From March 5-May 23, 2021, Jacob Lawrence’s seminal work Struggle: From the History of the American People, is on view at the Seattle Art Museum. This exhibition is on a five-city national tour, Seattle being the only stop on the West Coast.
“Struggle” — made up of 30 individual paintings — represents American History from the point of view of minorities. These works were last exhibited in 1958 in New York City. Subsequently, the series was sold to collectors. This is the first time this work has been brought together in sixty years.
The retrieval of the series is not dissimilar to a mystery story. Three museums, working with private collectors, undertook intensive research to track down and reunite the thirty panels. Last fall, when Struggle was shown at the Metropolitan Museum in New York City, only 25 of the 30 panels were on display. During the exhibition, two of the five lost panels were found in two different homes in the upper west side of Manhattan. The first, Panel 16, “Shays’ Rebellion” was discovered in October. The second, Panel 28 “Immigrants admitted from all countries: 1820 to 1840-115,773” was found two weeks later and will be shown for the first time in Seattle.
This work has always been exhibited together, they form one and the same series. To express Lawrence’s artistic intention, the curators made the decision to represent the missing and the damaged panels from the series in the show. Panel 14, Peace, is represented by a black and white copy of the original image on a wood panel, unframed. Panel 20, Spindles, is represented by an empty grey frame—because no documentary imagery exists for this piece. Panel 29 is represented by a color reproduction. Upon being recovered, Panel 16 was given a gold frame, while Panel 28 is framed in the same manner as the other works in the exhibit. Additionally, three panels, 15, 25, and 30, are represented by a color reproduction because they were too fragile to travel.
As a black painter, Lawrence was criticized by his contemporaries for not being more politically active. “Everything I have to say, “he responded, “is in my painting.” This exhibit makes that clear – it represents blacks, women, Latinos, and all ethnicities. With its imagery from moments in American history, the work presents the story of struggle as something common to all Americans: a state of being. The thirty panels with their captions are a form of graphic novel reflecting Lawrence’s work as a painter-narrator.
Jacob Lawrence was born in 1917 in Atlantic City, New Jersey. Early on he showed interest in and a talent for painting, using flat primary colors and abstract forms that would define his lifelong style. His first work was documenting life in Harlem. At age 23 he created the Great Migration Series which was recognized instantly as a masterpiece. Lawrence’s series was the first work from a Black artist to be acquire by the Museum of Modern Art. In 1970. Lawrence moved to Seattle and taught at the University of Washington from 1971 to 1986. He passed away in 2000.
Here is a link to the New York Times article about the two retrieved pieces:
Lightning Strikes Twice: Another Lost Jacob Lawrence Surfaces – The New York Times (nytimes.com)
Photos: CLaire Renaut (@)