the first wave of African-American migration to the North from 1916 to 1919. Stumbling upon them on the wall of this museum, I was dazzled by their expressiveness and power.
But I was also confused. I had read that the Migration paintings were in the permanent collection of the Museum of Modern Art in New York City, but here they were listed as belonging to the Phillips.
A little research clarified the issue without, I have to say, entirely dispelling my confusion. Lawrence, who died in 2000 at the age of 82, painted his series of 60 Migration paintings in tempura on 12-by-18-inch hardboard panels in 1940. He was only 23, working in a cold-water studio on West 125th Street in Harlem, where his family had settled after first living briefly in Atlantic City, New Jersey (where he was born), and then moving to Easton, Pennsylvania and Philadelphia. Lawrence had little formal education, having dropped out of school at 16 to help support the family, but he had been drawing and painting since childhood and had a curious, alert mind. He grew up listening to stories about the Great Migration. His father had migrated from South Carolina, his mother from Virginia — and he had taken to heart the words of the African-American critic and intellectual Alain Locke who, comparing the migration of African-Americans to that of Europeans, had understood its epic nature: “a deliberate flight not only from countryside to city, but from medieval America to modern.” To tell the story of this journey, Locke intoned, “would require a modern language, a deep immersion in the experience, and an awareness of the harsh toll that contact with American modernity exacted on the blacks.” Lawrence had practiced his art at community centers in Harlem — at 20, he had already completed a series about the revolutionary Haitian general Toussaint L’Ouverture — and had impressed the Harlem Renaissance figures Charles Alston, Augusta Savage, and Charles Seifert, who had helped him find employment with the WPA Federal Art Project. With this backing and experience, he was able to take up the epic project Locke had outlined.
When it was first exhibited in 1941, the Migration series made a stunning impact on the art establishment. Overnight, Lawrence became the most celebrated African-American artist in the country (his sense that this tribute was excessive, especially when other black artists were overlooked, contributed to his later battle with depression). He was given a solo show at the Museum of Modern Art, and was profiled in Fortune magazine, which reproduced 26 of the 60 paintings in the Migration series.
Fortune’s reproduction of only part of the series may have served as precedent. Whatever the reason, in 1942, the Museum of Modern Art offered to buy half the paintings, and the Phillips soon bid for the other half. It is said that Lawrence balked at dividing the work but was convinced by his dealer to do so. No African-American had ever had such a substantial presence in a major American museum, much less in two. Thus, MoMA acquired the even-numbered Migration paintings; the Phillips, the odd-numbered ones.
The arrangement was, in actuality, a brutal King Solomon-style act of museum acquisitiveness. Lawrence did not intend the work to be divided. He painted the panels not sequentially but simultaneously, moving back and forth among them, so that patterns, colors, and motifs would be repeated and amplified. Although the narrative is linear, the artistic vision is spatial — the 60 panels make up an integrated whole. Would one cut in half a Diego Rivera mural because of its size, or scatter the pages of an illuminated manuscript?
Consider, moreover, that the subject of the series is mass migration, which means that scale is profoundly connected to subject: a deluge of people mimicked in a deluge of paintings. The reduction of the work from 60 to 30 panels diminishes the effect by half, if one wants to quantify the issue. I should note that even the 30 odd-numbered paintings owned by the Phillips were not all on display when I visited. According to a curatorial assistant, the requirements of the space (the size of the wall and the distance between the works judged to be best) dictated that a few of the 30 be kept in storage.
For those, like me, who want to see the paintings together, the best recourse is the Internet. Admittedly, one misses the magisterial effect of the work and must look at it sequentially rather than in the panoramic, spatial manner which was intended. Still, even in this altered, diminished format, the emotional and intellectual impact can be felt. Lawrence called his style “dynamic cubism;” others have called it “expressive cubism;” neither label captures the effect. The paintings don’t seem aggressively abstract, as cubist paintings often do; they don’t hide their relationship to representation. Instead, they use simple planes, patterns, and colors to evoke life. The images are at once minimalist and sensual; monochromatic but punctuated with color (the judicious use of white is especially striking). A better term for their effect, to my mind, is “abstract realism” —abstraction is in the service of something human and immediately recognizable. Lawrence’s devotion to reality is also present in the use of captions. Each panel has a narrative accompaniment that explains in plain, uninflected terms what is being depicted. The effect is both discreet — each picture packed with its own meaning — and cumulative — the series builds through the repetition of design and narrative elements.
Lawrence did many series paintings: chronicles of the lives of important figures in African-American history such as Frederick Douglass, Harriet Tubman, John Brown, and the African-American western pioneer, George Washington Bush; he did studies of places (“Harlem,” “Hospital”) and large-scale historical chronicles (“War” and “Struggle”). But his Migration series is, in my view, his masterwork. It encompasses an event in American history that is both singular and hugely variegated, central to the life of a particular ethnic group, while also experienced by many different sorts of people in different ways, associated with a period of three years but unfurling in time so that the end points beyond itself into the future.
The series opens with a panel depicting the interior of a train station with masses of people before terminals marked Chicago, New York, and St. Louis; the caption reads: “Around the time of WWI, many African Americans from the South left home and traveled to cities in the North in search of a better life.” There follows an exploration of the political, economic, and social aspects of this mass migration. Some of the paintings are stark and harrowing: #15, for example, shows a rust-colored figure huddled on the edge of brown space overlooking a white one; nearby a tree branch juts out with a small, almost decorative-looking noose hanging from it. Its caption reads: “For African-Americans in the South was barren in many ways. There was no justice for them in courts, and their lives were often in danger.” But other paintings are brighter, almost festive, and evoke abstract colorists like Milton Avery and Marsden Hartley. Number 39 is a vibrantly patterned canvas of a wagon piled high with belongings; # 45 shows a family on a train — a picnic basket, straw hat, and two white-garbed babies standing out in joyous relief amidst the jumble; #58 shows three black figures, arms out like stylized cheerleaders, holding up numbers to reflect their access to schooling in the North.
There is also dry humor alongside incisive social critique, as in #53, which shows a black couple, she in a white spackled outfit suggestive of fur and feathers, he in top hat, tails, and cane, with the caption: “Longtime African-American residents living in the North did not welcome the newcomers from the South and often treated them with disdain.” Lawrence manages to make the couple look both imposing and silly in their finery.
The series ends by invoking the train that marked the beginning of the series. Masses of people stand in front of a railroad track; the caption: “And the migrants kept coming.” The work is open-ended; it leaves to others, most recently to Wilkerson in her new book, the job of expanding the story.
Reunions of this divided series have happened. In 2001, the Whitney staged a Lawrence retrospective that brought together both groups of paintings. In 2007, when the same museum exhibited 17 of the Phillips paintings, a gallery in Harlem protested by displaying photographic prints of the entire collection and titling the exhibition: “Undoing the Ongoing Bastardization of ‘The Migration of the Negro’ by Joseph Lawrence.” The collection was fully united again in 2008 at the Phillips, though for only six months.
With Wilkerson’s book making the Great Migration a subject of renewed interest, the series ought certainly to be united now — and on a permanent basis. An alternating borrowing arrangement could be worked out or (my preference), a compromise site found — Atlantic City (where Lawrence was born) or Philadelphia — where the collection could be permanently installed.
Jacob Lawrence’s Migration series is a historical testimonial that needs to be whole to do justice to its subject. It is also an artistic masterwork that should be exhibited as the complete work its maker intended it to be. • 21 September 2010