On View

Jacob Lawrence and Barbara Earl Thomas Witness America in their SAM Shows

Exhibitions from the two major local artists are showing right now at the museum.

By Stefan Milne March 18, 2021

Panel one from Jacob Lawrence: The American Struggle.
Image courtesy The Jacob and Gwendolyn Knight Lawrence Foundation and Artists Rights Society (ARS). 

It is hard not to hang symbolic weight on the empty frame entitled Spindles. The blank spot in Jacob Lawrence: The American Struggle, a traveling exhibition that opened at Seattle Art Museum this month, isn’t intentional. The painting has been lost and no one seems to know what it looks like. (A short essay in the exhibition book guesses valiantly.) We don’t even have a photocopy-like reproduction as we do with Peace (another missing panel).

But that empty frame in some ways speaks to the exhibition around it, which still feels provisional, unfinished, alive. Part of that is literal: Lawrence—a major American painter and key Harlem Renaissance figure, who spent his last three decades working and teaching in Seattle—made the paintings in Struggle: From the History of the American People between 1954 and 1956. He’d set out to render America’s story from colonization to World War I, planning 60 paintings—each in egg tempera on a 12-inch by 16-inch panel.

Lawrence sits in front of two panels from the Struggle series. 

He’d already covered historical narrative territory elsewhere, like in his 60-panel Migration Series, which witnessed the movement of Black Americans out of the South. He figured the project of Struggle was similar, just with a broader range of subjects. “The history of the United States fascinates me. Right now, I’m reading it, looking at any episode that suggests a symbol of struggle. The part the Negro has played in all these events has been greatly overlooked. I intend to bring it out,” reads a 1956 quote from Lawrence, writ large on a wall in the exhibition. After displaying the first 30 images that year, though, he did not paint the other 30. So we get half of the original story.

Immigrants admitted from all countries: 1820 to 1840—115,773 (panel 28) is the most recently recovered image in the series, showing now for the first time since 1958. 

Even with those pieces missing, this is the most complete showing of the 30-panel series since 1958. Last year, as the exhibition hung in New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, a woman recognized some similarity between the paintings and one hanging in her neighbor’s apartment. Turned out, it was a missing Lawrence. Then it happened again: A nurse in New York saw the news and realized she’d had panel 28 hanging on her dining room wall for a couple decades.

The living quality also has to do with the images themselves, which read as correctives to triumphalist visions of America’s founding. Lawrence was a hugely important narrative artist, and here he’s telling a new story—or new versions of old stories. These are revisions in the truest sense: He is making us see again.

Many painting titles are direct quotes, announcing a range of voices, a multitude of narratives. Panel four is called I alarmed almost every house till I got to Lexington –Paul Revere. Panel five is called We have no property! We have no wives! No children! We have no city! No country! –petition of many slaves, 1773. The curators have underscored the quality of retelling by placing, say, Emanuel Leutze’s Washington Crossing the Delaware, on the museum label for comparison with Lawrence’s rendering. Here, the soldiers hunker down in boats, nearly anonymous, their piled bodies echoing the shapes of the waves around them. Blood runs over the boats’ sides.

Leutze's Washington Crossing the Delaware contrasts sharply with Lawrence's rendering. 

And Lawrence's take: We crossed the River at McKonkey's Ferry 9 miles above Trenton... the night was excessively severe... which the men bore without the least murmur... –Tench Tilghman, 27 December 1776

More than half of the paintings contain such streaks of blood, even when no wound is visible. Sometimes, as in the first panel (see top of page), in which blood appears to fall from the sky, it seems as if the image itself has been harmed. Even without it, the paintings witness a history pulsing with violence. It’s in the subject matter—the battles and bayonets, a dead horse bleeding in the snow, a slave revolt. It’s in the style—all angles, hard and Cubist. Arms appear as pointed as spears, faces recall jewel facets. Even a whisper between men (panel 11) burns with menace, teeth so near an ear that they appear to bite it.

Panel five takes its title (see text) from a "petition of many slaves" in 1773. 

The compositions, too, feel pressurized. The frames compress the bodies, as if the telling of this story were its own form of struggle, of contradiction. Lawrence offered a different narrative, but knew that it was not, as we say, the full story. It too omits; he got through half of his plan, and even parts of this half remain lost. So others will come and tell it again. Panel 30, the last in the series, witnesses this. Two oxen trudge on under the weight of wagons, blood running over the edge of one. 

The panel is called Old America seems to be breaking up and moving Westward… –an English immigrant, 1817. It is a halfway point, an ending and a beginning in one. (SAM has highlighted this continuation by having young Seattleites imagine panel 31, on display in the show.) Seattle artist Barbara Earl Thomas, in a brief essay, calls this panel “Lawrence’s homage to our American quest to become something more, new, and better.” By the time Lawrence painted the series in 1956, that quest was still ongoing, and it had left wounds never repaired—the aftermaths of slavery and Indigenous genocide. “The struggle becomes the journey,” she writes, “and it casts a long, godforsaken shadow between us.” She writes about 1956 in the present tense. But, of course, that journey is ongoing still, and that shadow has not left.


The installation in the Geography of Innocence feels like stepping inside a paper lantern. 

TO WITNESS a different revision of America—another corrective to how we see ourselves and each other—you need only go down one story in SAM, to Barbara Earl Thomas’s own exhibition, The Geography of Innocence. Thomas met Lawrence in the 1970s, “our country still smoldering from the civil rights struggle,” she writes in the preface to Struggle’s exhibition book. He was by then a major artist, and she’s become perhaps his most notable local student. Her show was supposed to open in November, but museums were ordered shut again just before it could. Now due to one of our present struggles—the pandemic—they’ve aligned.

The Geography of Innocence is something of a series too. It begins with a room-size installation. The walls are covered with backlit Tyvek, a sturdy synthetic paper. Into it Thomas has cut patterns: snakes, flowers, fountains of shapes.

At the room’s center is the first piece of art I’ve seen this year that took my breath away, a 12-foot-tall white paper pillar, meticulously cut with designs that from a distance connote lace. It’s filled with light, and as you approach, intricacies appear, swarming shapes, bodies seeming to tumble from the sky. If you’re holding to Biblical ideas of light (good) and shadow (bad), the two here twine together. The light creates the darkness; the white paper darkens itself with its own shadows. It is called Falling: Bodies in the Matrix, and Thomas made it in 2017, but this is its first time showing in Seattle. The effect of standing before a thing like this, in a room like this, is that you become aware of the profound delicacy of things, how easily they can be harmed. If I trip, I’ll destroy this, I thought, getting closer.

True North is one of ten cut paper portraits in the show. 

The rest of the show speaks in the same language, of light and shadow, of fragile beauty. Thomas includes a series of portraits of Black children—three on backlit glass panels in the room with Falling, and 10 more in the hallway outside, which she’s made of cut black paper placed over backgrounds that swim with color. They reminded me of a fine-art version of the fuzzy velvet coloring posters I drew on as a kid. The velvet described an image; it showed me how to see. I just filled in the blank spots with markers.

That invocation of childhood is fitting because the show asks us consider how we’re seeing Black kids. How are we encountering their innocence, this fragile thing? How are preconceptions of race—of white and black, light and dark—changing that? What guilt might we impose as we look? This, like the stories in Struggle, demands revision, a way to see again, see better, see truer. Though she was Lawrence’s student, Thomas is thoroughly her own artist. Her lines are literal cuts, but these are not images of violence. They’re gentle, curved, alive. They embrace their subjects. Here we linger on young faces lovingly rendered.

As different as can be, the two shows are rooted in a truth: How we see our past and our present are inextricable from how we see our future. That is, we’re still filling in frames, and might, with some attention, fill them in more honestly.

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