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Reconstructing Jacob Lawrence

A scholarly team prepares the master catalog

By Tom Stabile | HUMANITIES, November/December 1998 | Volume 19, Number 6

Jacob Lawrence burst onto the American canvas in the 1930s with an expressive authority and an avalanche of work that stunned, charmed, and enlightened all at once. The only trouble is, he never let up.

Approximately 1,100 paintings, drawings, and sculptures later, art historian Peter Nesbett and his colleagues are striving to produce a panoramic picture of Lawrence’s work in a catalogue raisonné. The project involves poring through endless records and chasing countless leads to reconstruct the artist’s career.

Lawrence’s history runs from his first exhibition at the Harlem YMCA through national retrospectives starting in the 1950s, to the awarding of the National Medal of the Arts in the 1990s. In the New Deal area, he painted as part of the Works Progress Administration; in the rising black political expectations of the late sixties and seventies, painted a cover portrait of Jesse Jackson for Time. His newest effort is a giant mural to grace a refurbished subway station at Times Square in New York City.

Nesbett says the catalog will correct the notion that Lawrence had “blossomed fully formed,” a notion that he says may seem flattering at first blush, but which misses the arc of Lawrence’s evolution as an artist.

“Every piece of work you find, that you didn’t know existed, helps to redefine his work as a whole,” Nesbett says. “In each particular era, you can see how he grew,” and how he incorporated that growth into his work.

Unlike most scholars who strive to create a catalogue raisonné, Nesbett and the members of The Jacob Lawrence Project have a sweet advantage. Lawrence is alive, still adding to his oeuvre from Seattle, where he lives with his wife of fifty-seven years, the artist Gwendolyn Knight.

“We’ve relied on them extensively in research, meeting with them semi-weekly, if not weekly,” says Nesbett. With their help, he sorts through their pasts, asking about the people they knew who might have received art as gifts, about the organizations that commissioned works, about the galleries through which they worked.

Nesbett also relies on them heavily to authenticate pieces of art, again tapping not just Lawrence’s memory, but Knight’s as well.

“She’s been such an instrumental part of his work,” he says. “She’s been there all the way through, offering critical advice about when he was developing his work.”

Nesbett’s project is atypical in other ways. It is surprisingly well-funded; catalogues raisonnés are never for profit, and typically lose money, but the Lawrence project has gotten support from a wide base of benefactors, including a grant from the National Endowment from the Humanities. Lawrence himself has no financial role.

The project will produce one of the first catalogs with images of the artist’s work in digital form at a World Wide Web site, providing access to a broader audience than the usual bound volumes, which are bulky and designed for use by dealers, collectors, auction houses, libraries, museums, and scholars.

More importantly, the catalogue raisonné of is believed to be the first of its kind about the work of a black American artist. Nesbett earlier produced Jacob Lawrence: Thirty Years of Prints (1963-1983) with the help of the Seattle-based Francine Seders Gallery, his former employer, and of the University of Washington, which published the bound edition in 1994.

“I realized how underdocumented his life’s work was as a whole,” Nesbett says of that first cataloging experience, finding many works that had not been listed previously in any index. He also saw the impending problems that threatened to corrode the artist’s legacy -- the tenuous physical condition of many of his works, and the unearthing of several fakes being attributed to him. Nesbett describes the rationale for the catalogue raisonné as “access, conservation, and authentication.”

Nesbett’s inspiration to track Lawrence’s work rose unexpectedly more than a decade ago from a visit to an exhibition at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. He happened upon several pieces from Lawrence’s Harlem series and found himself transfixed.

“What caught me was the narrative content, and the strong and dynamic way in which he expressed that content” he says.

Lawrence’s technique, a mix of cubism, African influences, and illusionistic device, has captivated many, including other talented artists. Lou Stovall, a master of fine silk- screen art, was a student of Lawrence’s at Howard University in the early 1960s, and marveled then as now at his professor’s delicate touch.

“I was interested in the way he moved paint -- the use of abstract-like shapes that he would put together so that the whole of it was something we could recognize,” says Stovall, who lives and works in Washington, D.C., and has reproduced about twenty Lawrence prints on silk. “He would make paint do certain things to emote; the brown on an arm wasn’t just a random choice of color.”

Lawrence’s subjects were equally spellbinding, cutting the course of the great social struggles of the century. His brush rendered the migration of black Americans to the urban centers, the civil rights struggle, and scenes from his visits to Nigeria. He pioneered the storytelling format with his epic “series”: dozens of works linked on a theme, such as Harlem in the Depression era, the efforts of Harriet Tubman, John Brown, and Frederick Douglass to free slaves, or the birth of the American nation. His brush went as far as the nineteenth-century liberation of Haiti in the Toussaint L’Ouverture series to his experiences in World War II on the Coast Guard’s first integrated ship.

“He is a masterful narrative painter,” says Stovall, describing a personal favorite, the Tubman series, in which Lawrence depicts her in one work as a tiny figure walking through an immense and imposing landscape but in another, showing her oversized and strong, chopping wood with huge arms. “You cannot look at those pictures without having your pulse quicken, without realizing the largeness of what she was doing.”

Nesbett underlines the artist’s desire to educate by quoting Lawrence’s own 1940 proposal to the Rosenwald Foundation for his Migration series: “The significance of a project such as this rests, I think, on its educational value. It is important as part of the evolution of America, since this migration has affected the whole of America mentally, economically and socially. Since it has had this effect, I feel that my project would lay before the Negroes themselves a little of what part they have played in the history of the United States. In addition, the whole of America might learn some of the history of this particular minority group, of which they know very little.”

Even tracing major works such as the Migration series, which is split between the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and the Phillips Gallery of Art in Washington, is considerable work, but Nesbett is after the entirety, including drawings and sketches that have been missing for decades. He has settled in for the long term.

“The resources for something like this are not insubstantial,” says Nesbett. “Many projects like this have gotten derailed because the project lost the funding or the scholar got burned out.”

While no one knows exactly how many projects are currently under way, many major ones involve members of the Catalogue Raisonné Scholars Association. The CRSA, has about sixty members, among them Nesbett. Melvin Lader, a George Washington University art professor and an officer of CRSA, has been at a catalog himself for seven years, tracking down the two thousand or so drawings of Arshile Gorky, the prolific Armenian-American artist of the 1930s and 1940s.

“It takes a specialized scholar to undertake projects like these ,” says Lader. “They range in scope from the total body of an artist’s work -- sculpture, paintings, drawings - - to ones that are very small and particular, for example, the lithographs of an artist who might have only done twenty-four.”

Like many scholars, Nesbett began his project as a night- and-weekend affair. With funding, he has been to take on the project full time, with research assistant Michelle DuBois and visual arts coordinator Stephanie Ellis-Smith. He based the project in Seattle to benefit from proximity to Lawrence and Knight.

The completed catalog will reflect countless hours spent searching for art works in the hands of museums, individuals, galleries, and even institutions that may not know what they have in their collections.

“There’s a lot of people who own his work who you wouldn’t classify as collectors,” Nesbett says, noting that he has found Lawrence’s works from every imaginable source -- from the descendant of a former editor for Langston Hughes, to people who found his pieces at flea markets.

So far, the project has located about 850 works, 250 shy of its goal. Nesbett hopes the rest will turn up through tracking old Lawrence associates, through advertisements in art, history, or black culture publications, and through leaflets found at museums and galleries. Sometimes a handful of works come in all at once, says Nesbett, and at other times, there is no movement for weeks. Every so often, a gem surfaces.

“A couple of months ago, we found a painting that was probably sitting in a drawer since it was completed in the 1930s,” says Nesbett. “The colors were so rich. It was so well preserved because it was sitting out of the light. It was never hung or framed. It was amazing -- so fresh being so old.”

A time will come, Nesbett says, when the law of diminishing returns will require the project to cease operations, perhaps late next year. “It’s inevitable that we’re not going to locate 100 percent,” he says. At that time the staff, along with the project’s three-member board of directors and nineteen-member board of advisers, will muster for the final push, creating the web site, which will contain a digital archive of Lawrence’s works along with a biography and analysis. At the same time, the project will publish a monograph and reference, which will include eight essays chronologically recounting Lawrences’s career.

The volumes will provide a descriptive listing of titles, dates, media, and dimensions; a historical listing of provenance, exhibitions, and previous publications; and a gallery of photographic images that will include the unframed work and visual markers such as Lawrence’s notes and signature.

Like many who admire Lawrence and his far-reaching contributions, Stovall feels that a completed catalog will provide a long-due tribute to an artist he calls “a hero.”

“Despite all the talent among black American artists, they were generally passed over in terms of recognition,” says Stovall. “This will set a standard we have never seen before.”

About the Author

Tom Stabile is a writer in New York City.

Funding Information

The Jacob Lawrence Catalogue Raisonné Project has received $81,500 from the National Endowment for the Humanities.