Monday, December 6, 2010
December 6, 2010: I Know It When I See It
I don’t think there’s anything like a consensus choice for the greatest American painter—modern artists like Pollock and Warhol of course have lots of admirers, but are way too divisive to claim the crown; somebody like Georgia O’Keefe is unique and important but I don’t know if she’s got huge popular resonance; and the 19th century folks like those in the Hudson River School did a lot to create some of our most prominent national mythologies and images but are not, I would say, individually known on anything like the level of a Monet or a Van Gogh. If I had to name one American artist who is the best known and most widely beloved, I guess I’d probably go with Norman Rockwell; but while he was undoubtedly a talented guy, I think his enduring appeal has much more to do with how fully his images are connected to some of our (largely unstated but most definitely present) culturally specific national visions of what “all-American” is and means. And since a significant goal of my current and ongoing work is to challenge and transform what we mean by a phrase like “all-American,” I can’t really endorse the idea of Rockwell as our best on those terms.
My vote, instead, goes for a painter whose life and career overlapped significantly with Rockwell’s, as well as with O’Keefe’s, Pollock’s, and Warhol’s; a painter who was just as interested in social and civic settings, communities, and rituals as Rockwell while just as inspired by the modern art of someone like Picasso as were Pollock and Warhol; but a painter who, more than any of those others, engaged with some of our most meaningful and controversial national histories without sacrificing for a moment either his broadly American appeal nor his aesthetic power. That painter is Jacob Lawrence (1917-2000), an African American from Atlantic City who spent his formative years in New York during the Harlem Renaissance, worked for the WPA during the Depression, served on the first integrated Coast Guard vessel during World War II, and created historical series dealing with (among many other significant national topics) the Great Migration, the settlement of the frontier, abolitionist leaders like Douglass, Tubman, and John Brown, World War II and its effects on multiple American communities and lives, and the Civil Rights Movement. Even if Lawrence were a middling talent, his life and themes were in and of themselves hugely representative of 20th century America.
But a middling talent he most definitely wasn’t. I’m not an art historian, but I feel about great art much like the phrase that gave this post its title suggests; and clicking through any decade in the searchable Lawrence database linked below (which represents only a fraction of his total output) reveals quite a few paintings that feel unmistakably great. To highlight only one example, there’s 1975 “Confrontation the Bridge,” a painting that, while not part of one of Lawrence’s explicitly historical series, feels very much to point toward Civil Rights era clashes (like those on the famous bridge in Selma). The gathering of African Americans facing off with a snarling attack dog at the heart of the painting are certainly socially realistic and emotionally compelling; but it’s the jagged and multi-colored lines of sky and cloud and storm that frame the painting at the top and bottom, that surround this bridge and moment, that take the work to another level for me. The painting feels a bit like an American Guernica (Picasso’s amazing anti-war statement from the Spanish Civil War) and a bit like Starry Night, portraying at once one of our darkest moments and yet at the same time one of the most powerful and transcendent. And both the darkness and the power are, again, grounded in a community of very average (in the best sense) Americans, as were almost all of Lawrence’s masterpieces.
Lawrence’s debt to cubism means that his people don’t tend to look as photographically accurate as Rockwell’s often did, and to be fair that’s probably part of the reason for his less broad recognition: I think that the more a painting looks like a photograph, whether of nature or of people, the more it can connect to a wide popular audience much of the time. But in writing about what distinguishes a romantic novel from a realistic one, Nathaniel Hawthorne noted that the former, despite its leeway in presenting the truth with less photographic accuracy, “sins unpardonably, so far as it may swerve aside from the truth of the human heart.” Lawrence’s paintings get at that truth, and the truths at the heart of American history, better than any other artist I’ve encountered. More tomorrow, on two speeches delivered within two years of each other that, taken together, frame some of the most fundamental critiques of and hopes for America.
PS. Two links to start with:
1) Great site from the Whitney Museum, highlighting some of Lawrence’s best-known works, related stories, and other important connections: http://whitney.org/www/jacoblawrence/
2) A “virtual resource center” for the works of both Lawrence and his wife Gwendolyn Knight, including that searchable database of over 1000 images: http://www.jacobandgwenlawrence.org/